Headlamps begin to flicker on one by one, illuminating the inky darkness at 10,800 feet. The rustling of nylon sleeping bags and the purring of tent zippers cut through the 3 a.m. silence. Inside a canvas-walled tent, someone starts boiling water for oatmeal and coffee. Footsteps pad toward the groovers. There is more groaning than actual talking as everyone prepares for the hike ahead.

Within about an hour, each member of the eight-person crew steps outside the solar-powered bear fence that surrounds the camp and begins the roughly two-mile, 2,700-foot-elevation-gain trek up 14,229-foot Mt. Shavano. As seasonal employees of the nonprofit Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), a Golden-based stewardship and trail-building organization, the squad makes the trip to their work site every morning during eight-day-long hitches before getting six days off. The goal for the High Shavano crew is to complete the hike in about 90 minutes, arriving just in time for daybreak, at which point they’ll begin eight hours of manual labor at an elevation of 13,500 feet, where winds regularly whip up to 60 miles per hour and three inches of snow can blanket the ground in mid-July.

The team’s work today—continuing to build 1,600 linear feet of new trail by, among other things, relocating refrigerator-size boulders with pry bars and griphoists and building steps from rocks they quarry from nearby talus fields—represents only a tiny fraction of the sweat equity that CFI staffers, seasonal crew members, and volunteers will invest in what will ultimately be a six-year endeavor. When it’s completed, the project will not only have helped undo the damage peakbaggers have inflicted upon the mountain, but it will also have given climbers an eco-friendlier path to follow than the unofficial, user-created “social trail” that had long been marring the environment.

Portrait of Lloyd Athearn
CFI executive director Lloyd Athearn. Photo by Sarah Banks

A so-called sustainable route is a purpose-built, thoughtfully constructed, durable trail that corrals hikers into a single path that avoids tender vegetation, helps with drainage, and lessens soil erosion. Building one on this southernmost fourteener in the Sawatch Range has, for decades, been high on the priority list for CFI and the U.S. Forest Service, which partners with CFI to protect the fourteeners on its land. But the 10-foot-wide social trail that cuts three feet into the earth and that, in places, morphs into a full-blown stream during late-spring runoff, couldn’t be rehabilitated for one simple reason: “Ninety-five percent of the mountain was on public land,” says Lloyd Athearn, CFI’s longtime executive director, “but five percent of it, right at the summit, was private.”

With no legal access to the top, CFI and the Forest Service couldn’t build a sustainable route. And so, for years, Mt. Shavano, which lies 15 miles northwest of Salida in the Arkansas River Valley, has received an F rating on CFI’s Statewide 14er Report Card, an ongoing assessment of conditions on 56 summit routes—both socially created and officially built—on 55 peaks. “It was one of the worst trails in the state,” Athearn says. “There was huge [natural] resource damage happening. So we started to ask ourselves a question: What’s it going to take to get this taken care of?

The answer was far more complicated than Athearn thought. That hardly mattered, though, because solving complex problems is what CFI, which turns 30 this year, is known for in the outdoor stewardship space. The lengths to which Athearn and his team will go to protect Colorado’s fragile high alpine environment while simultaneously ensuring hikers can access the grandeur are renowned. “We are persistent, stubborn, and don’t take no for an answer,” he says. “Nothing is too crazy to consider.”

CFI workers on Mt. Elbert. Photo courtesy of Cameron Miller

By 1992, Loretta McEllhiney had been doing trail work for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado for three years. She swung axes and wielded saws and moved rocks and expected she’d remain a “trail grunt” for at least another season. That is, until she learned that federal money for trail building and maintenance had fallen short, a result of inadequate funding in the mid-1980s.

Instead, the Los Angeles–born twentysomething became a wilderness ranger for the Leadville Ranger District, a job that meant taking campsite inventories, enforcing Forest Service rules with sometimes unruly visitors, and educating recreationists about both the power and the fragility of nature. Because of her trails background, her supervisor added a responsibility to McEllhiney’s job description: “She wanted me to keep my eyes open for socially created trails,” McEllhiney says. “She wanted me to do some analysis, get some pictures, take measurements on how deep and wide the trails were, and look at vegetation loss. I found all the fourteener [social] trails in the district, and I was like, Wow, we’ve gotta do something about this.

