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Hiking a 14er 7 September 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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Moving to a new state is typically an easy affair, a matter of finding a place to live, signing the appropriate tax documents and figuring out where to buy full-strength beer. Not so for would-be Coloradans. Not only must they uncover the sinister deception that is 3.2% grocery-store beer, but a forming a covenant with the state also entails certain obligations beyond the immediately evident.   The list runs long, so I’ll provide some essential samples: you must make plans to buy a Subaru, you must make conversation the moment you notice a meteorological event involving water (e.g. “Say, it’s awfully humid!” or “Is that… rain?”), and you must climb a fourteener.

The first two don’t take much effort, but the third, well, that already assumes an understanding of the task. Not a sure thing. I mean, what’s a fourteener? Some kind of gun? One of 14 peaks discovered by a roving band of vigilantes? I wish. In reality, though, a fourteener is any of the 53 peaks in Colorado rising higher than 14,000 feet. Some of them only nose into the designation by a couple feet; some slip through as a technicality, another bump connected to a taller lump; but the tallest of them scrape the sky, reaching heights above all but a handful of mountains in the lower 48. No other state but Alaska–and it never counts in these sorts of contests–can lay claim to so much acreage north of the 14,000-foot mark.

So, as you might imagine, 14ers hold a special place in Coloradans’ hearts. Too special a place. Any Monday at a Colorado workplace, I gather, involves a discussion of the climbs attempted and completed. Commiseration follows the failures. We have all been turned back at one point or another. But rarely does the conversation turn to hike without at summit at its beginning, middle or end. What’s the point? No sense of achievement, evidently. Climbing above the vaunted 14,000-foot barrier takes sterner stuff than a pair of legs and a backpack. It takes… willpower?

I don’t know.

My own experience with Missouri Mountain the other day was a pleasant one: several miles of hiking, most of them above treeline, and a view from the summit that peered across a vast portion of the state. And even our failed attempt climb Huron Peak earlier that morning came to a halt in a basin fit for postcard photography. Call it a failure if you will, but that assumes reaching the summit would count as a success.  With all the information out there on how to climb such mountains, success by that definition seems mostly a matter of time and desire. To summit a 14er is to keep walking, scrambling and climbing where some other folks might have stopped. To be sure, a few hikers die each year attempting one mountain or the other, and some peaks involve significant dangers, but you can read your way around most if not all of them.

It can’t be about the challenge, then. So many other climbs exist to test Coloradans’ skills that the man vs. nature dynamic fails to explains the allure of these mountains. Instead, it must come down to a man vs. man test of dedication, a competition of commitment to stand on top of Very Tall Things. The 14er craze has bred a community, a culture even, that insists on calculating and comparing. It has insisted on and garnered a relevance unrelated to hiking in general. Call it “achievement hiking.” I’ll climb my mountains, you climb yours, and we’ll compare notes; our shared interest in 14ers gives us something to talk about.

But if it’s okay with you, I’ll concede this contest. Climb your mountains and stand within arm’s reach of the heavens, and I’ll explore the backcountry, the barely touched wilds the summiting crowds have ignored. I will take the chance moose or beaver over another beaten ridge-line trail, the chance to see no one at all over the certainty of a summit logbook. When every meter of these wilderness trails has been photographed, and when every possible misstep has been cataloged, then maybe I’ll turn my back on what was once wild. For now, though, you’ll find me there in the lonesome, somewhere below 14,000 feet.

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