Since I have lived in Colorado, I’ve heard more and more about how I need to go climb a 14er. When I first moved out here about a year ago, my first question was, “What is a 14er?” Well, when I found out it was a mountain that exceeds over 14,000 feet in height, I felt a little embarrassed for not realizing. But hey, coming from Pennsylvania, this was certainly not in my vocabulary. So this weekend, that’s what I did. A group of us set out and I climbed my first three 14ers.
We did a bit of research, and decided on the Decalibron Loop, which is located in the Mosquito Range of central Colorado. We left Friday night and arrived at the Kite Lake campground of Alma, CO in complete darkness, with only the light from our headlamps and the phenomenal display of stars in the sky. This was by far one of the clearest nights I have ever seen! We set up camp, got a small fire going, prepared some dinner and called it an evening. It was a frigid night and the cold still lingered on by the time we hit the trail around 6 am.
This 7.25 mile loop hits four different 14ers; Mt. Democrat 14,148 ft, Mt. Cameron 14,238 ft, Mt. Lincoln 14,286 ft and Mt. Bross 14,172 ft (currently closed due to private ownership). You begin by ascending out of the basin, up a rugged slope to Mt. Democrat. Once at the top, you head back down the same path, cross over the connecting saddle, and up to Mt. Cameron. The view of Mt. Lincoln opens up and it’s just a short climb over a rather steep ridge and you’re at the top. To get to Bross, you backtrack the same way and cut left to get to a fork in the trail where a decision must be made…
Now let me just say here that it was a very painful decision to pass up summiting Mt. Bross. The alternate trail literally leads you just below the peak. It was so close! But we decided to respect the rules and follow the proper route. All four of these peaks in the Decalibron loop are actually privately owned; the first three were just recently re-opened to the public in 2009. Continued access to these mountains depended on the hikers’ willingness to stay on the designated trail. The summit of Mt. Bross is still closed, and many organizations such as the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Colorado Mountain Club and Mosquito Range Heritage Initiative are working with the owners to gain future access.
It’s important to stay on the designated trail due to the copious amounts of abandoned mines; if any hikers were to stray off the path, it is quite possible they could fall through an old tunnel. Another important reason to respect these trails and not wander off is because there are numerous wildlife restoration areas—many great projects have been taken on by Wildlands Restoration Volunteers and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado. Yes, it was a bit frustrating to not be able to access Mt. Bross’s summit, but we need to look at this in a big picture sort of way! When we think of protected areas, we think of National Forest, Open Space, State/National Parks, etc. But what about private lands?
WILD encourages conversation that would recognize private lands with wilderness and wilderness-like values. Just because these areas are privately owned, does not mean they aren’t protected. According to a preliminary inventory of protected lands taken in 2007 by Great Outdoors Colorado and COMaP, Colorado is estimated to be about 45% protected. This does not necessarily cover private individual owners, like those of the Mosquito Range for example. The owners of these four mountains chose to close access to the public in 2005— not for selfish reasons, but for the safety of the visitors and in hopes of restoring the land back to its natural condition. For four years many organizations worked with these owners to build safe trails and proper signage so that people may still enjoy this gorgeous area, and also put nature first. This past weekend I witnessed it all first-hand and saw how abundant the mines were and that the trails & signs were carefully mapped out. These organizations and land owners are putting nature first and protecting this beautiful area; the kind of plan that falls perfectly into the Nature Needs Half scheme.
So, we respectfully by-passed the summit of Mt. Bross and took the alternate trail; quite possibly the “road less traveled by” as we saw most hikers deciding they would rather check another 14er off the list instead. As we continued onto our final leg of the trail, it began to snow. And then the trail narrowed, became rather steep and rocky, and before we knew it a thunder and lightning storm was right over us. Ok—time to start running! The added snow/sleet mixture did not help us stay on our feet for this last mile, but those lightning bolts were a bit too close for comfort.
We had a little trouble near the end, but we were lucky and hey—it makes for a great story, right? After 6 very eventful hours, we completed the loop and made it back to our campsite. This day provided many new things for me: the opportunity to see some great conservation projects in action, my first up-close sighting of mountain goats, how quick the weather can turn in the mountains (yikes!), and the chance to successfully climb 3 of Colorado’s extraordinary 14ers.