Some people collect stamps. Others accumulate celebrity autographs, or keep detailed lists of every bird species they've spotted. But Coloradans collect 14ers.
Of the 83 mountains in the United States higher than 14,000 feet, two-thirds are in Colorado, a point of towering pride for residents of this rugged state. The 54 white peaks on the roof of Denver's dramatic airport terminal represent the state's 14ers. When Colorado picked a design this summer for its state quarter, the choice was just about inevitable: Long's Peak, a majestic 14,255-foot massif in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Every summer, hundreds of thousands of people here set out to climb a 14er or two. Many Coloradans keep life lists of their conquests; the Colorado Mountain Club says more than 1,000 have climbed all 54. Some particularly hardy souls have topped them all in the winter.
Suddenly, though, the peak-baggers face a steep new obstacle. Here in Pike National Forest, where the 14ers are so thick that a strong climber can summit three in one day, the Forest Service this summer is warning people that the trails up some of the most popular peaks are actually on private land.
"We haven't closed any trails, and we hope it doesn't come to that," said Sara Mayben, who runs the Forest Service ranger station in this old mining town on the continental divide. "But we are now issuing notices for certain 14ers: If you summit this peak, you are trespassing on private property."
Most of the mountains here -- like most of the land in the arid West -- belong to the American public. But the slopes and summits of some peaks were claimed by miners more than a century ago. The high alpine gold and silver mines in central Colorado are shut now; under the 1872 Mining Act, though, the mining companies, or their descendants, still own the property.
"We've known for years that people are climbing on our land," said Maurice Reiber, whose Earth Energy Resources Co. owns chunks of several 14ers. "The reason we asked the Forest Service to do something about it this year is because society has changed.
"Let's face it," Reiber continued, "this is a lawsuit-happy country nowadays. If somebody breaks through a gate up there and falls into an old mine shaft, they might decide to sue me. The liability question is the issue we've got to resolve."
The Forest Service said there has been no such legal action to date. But many peak-baggers sympathize with the landowners' concern.
"Here's a guy who's generous enough to let people use his property for free," noted T.J. Rapoport, a veteran climber who runs the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, an environmental group. "But the lawyers tell us there is no waiver, no release he could design that would definitely protect him against a jury verdict."
The issue has emerged now because climbing Colorado's 14ers has become vastly more popular in recent years. The number of peak-baggers has grown even faster than the skyrocketing population of this youthful, outdoor-minded state. More climbers mean more chances of a serious injury, and a potential lawsuit.
Why would you spend an exhausting day trekking to a barren point of rock nearly three miles high? The appeal is clear to anybody who has felt the top-of-the-world sensation, and seen the view, on a 14,000-foot peak. The song "America the Beautiful" was written atop Pikes Peak (14,110 ft.); from its summit, sure enough, the view to the west takes in ridge after majestic ridge of purple mountains, while the eastern vista offers a vast amber sea of waving grain.
Some climbers pick their peak by its name, particularly in the Collegiate Range, near Salida, Colo. It is a matter of supreme importance to a certain subset that Mount Princeton (14,197 ft.) is taller than Mount Yale -- merely one foot taller, but that's enough for Princeton grads. Harvard graduates, of course, point out that Mount Harvard, at 14,420 feet, is higher than both.
The Collegiate Range offers its own bragging rights. Writer Ed Quillen of Salida is a college dropout but has climbed all the Collegiate peaks. When people start boasting about their education, Quillen says: "I went to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and got as high as you can go."
Forest Service officials say a key reason for the "trespass" notices it is issuing -- to people climbing Mounts Bross, Democrat, Lincoln and Sherman, all popular 14ers near here -- is to draw attention to the owners' liability concern, and thus prompt some public resolution.
"The climber community, the Forest Service, the legislature -- we're all looking for some way we can deal with the liability issue and still keep our mountains open," says Rapoport of the Fourteeners Initiative. "There may be some way the Forest Service could indemnify the owners in case of a lawsuit."
On the other hand, Rapoport is among many Coloradans who despair at the rapid increase in human traffic on the state's highest mountains. "Our 14ers are huge and magnificent, but they are actually fragile, high alpine ecosystems. They may not survive the tread of a million boots every summer."
To deal with the problem of excessive usage on the 14ers, environmental groups and Forest Service officials are urging people to forget the cachet of bagging a 14,000-foot peak and climb a 12,000- or 13,000-foot mountain instead.
"The 13er has the same wildflowers, the same hike, the same view at the top," said Mayben, the Forest Service ranger here. "We've got mountains that are 13,995 feet. If you have some need to get to 14, climb that one -- and then jump up."