In those days, there were only three purpose-built paths in the state that led to the summits of 14,000-foot peaks: the 7.5-mile Keyhole Route on Longs Peak, laid out in the 1870s; the 12-mile Barr Trail up Pikes Peak, completed in 1921; and the path to Grays Peak, built in 1865. The dearth of official trails didn’t stop peakbaggers, though, and as recreational hiking went mainstream in the 1970s and ’80s, trekkers began blazing their own. “Back then, it was pretty difficult route-finding,” says Walt Borneman, who in 1978 published A Climbing Guide To Colorado’s Fourteeners, one of the first such guidebooks. “You were finding your own way.” And that way was often straight up, following risky fall lines and trampling anything and everything on the way.

Hikers were unintentionally killing the mountains’ delicate ecosystems. McEllhiney’s reports told the story of dead alpine plants—some of which only exist in Colorado’s rarified air—eroded soil, and heavily braided trails. Her supervisor, Mary Beth Hennessy, responded by partnering with the American Mountain Foundation (now called the Rocky Mountain Field Institute) to send a team of interns to survey 10 fourteeners in the Sawatch Range in summer 1993. Their results were similarly distressing. So distressing, in fact, that in fall 1993, a meeting to discuss the growing human impact on the fourteeners was held at the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) in Denver.

Along with CMC staffers, a contingent from the Forest Service, including McEllhiney and Hennessy, sat at the table. The American Mountain Foundation’s (AMF) executive director Mark Hesse, along with one of his interns, David Duffy, pulled up chairs. Dos Chappell, founder and director of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC), attended. A representative from Boulder-based Leave No Trace (LNT) got an invite. Borneman was there, too. “Duffy’s report cataloged the damage, and we knew what needed to be done,” Borneman says, adding that the group assumed peaks across the state were experiencing similar destruction (a fact confirmed by further AMF surveys from 1994 to 1996). “We went around the table and discussed what existing organization had the capacity to take on the fourteeners.”

There wasn’t one. Despite knowing that eager hikers would continue bushwhacking their ways uphill, no one had the bandwidth to shoulder the required task: work with the Forest Service to design and construct sustainable trails on the vast majority of Colorado’s 58 named mountains that rise higher than 14,000 feet. Instead, brass from the CMC, AMF, VOC, LNT, and the Colorado Outward Bound School created a partnership in 1994 with the intention to collectively preserve the peaks. They called it the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. Two years later, members of that grassroots partnership decided CFI’s massive mission could only be served by a standalone entity with its own staff and funding. In summer 1996, Borneman, acting as the first board chairman, deposited a $2,000 check into the newly minted 501(c)(3) organization’s bank account. “That was the easy part,” Borneman says. “It was difficult from then on.”

Man in yellow hard hat on trail
Photo courtesy of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative

Every new nonprofit has to raise funds, get staffers and board members to agree on a clear and realistic mission, and convince the public of the importance of its cause. CFI experienced some of those typical hardships, but it also faced a more literal uphill battle. The 1999 long-range plan developed by CFI, the Forest Service, and several other stewardship organizations established the objective that every peak in need of a sustainable route would have one by the end of 2005.

Forty-seven 14,000-foot mountains fit that description at the time. The goal quickly became laughable.

“The whole thing was an obstacle,” says Keith Desrosiers, who served as CFI’s first executive director from 1997 to 2000. “Doing work above timberline means bad weather, lightning, altitude sickness, a short window to do the work, packing out weeks’ worth of human waste, and unbelievable logistics around getting people high enough up there to do it. Building trail on a fourteener is just really, really hard.”

And that’s to say nothing of the challenges presented by the dispersion of high peaks across a 103,610-square-mile state, a patchwork of land managers and private landowners with whom to liaise, federally designated wilderness areas with strict regulations regarding construction, and a simultaneously exploding interest in climbing the state’s fourteeners. Hiker numbers weren’t counted in any official or accurate way in the 1990s or 2000s, but anecdotal evidence suggested huge growth during those decades, meaning CFI had barely begun its mission to rehabilitate the existing damage and build sustainable trails when detrimental footfalls began increasing exponentially. “I was young and cocky and didn’t know how hard it would be to do these things,” Desrosiers says. “I thought we’d put ourselves out of business in 10 years. That was a gross exaggeration.”

Mt. Bierstadt, a 14,060-foot peak located about 60 miles from Denver, was taking a particularly serious pounding by the late ’90s. “The approach to Mt. Bierstadt was fragmented and destroyed,” Desrosiers says. “It looked like a war field. And I’m not even talking about the peak.”

