The good and bad of peak-bagging

  • Steven Albert

 

"Above this memorable spot, the face of the mountain is ... a maze of yawning chasms and gullies, in the angles of which rise beetling crags and piles of detached boulders that seem to have been gotten ready to be launched below. But the strange influx of strength I had received seemed inexhaustible. I found a way without effort, and soon stood upon the topmost crag in the blessed light," John Muir wrote in The Mountains of California. That's right, nature-loving boys and girls: John Muir was a peak-bagger. 

Long celebrated for his founding of the modern environmental movement and his exuberant love for the small wonders of nature - "not a sparrow falls to the ground unnoted" - Muir is perhaps even more notable as a climber. 

His books and letters are filled with wild scrambles, first ascents that reveal him to be a serious peak-bagger, and frantic, non-stop marches to distant summits before night or thunderstorms closed in. According to a new biography by Graham White, Muir was "the greatest climber in America during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He scaled dozens of remote peaks and achieved first ascents of Mt. Ritter and Mt. Whitney years before mountaineering existed as a sport ... in America." 

I was thinking about John Muir a few weeks ago while in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, where I climbed two 14,000-foot peaks, Redcloud and Sunshine. There are 69 "fourteeners" in the continental U.S. (54 of them in Colorado) and dozens of clubs and Web sites dedicated to the pursuit of climbing them. Mostly, I was thinking about the two very different ways to enjoy the mountains: peak-bagging vs. relaxation and solitude. I love both dearly and equally, as I would two children. And like two children, they rarely get along with each other. 

It's a guilty pleasure, peak-bagging. Among many backpackers, its practitioners have a reputation for being rude, condescending and not caring for any part of nature that isn't the highest ground. When I'm on a peak-bagging trip, I often just tell friends that I'm going "camping." 

STARTING AT FIRST LIGHT, I make it up Redcloud by 9 a.m. Sunshine Peak, at 14,001 feet the most modest fourteener, beckons a mile to the west, but it's already clouding up, and the forecast is thunderstorms. Absurdly, if Sunshine were just two feet lower, I would not attempt the climb. Clearly, the wise choice is a rapid descent. Instead, I run across the saddle, scramble to the top, and then descend as fast as I can, berating myself for stupidity but sky-high on adrenaline and endorphins. 

The mountains are different today than in John Muir's time, when climbing any mountain was always a solitary wilderness experience. Today, routes up all the fourteeners are like cattle trails. The trailheads get packed with cars, and the summits become more crowded than the mall - all while thousands of square miles of high country within plain sight remains untrodden. 

Ask a member of the "Fourteener Club" if he or she has ever summited Grizzly Peak, 13,988 feet, and you'll probably get a blank stare. 

In one respect, I'm glad the high peaks act as Gore-Tex magnets. On trips when I steer clear of the major peaks and trails, I know I can find oceans of empty country. Surrounded by "thirteeners," I won't see another soul and can lie back in an alpine meadow and watch the clouds sail over the high peaks. 

MANY YEARS AGO, I CLIMBED MOUNT RAINIER with two friends. But instead of the Muir route by which the long lines of roped and guided hikers ascend, we went up the Cowlitz Glacier, a more technical undertaking. We picked our way around crevasses in a vast, blue, black and white sculpture garden of ice, rock and snow. Except for the sound of our breathing and rhythmic, crunching footsteps, it was mostly silent. 

Back in our private world on the descent, I wanted to stop and sit, to burn a mental photo of the weird shapes. But the day was warming, and rock and ice were starting to break loose from the slope above. A few melon-sized boulders whizzed by. Without a word, we kept moving. 

Steven Albert is a wildlife biologist in Zuni, New Mexico.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -