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Mountain 101: Fourteeners by the numbers
Disputation still exists regarding tally of state’s highest peaks
John Fayhee

Colorado’s mountain country is dominated literally and increasingly figuratively by all of those lofty summits higher than 14,000 feet in elevation. Though serious mountaineers know better, peaks in the Centennial State are either Fourteeners, or they are not. Many of the state’s wilderness areas have been saved from the teeming masses because they lack a Fourteener. The process of standing atop the Fourteeners has evolved in recent decades to both a craze and, as such things are inclined to do in Colorado, a bona fide tangible outdoor-recreation sub-industry. (If there is money to be made via pimping the great outdoors, entrepreneurial Coloradans will find a way to do it.)

For many years, it was commonly stated by the media that more than 500,000 people ascended the state’s Fourteeners every year. That number always seemed ridiculously high to me, even as I was standing on a Fourteener summit with dozens of my closest peak-bagging compadres. I once tried to hunt down the origins of that number, only to learn that it was derived via a statistical methodology best described as combining a wild guess with pulling it out of one’s rectum. No one really knew from whence that figure sprang, but it sure sounded significant — bad if you were thinking in terms of the impacts of boot prints on fragile alpine ecosystems, good if you were trying to find a way to cash in on Fourteener mania. 

That number has since been recalculated by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI)  — the final arbiter of all things Fourteener related — to about a quarter million. Despite the reductions in use-number estimates, that’s still one serious lot of humanity tromping through the tundra. Numerous small mountain towns, like Lake City and Alma, now rely fairly heavily upon Fourteener traffic to augment their local business coffers.

Beginning in the mid-1990s — which is about the time the Golden-based CFI was born — an entire industry of Fourteener-based merchandise sprung up like an infestation of noxious weeds: water bottles adorned with Fourteener profiles; a series of collectible lapel pins bearing the visages of all the Fourteeners that people purchase and display on their packs after having successfully ascended the corresponding Fourteeners; T-shirts dedicated to individual Fourteeners; T-shirts bearing check-off lists, upon which people could boast via their attire which of the mountains they have climbed; T-shirts that utilized the ski-run difficulty rating system by listing Fourteeners as green, blue, black, or double-black; posters; solid bronze summit markers; Fourteener-specific journals, calendars and “passport” books; maps; apps; at least four different guidebooks; numerous coffee-table books; several varieties of  “Don’t trust anyone under 14,000 feet” pins; videos; DVDs; a Fourteener-inspired New Age music CD —Robbie Deaton’s “XIV: Colorado Elysium”; a National Basketball Association Development League Team once based in Broomfield called the “Colorado 14ers”; and — perhaps most practical of all — a brand of vodka named Colorado 14, which sported on the bottle’s front a profile of 14,017-foot Wilson Peak.

With all the attention Colorado’s Fourteeners have garnered in the past 25 years, one would think that almost every bit of Fourteener-based information would be catalogued, codified, and writ in stone long ago. But, truth be told, even in these increasingly Fourteener-dense times, there is still no consensus regarding the most fundamental Fourteener question: Just how many Fourteeners are there?

Traditionally, most sources contended that there are 54 Fourteeners in Colorado. This is the number CFI uses.

But that number derives to a large extent from purely subjective sentiments expressed in Trail & Timberline, the official magazine of the Colorado Mountain Club. In 1968, William Graves wrote that, in order for a peak to be considered an official, distinct Fourteener, it should be separated by a neighboring Fourteener by a saddle that is at least 300 feet lower than the summit of the lower peak. This observation has morphed from one man’s opinion — albeit a reasonable one made by a well-respected man of the mountains — to a veritable “rule.”

Thing is, at the time Graves posited this “rule,” modern topographic surveys had yet to be completed in the Colorado Rockies. When those surveys were finished in the 1970s, it was discovered that El Diente and the Roaring Fork Valley’s own North Maroon Peak, both of which had long been considered legitimate Fourteeners, failed to meet Graves’s 300-foot criterion. That aside, out of respect for tradition, those two peaks continued to be listed among the elite, bringing the number of Fourteeners in Colorado to 54, which is the number used by Walter Borneman, the man many people credit — or blame — with having launched the Fourteener-bagging craze when he and Lydon Lampert co-wrote the seminal “A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners” in 1978.

However, in the 10th edition of the “Guide to the Colorado Mountains,” published by the Colorado Mountain Club, El Diente and North Maroon were left off the Fourteeners list, while another mountain, 14,081-foot Challenger Point, located on the northwest shoulder of another Fourteener, 14,165-foot Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range, was added. Thing is, Challenger Point, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, did not even receive its current name until 1987. Thus, the current Fourteeners list espoused by the Colorado Mountain Club stands at 53 peaks.

It is obvious that the true number of Fourteeners will always be in the eye of the list maker. And confusion, as well as contention, will likely always reign supreme. Wikipedia, for instance, lists 53 Fourteeners in its “Fourteener” entry. But, it also lists Longs Peak as “one of 58 Fourteeners in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.” Wikipedia further lists Kit Carson Peak as “one of Colorado’s 51 Fourteeners.”

Peakbagger.com goes with 53 Fourteeners, including Challenger Point but, once again, eliminating both El Diente and North Maroon.

Gerry Roach, author of “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs,” covers his bases by including El Diente and North Maroon, as well as Challenger Point, making his list 55 peaks long. 14ers.com and outtherecolorado.com each list 58.

Fourteenerworld.com lists 59 Fourteeners, including five “named but unranked” peaks (Conundrum Peak, North Maroon, Mount Cameron, El Diente, and North Eolus) and one “soft” peak (North Massive).

Listsofjohn.com lists the increasingly common “53” (the traditional 54 list, minus El Diente and North Maroon, plus Challenger Point) — plus, for reference purposes, 14 additional peaks (North Maroon, El Diente, Mount Cameron, North Massive, Massive Green, Northeast Crestone, West Evans, South Elbert, South Massive, South Wilson, West Wilson, Conundrum Peak, Southeast Longs, and North Eolus) that are based upon a 100-foot-drop criterion, rather than Graves traditional 300-foot rule.

One would think that the United States Geological Survey might be able to lend some clarification to this statistical conundrum. Sadly, that federal agency does not take an official stance on what constitutes a separate peak and what does not.

So, what is a person looking to complete the Fourteeners life list to do? Best advice would be to crumple that list and toss it in the campfire, but for those who even partially define their outdoor experiences by means of checkmarks, there is only one answer: keep climbing and hope it all ends without mishap.

Some Fourteener tidbits:

• Mount Massive, at 14,421 feet, Colorado’s second-highest peak, has more area above 14,000 than any other mountain in the Lower 48, edging out Washington State’s Mount Rainier. Mount Massive boasts a total of five peaks above 14,000 feet along its three-mile-long summit ridge.

• 14,259-foot Longs Peak, in Rocky Mountain National Park, is the only one of Colorado’s Fourteeners located north of Interstate 70. It is also the most statistically dangerous Fourteener, having claimed more than 50 lives.

• California has 12 Fourteeners and Washington State has two, although Liberty Cap, a subsidiary summit of Mount Rainier, at 14,112, is not often listed as a separate Fourteener, even though it boasts 492 feet of prominence.

• Alaska is home to the country’s 15 highest peaks. Twelve of those peaks are higher than 15,000 feet. Since all things are bigger in the Last Frontier, Alaska uses a 500-foot rule to define separate peaks.

M. John Fayhee has stood atop 27 of Colorado’s Fourteeners. He has since repented and vows to stand atop no more.