My first introduction to Colorado's 14,421-foot Mount Massive was, quite literally, a pile of crap. Several piles, actually, just off the trailhead where I'd wandered to pee. Some were flagged with toilet paper; others disguised with a thin sprinkling of pine needles. I walked with care. It was a skill that I would have to perfect over the coming summer, as one of 14 grunts hired to rebuild the eroding trail to the summit.
And not just because there was poop everywhere. A mountain like Massive, with its expanse of delicate alpine tundra spreading from quintuple summits, requires a light step. Its plants can withstand the extremes of altitude and weather, but tread on them a few times and you'll soon leave bare earth in your wake. Without roots to hold it, wind and water whisk the soil away, gullying trails to troughs and forcing hikers to walk their edges. This makes new trails until three or four snake beside each other, shedding silt into clear streams. Where snowfields get in the way, hikers skirt their sodden edges to keep dry feet, leaving wide swaths of torn up ground. Throw in the reality that Massive is but one of Colorado's storied 54 peaks over 14,000 feet—which collectively receive an estimated 500,000 visitors annually—and the peak-bagger trend becomes a destructive tide rising over the state's mountains, an extractive industry in its own right.
The Forest Service, faced with these escalating impacts and ever-declining budgets to do anything about it, hasn't many options. One is to enlist the help of 20-somethings who work for nonprofits like my employer during that 2005 summer, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI). Its expertise is building "sustainable" summit trails, single tracks that switchback in steep areas to control the speed of runoff, and that are armored where necessary with rock walls, steps, check dams to catch sediment and berms to channel water away.
The work is tough. We'd hike two hours to a work site and try to get six hours in before thunderstorms chased us down again. We'd bag the dirt we dug and use it as backfill on the trail to keep it from suffocating trailside plants. Instead of rolling 200-pound rocks—and chewing up the tundra—we'd haul them in a rope litter or "fly" them with cleverly rigged cable systems.
The work also costs a lot. A crew climbing and descending 5,000 vertical feet every day eats tons of food. Trail routes must be planned and mapped by experts, tools purchased and maintained, and the crew trained and paid: The starting wage for us was $80 a day per person; more for experienced workers. CFI estimates that it takes $200,000 to $300,000 and two or three years to build just one sustainable summit route. Expand the lens to all of Colorado's fourteeners, and CFI estimates that it, the Forest Service and partner organizations shell out something like $1.5 million in funding and donated labor per year to build and maintain summit trails, restore damaged alpine terrain and educate hikers to, among other things, not walk and poop wherever they please.
So when the Pike San Isabel National Forest floated its proposal this May to charge fees at the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness's South Colony Basin, a jumping off point for three fourteeners, it made good sense to me. Since 1996, the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, the Forest Service, CFI and others have spent an estimated $1 million and 40,000 volunteer hours compensating for the impacts of the area's 3,500 to 4,500 annual visitors. Charging $10 per person per trip for day trips, as the Forest Service now suggests, and $20 per person per trip for camping, seems like a relative pittance. After all, an average pair of hiking boots cost a cool $150, and most hikers drop a wad of money on a tank of gas just getting to and from the peaks.
If paying for the privilege of climbing rubs you the wrong way—perhaps rightfully so, since most of these mountains are on public land and hence belong to everyone—here's my suggestion for an alternative: Volunteer to spend a few days a season building trails, collecting alpine seeds to revegetate churned up ground, and talking to other hikers about being mindful of what they leave behind. Think of it as an $80 value per person, per day, given back to places we love so much that we tear them apart.
Sarah Gilman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the magazine's associate editor in Paonia, Colo.