19 July 2017: Saving Mount Bierstadt

There’s head-scratching irony to the he-man machoism pervading American culture. It’s become a rite of passage to prove one’s toughness for the sole purpose of proving one’s toughness. It’s the reason we keep seeing more extreme sports, which our hunter-gather ancestors called “hunting mammoth.” Perhaps it’s residue in participants’ DNA. Maybe from the Neanderthal side of their family.

Now, I don’t have a problem with not-so-tough guys and gals looking foolish trying to prove their toughness. We all embarrass ourselves occasionally. I do it through my columns. But the irony is they want proving they’re tough to be easy.

Case in point: mountain climbing. Adventurers climb, or most often hike, 14’ers for two reasons: to experience nature or for sport. I’m in the first group. I’ve managed to summit 34, so can attest to the challenge of climbing a mile in altitude over the course of several miles with a loaded pack and without oxygen. It’s exhilarating with wondrous beauty to behold and comradery to enjoy among fellow hikers unless they’re from some uptight hick region where talking to strangers is sinful, like sex outside of marriage.

Then, there are the sport climbers that are clueless about mountains other than they’re there, and they’re bad and tough, and they’re going to conquer it, oftentimes in sneakers, Izod shorts, and t-shirts. And totally cool shades. They love setting the pace for their girlfriend, who would rather do it more saunteringly, explaining why he’s an expert at knowing nothing about mountaineering.

So, here we are. The county commissioners, who don’t lack for items and people to keep them harried, distracted, or entertained, are now faced with solving an intractable riddle: How to protect Mount Bierstadt from abuse and degradation. They might as well, while they’re at it, resolve the riddles of the I-70 Corridor, climate change, and species extinction, which share a same commonality: Man’s footprint.

Too many people. Period. And not nice, live-and-let-survive humans. But killer types, the thread that runs so true and common denominator of destruction and extinction for the past 70,000 years: homo sapiens. Where we go, destruction follows. Just ask the diprotodon, mammoth, sloth, and saber tooth tiger if you could.

There are two issues here: Bierstadt itself and the road to get there.

The overwhelming majority hiking Bierstadt are likely flatland, urban dwellers who tackle it as everyone does: either to reconnect with nature or for ego…because I’m tougher, more bad, and superior to it. For more on the last, watch your favorite survivor TV show. Either way, the hiker insists he/she wants a challenge, but in the universe of “bagging” 14’ers, Bierstadt is training wheels, a walk in the park. Part of that is due to its gentle shape, but the rest is because we have made what is easy, incredibly easy.

From the trailhead to the summit is three miles with just over 2,000 feet in ascent. No serious bouldering required—yawn—unless you’re terrified of heights, in which case you might cover the last 400 feet on hands and knees. Facilitating what was already a leisurely stroll are the boardwalks built not to protect the willows but, instead, to save challenged souls some serious, knee-deep mud mucking to and fro. Consequently, as it is now, bagging Bierstadt is just a tad more challenging than tailgating before a football game and then stomping and yelling for three hours during it and taking credit for the team’s victory afterwards. Come on. Any weenie can do that.

So, a simple, win-win proposition: Close Guanella Pass road year-round beyond the campgrounds and tear out the boardwalks.

The benefits would be several. With it presenting a more challenging and fulfilling experience, we’d see a dramatic decline in foot traffic. Only hardy souls, types who would realize their impact and take care not to go off-trail or trash it, would venture forth. There would no reason to maintain the road, a continual source of sediment into Leavenworth Creek, thus saving on cost. And it would reduce the strain on the sheriff and mountain rescue teams rescuing folks who had no business being there in the first place.

We get by quite nicely without the road for seven-plus months a year. Twelve would be nicer.

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