Back on Top – Land&People

We catch our breath at 13,000-foot Rock of Ages Pass, a high-country saddle that separates two drainage basins along the rocky trail up 14,017-foot Wilson Peak, about ten miles from the chic mountain town of Telluride. After a grueling hike that began before daybreak—several hours earlier and 3,000 feet below—our party of sixteen climbers enjoys a breather and a sweeping vista of the San Miguel Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

But Erik Weihenmayer can't see any of it. Instead, he taps a walking stick against some rocks on either side of the pass, listens to the reverberations, and then correctly concludes which is the larger of the two basins.

"There's this sense of space," Weihenmayer says of the sensations that allow him to create his own mental picture of high-country panoramas. "When I was on Everest, at night it was thundering. You could hear it echoing off the walls and get a sense of the shape of the mountains."

Blind since age 13 from retinoschisis, a genetic disease of the retina, Weihenmayer is nonetheless an accomplished mountaineer who has summited not only Mount Everest but the highest peak on every continent. At 39 he is fit, energetic, and usually smiling under his sunglasses. When asked why he climbs when he can't see the views that reward sighted climbers, he rhapsodizes about the dry air, changes in oxygen content, and hearing "sound moving forever."

The nation's preeminent blind climber, Weihenmayer is also the author of two books, including Touch the Top of the World—about his Everest climb, which has been published in ten countries and six languages. His awardwinning film of that ascent, Farther Than the Eye Can See, won first prize at 19 film festivals, was nominated for two Emmys, and in screenings has raised more than $600,000 for charitable organizations. His TV appearances include Oprah, the Tonight show, the Today show, and Good Morning America, and he has been featured on the cover of Time, Climbing, and Outside magazines. He is a much-sought-after motivational speaker, using his renown to promote causes he believes in.

On this blue-sky summer day, Weihenmayer is the main attraction in the year's first legal climb of Wilson Peak. In tow are journalists and photographers, Weihenmayer's friends and supporters, and staff from The Trust for Public Land, whose efforts to purchase privately owned land underlying several sections of the Wilson Peak trail made this hike possible.

Wilson Peak is one of Colorado's famed "fourteeners"— the 54 peaks in the state that top 14,000 feet. In a state where mountain climbing is approached with almost religious fervor, many climbers make it a life's goal to summit all of the fourteeners. "They have a huge mountain feel," says Weihenmayer, who has climbed nearly 30 of them himself.

Even in such lofty company, Wilson Peak seems special. Its thrusting summit is one of the best-known Colorado mountain images, used frequently in posters and advertisements, most notably for Coors beer. In recent years, however, the most accessible trail up Wilson Peak has been mostly off-limits to climbers. While most of the mountain lies within the Lizard Head Wilderness of the Uncompahgre National Forest, the summit trail traverses historic mining claims that remained private when the national forest was created early in the last century. As the number of climbers has increased in recent years, tensions have built between them and the landowner, Rusty Nichols. At first, Nichols began requiring mountaineers to sign a liability waiver and pay $100 to cross his land. Then, in 2007, he closed the trail entirely.

Nichols hoped to resolve the access issue by persuading the U.S. Forest Service to buy the land, or take it in exchange for valuable parcels nearby, but negotiations went nowhere. To break the impasse, TPL stepped in to option the property and facilitate an agreement that would reestablish climbing access to the peak. On hearing of this opportunity, Eric Weihenmayer offered to lead a climb that would call attention to TPL's efforts to protect access not only to Wilson Peak, but also to other Colorado fourteeners and recreation sites.

"There's a reason people are out here in the mountains," Erik Weihenmayer says. "It's because open spaces add to our quality of life." In 1997, Weihenmayer moved from Phoenix to Colorado after development cut off access to Pinnacle Peak and other favorite climbing spots around his hometown. Unfortunately, his experience is not unusual. Across the West, recreational opportunities once taken for granted have been lost due to backcountry development and pressure resulting from population growth and increasing demand for wild-country recreation.

