Sometime after Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia, admiring Yankee miners living nearly a continent away stuck the Sherman name onto one of the highest peaks in the land.
They picked a good one, a rocky pyramid as dominating as the man. Mount Sherman, at 14,036 feet, anchors the Mosquito Range just west of Fairplay, Colo.
One weekend last summer, three friends and I climbed to the very summit of Mount Sherman. We discovered a challenging one-day adventure, one that appeals to the nonexpert, the weekend walker.
It was an effort to honor the summer, to soak in the spectacular views across the Roof of Our 48 States and, not incidentally, to celebrate my 50th birthday. We became part of a growing weekend ritual for Coloradoans and visitors alike: climbing a Fourteener, one of the array of peaks that tower more than 14,000 feet into the sky.
Despite their vast height, climbing these peaks requires no ice axes or specialized gear. Many of them provide the easiest way for an everyday hiker, such as me, to climb to the tiptop of an important mountain range, the lofty Rockies.
The 48 states contain 68 peaks that are 14,000 feet or more; none tops 14,500 feet. Of those 68 peaks, 54 dot the landscape of Colorado. While Mount Sherman is "only" the 45th highest in Colorado, it is more than twice the elevation of anything east of the Mississippi.
Despite altitude figures as formidable as the sight of the peak's rocky summit, still blotched with snow in July, a Sherman climb can be achieved easily during a day's outing from Denver.You will return from the climb with a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment, and a memory of a sweep of scenery as wondrous as any available in our nation.
For our Fourteener, my friends and I left Denver early one Saturday to drive 85 milessouthwest to the charming old mining center of Fairplay. This is a village of wooden storefronts and Victorian homes, set against peaks of gray rock -- just what one might expect to see in a John Wayne western, if you ignore the paved streets and occasional filling station.
The most famous local site is a small monument. It honors not Gen. Sherman, but the remains of a burro named Prunes. Prunes hauled provisions to nearby silver mines until his death in 1930. Prunes and mining history are celebrated here with burro races into the mountains each July.
After paying our respects to Prunes, we drove a mile south, then turned off U.S. Route 285 onto a dirt road following Fourmile Creek. We bounced along for 10 miles west into Horseshoe Gulch, through stands of aspen, spruce and lodgepole pine. About half a mile beyond the ghost village of Leavick, we reached the end of the usable road.
It was 9:45 a.m. We were standing at 11,700 feet, with the timberline below us. The plains in the distance were covered in blue haze; our trail wound a zigzag path upward through rock and patches of wildflowers. It was a typical Colorado summer morning: sunny, crisp, certain to warm.
We loaded our packs with water bottles, changed into boots and started toward the summit several miles distant. Ahead rose a climb with as much uphill to it as ascending the Washington Monument -- five times. Only here the air was far less dense with oxygen, making the climb far more exhausting.
We followed a vestigial jeep trail, its rise rather gradual. A marmot lumbered across the path and into the orange paintbrush and blue alpine forget-me-nots that carpeted the hillside. As we hiked along easily, I began to gain my wind. But I did nothing to discourage breath-catching stops to look back toward the valley.
The first real sight we came to was the Dauntless Mine, at 12,200 feet. The mine's weathered bunkhouse and mine shaft had collapsed long before into giant pickup sticks. Not far beyond stood the remains of another mine, the Hilltop, its tower now a skeleton. From this tower, buckets of silver were once lifted from the 500-foot shaft, then loaded onto an aerial tramway that carried the ore 2 1/2 miles downhill to the mill at Leavick. The last miners left before World War II.
For nearly a century, this area offered the sugarplum of a fortune in silver, silver that lured America westward and fueled the wealth of cities in the East. But now it was all ghosts and almost forgotten.
From the Hilltop, we confronted an unpleasant choice: Either climb up a slippery snowfield or slog up a slope of loose rock and shale, called scree. For safety, we chose the scree. But it was not an easy choice. With luck, two steps on the scree gained us a net single step toward the peak. Thus, we were really forced to climb about 2,000 feet up 1,000 feet of scree. At altitudes approaching 14,000 feet, that was tough, very tough.
After the scree, we reached the ridge connecting Sherman with its southern neighbor, Mount Sheridan (a paltry 13,748 feet). I looked west into California Gulch and the town of Leadville. Built first on gold, then silver, Leadville once was Colorado's second city, boasting a population 10 times its present 3,879. It was in Leadville that local miner Horace Tabor ran a $17 grubstake into a $9-million silver fortune at the Matchless Mine, a fortune he lavished on his young bride Baby Doe.
Following my much-appreciated stop to reflect upon Leadville, we continued easily on to the summit, reaching the top 2 1/2 hours after we had begun. We found a rolling plateau of loose chunks of granite, splotched with green and black lichen, a summit so large that once a small airplane in distress was able to land here safely.
I counted 31 fellow climbers on the summit that Saturday, plus a diverse animal life: small, woolly black spiders, a rare rosy finch and one large German shepherd, accompanying its master.
After lunch and 45 minutes at the summit, we descended, picking our way more quickly down through the scree and the snowfields. We reached our car at 2:45 p.m., five hours after we had started. By now, clouds and rain loomed just off to the south. We were glad to escape the gathering wind.
Except for its very heavy demands on a lowlander's lungs, climbing Mount Sherman is not too different from climbing a peak in the Shenandoahs. While many peaks in Colorado, such as the Maroon Bells outside Aspen, are treacherous and well beyond my skills, or those of anyone but an experienced climber using ropes, Mount Sherman can be termed (sometimes derisively) a "walk-up." Except in the scree, a vague sort of trail winds all the way to the top.
Still, why did I do it?
Because it is there, of course. Because it offers a vast, if easy, sense of achievement, of conquest. And because it provides the sole access to views that can only be described as breathtaking.
From the summit, I had sat in wonder at the center of a circle of great peaks: to the west, Mount Elbert, loftiest in the state at 14,433 feet, and Mount Massive, as vast as its name; off to the south stood Pikes Peak and the Collegiate Range (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Oxford -- Fourteeners all); in the bluish haze to the north, more Fourteeners such as Quandary and Lincoln, named by loyal northerners for Sherman's commander in chief.
Surely this adventure would lure me back. Surely I would have to repeat the challenge next year. But which Fourteener to select for my 51st birthday?
It struck me suddenly. southerners had selected and named their own peak, one just a few miles north of here. Since 1986 is an election year, what better goal for a Republican than to climb to conquer a 14,148-foot peak, one that is certain to prove an easy climb: Mount Democrat.