In Colorado, one sign of this demand is the number of climbers seeking out 14,000-foot peaks. About 60,000 people climbed a fourteener in 1984, according to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a nonprofit that works to preserve the natural integrity of these iconic peaks. By 2004 the number had swelled to half a million annually, and the group predicts there will be one million fourteener climbs by 2011.

"The biggest problem with the increasing numbers is that Colorado's trails are not designed to meet that demand," says James Ashby, interim executive director of the Fourteeners Initiative. Heavily used routes become widened, incised, and braided. Sometimes hikers strike out across fragile tundra and alpine vegetation, which can take decades and even centuries to recover.

In the face of this demand, groups like the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative have helped to reroute or rebuild worn-down trails. The Forest Service also works to mitigate the impact of hikers on sensitive alpine environments. But one of the biggest management issues arising from increased visitation is maintaining any kind of access, especially where trails cross private land.

Trailheads, climbing approaches, or in a few instances the summits of six Colorado fourteeners are located on privately owned mining claims. To encourage economic development in the West, 19th-century mining laws made it easy to "patent" a claim for a few dollars. And while most small, high-country claims are no longer worked for minerals, many of them could be developed into second-home or cabin sites, blocking access to areas that help support Colorado's $10 billion outdoor recreation economy.

Historically, fourteener hikers and climbers have trespassed across private mining claims—trespasses that were largely ignored when visitor numbers were low. But the recent tidal wave of peak-baggers has caused some landowners, like Rusty Nichols, to worry about vandalism and theft—and about liability in an increasingly litigious society. At several fourteeners, tensions between hikers and landowners gradually built, coming to a head in 2005 when a handful of landowners in the Mosquito Range, southwest of Denver, announced they were shutting off access to their peaks. Then, in 2007, Rusty Nichols closed the popular Wilson Peak trail.

Conflict and Resolution at Wilson Peak

Nichols, a Texas real estate developer, bought his first mining claims beneath Wilson Peak in 1978, as a getaway location. The parcels included a miner's cabin from the turn of the 20th century, when as many as 500 gold miners worked in the Silver Pick Basin, on the northwest side of the mountain. "I was looking for privacy and a place I could take my kids camping," Nichols says.

He eventually bought up several other patented claims, initially to buffer his property from other potential mining operations. But he also hired a geologist to assess the land's mineral value and learned that remaining gold veins might make mining worthwhile. "Mining was always an option, and a lucrative one," Nichols adds.

In the years following Nichols's land purchases, Telluride's growing reputation as a recreation destination attracted skiers, hikers, climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Demand for second homes fed a steep rise in real estate prices.

"Early on, I would go up there with my sons for a week at a time and maybe see three or four people," Nichols says. But by the late 1980s, he estimates, more than 100 people a week were coming through his land during the summer. That's also when the trouble started. He says now that vandals cut hydraulic tubes on his vehicles, filled gas tanks with gravel, and even burned down a small cabin. The sheriff's office was called several times to mediate disputes.

Based on his estimate of the mineral value, Nichols had been trying without success to swap or sell his land to the Forest Service. Frustrated by this stalemate and the vandalism—and even as he began to charge climbers to cross this land and then bar them entirely—he let it be known that he was considering mining in the Silver Pick Basin, which would have severely limited access and potentially caused significant environmental damage.

Staffers for TPL-Colorado had been observing the conflict from a distance. Since 2001, TPL had been partnering with the Forest Service to acquire 8,000 acres of patented mining claims in the area of Red Mountain Pass, 20 miles east of Wilson Peak. "This gave us incredible experience tackling thorny title issues," says TPL project manager Justin Spring, who has worked to retire former mining claims both at Red Mountain and in the High Elk Corridor, near Gunnison, where TPL has helped add more than 1,700 acres to White River National Forest.

"We always wondered if there was a way for TPL to jump in and be the hero at Wilson Peak," Spring says. In 2006, former TPL project manager Jason Corzine reached out to Rusty Nichols to see if a way could be found around the impasse at Wilson Peak. As an independent nonprofit, TPL was able to raise donated funds for the project. For Nichols, one of the keys to the eventual agreement to protect climbing access was that TPL "recognized the value of minerals that are still out there. They did everything they said they would. I have very high praise for their professionalism."

As part of its initial agreement, TPL optioned 230 acres—23 mining claims, including the summit of Wilson Peak. Then the staff began the hard work of surveying, getting appraisals and environmental assessments, and conducting negotiations and fundraising. In October 2007, TPL bought the property, using donated funds and a crucial loan from the Colorado Conservation Trust, and hopes to transfer it to the Forest Service within the next few years. Nichols will retain 77 acres, including his cabin site, under a deed restriction that prohibits mining and limits residential development.

"Bringing in a partner like TPL brings a couple of things to a project," says Corey Wong, a Forest Service public service staff officer for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests. "They do have more tools than we do and more relationships." With its ability to leverage donations, TPL acted with a swiftness that a government agency could not, Wong says, adding that the organization also acted as intermediary in the strained relationship between Nichols and the Forest Service.

Support for TPL's $3.25 million purchase of the land came from the Colorado Mountain Club Foundation, Coors Brewing Company, Lynne and Joe Horning, Dan and Sheryl Tishman, San Miguel Conservation Foundation, the Telluride Foundation, and numerous other individual donors.

"The permanent protection of Wilson Peak has inspired generosity from local donors and from people who've only seen the mountain's image," said Tim Wohlgenant, TPL's Colorado State Director. "Now we are working with our partners in the U.S. Forest Service and the climbing and mountaineering communities to relocate the main trail and officially restore access."

One key project supporter was the Colorado Conservation Trust (CCT), a statewide community foundation for conservation. Doug Robotham, former director of TPL's Colorado office and a deputy director at (CCT), says that TPL's work to protect the fourteeners will further the recently launched Colorado Conservation Partnership Project. "TPL and CCT are working with other groups to protect 24 of Colorado's most cherished natural and cultural landscapes—the best of the best," he says. "The Wilson Peak region and the Mosquito Range are included, in part because access to the 14,000-foot peaks is so critical to experiencing what it means to live in or visit Colorado."

Wilson Peak is the first Colorado fourteener where access has been purchased from a private landowner and will be restored to the public. TPL hopes to duplicate the effort elsewhere in the state.

One Step at a Time

The agreement to protect Wilson Peak access was still several months in the future on the day Eric Weihenmayer scaled its summit. From the Rock of Ages saddle, the final ascent requires a traverse across unstable rock talus. In a few stretches, the mountain drops steeply away at the edge of the trail. Weihenmayer hikes using two walking sticks to assess the ground in front of him and following the jingle of a small bell of the sort used to scare away bears, which today is attached to the finger of a companion hiking a few feet ahead.

On the five-class scale of climbing difficulty, Wilson Peak is rated a Class 3 climb, meaning that much of the time hands must be used to scramble over rough, steep, or exposed terrain. Weihenmayer's climbing partner, Nate Disser, signals him when a large boulder or a gully obstructs the trail and talks him through its more vertical sections. Weihenmayer navigates short ascents hand over hand and makes steep descents cautiously, crawling slowly like a spider.

After a final challenging scramble, he and the rest of us are standing on the summit beneath crystalline blue skies. Off to the south loom Mount Wilson and El Diente Peak, both also over 14,000 feet, the trio forming a mountain massif seen on Coors advertising nationwide and attracting climbers from around the world. Then, after photos and a brief rest, the world's premier blind climber starts picking his way cautiously downhill.

Weihenmayer's climb for TPL was covered in newspapers nationwide and attracted many supporters and contributors to the project. "This was a chance for me to be a part of the solution to the access problem," Weihenmayer says of his climb. And he compares the resolution of that problem to scaling the world's tallest mountain, an analogy that might sound overwrought coming from anyone else.

"You do it the same way you climb Mount Everest," he says. "You do it step by step, and you celebrate each triumph."

Joshua Zaffos lives and writes in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he is the news editor for the Rocky Mountain Chronicle. In addition to Wilson Peak, he has climbed Capitol Peak (14,130 feet).