The social trail up the mountain was widening by the day and eating away at the alpine tundra, but it was in decent shape relative to a large area of willow carr—a medium-size shrub that grows in Colorado’s moist meadows and wetlands of the subalpine and montane zones—near the start of the hike. Peakbaggers had no choice but to traipse through what amounted to a bog, crushing the willows as they stumbled their way through the sock-soaking and sometimes boot-stealing terrain. The only solution Desrosiers and company could devise to save the willows was an elevated boardwalk.

The estimated cost, combined with the elevation, the knee-deep mud, and the sheer length of the proposed walkway, presented heavy burdens. Still, none of those hindrances were deal breakers. Standing in the way was something CFI couldn’t maneuver around using creativity, brute force, or even dollar signs: an act of Congress, specifically the one that, in 1980, created the 74,401-acre Mt. Evans Wilderness area in which Mt. Bierstadt resides.

Before CFI and its partners—primarily VOC—could lay one board to protect the vegetation, they would have to navigate the rules of federally designated wilderness areas, which limit group sizes, forbid motorized equipment, and preclude permanent, human-made improvements. To be able to use power tools, like drills, and bring in more than 15 workers at a time, the Forest Service and CFI had to secure an exemption to the federal Wilderness Act. It took more than a year and required environmental studies and dozens of signatures to finalize the paperwork that allowed construction of the Bierstadt boardwalk.

Hammering wood poles onto trail structure
Trail building on Mt. Elbert. Photo courtesy of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative

In the meantime, the nonprofit had to contend with vocal campaigns by both ordinary citizens and employees of the Forest Service—ostensibly CFI’s trail-building partner—who didn’t want to see the wilderness defaced by a human-made structure. “I woke up one morning to a story on the front page of the newspaper,” Desrosiers says. “Some seasonal worker from the South Platte Ranger District talked to a reporter and blew up CFI for wanting to build a boardwalk in wilderness. He just threw us under the bus.” The politics of “eco-puritanicals” who think wilderness should be preserved with no consideration for recreation, Desrosiers says, made the monumental task of erecting the boardwalk seem almost easy in comparison. “It was quite a project,” says Norbert Klebl, who volunteered and worked for CFI between 1995 and 2005 and helped research how to design the raised path, “but the boardwalk was instrumental in creating a sustainable trail to the summit of Bierstadt. That’s what’s important.”

Twenty-five years later, the boardwalk sees more than 30,000 hiker use days annually. The social trail to the summit, after being rated a D for many years and then undergoing work by CFI—in the late 1990s, the early 2000s, and again in 2014—is now a B-. The willow carr is thriving.

Cranking/tightening cord
Heavy lifting on Mt. Shavano. Photo courtesy of Brooks Upham

Miriam Venman-Clay speaks fluent rock. “I can ask a rock where it wants to be,” the 37-year-old CFI field projects manager says in all seriousness. “I can conceptualize how rocks want to fit together. I can use rocks to make people go where I want them to go.” She describes her way with stone as a magic power, but it’s one that Venman-Clay has been honing since she was 18, when she first joined a trail crew in Florida and realized she had a knack for puzzle-piecing together retention structures and steps using only rock, no mortar. “When I met someone who told me about CFI, how they do dry-stone mason work on fourteeners, I worked for years to be good enough to get hired by them,” she says. “Twelve years ago, I was.”

CFI field projects manager Tom Cronin says he loves the simplicity of working in designated wilderness areas, where chainsaws are prohibited. He says there’s nothing like felling a tree with a two-person, cross-cut saw, just like lumberjacks in an old cartoon. Ben Hanus, CFI field programs director, finds joy in collecting the data that help the nonprofit understand the current conditions of its existing routes and what kind of ongoing maintenance they might require. Being in the field to physically eyeball how a three-year-old retaining wall is faring or if spring runoff has eroded soil in a way that has shifted previously installed timbers means Hanus crisscrosses the state roughly every other summer hiking dozens of mountains with GPS equipment in tow.

In the time since Athearn was named executive director in 2009, he has hired Venman-Clay, Cronin, and Hanus—as well as others in CFI’s stable of seven mostly full-time employees and 32 seasonal workers—because they are of a different ilk. His ilk. The kind of people who maybe don’t quite fit in with the suit-and-tie crowd, the kind of people whose souls aren’t touched by working in politics or technology or sales, the kind of people who obsess over how to get something done right instead of fixating on what’s already gone wrong, the kind of people who can paradoxically breathe more deeply and easily at 13,000 feet.

Fifty-nine-year-old Athearn blames the laissez-faire parenting of the 1970s for his obstinacy, his determination, and his obsession with the alpine environment. He says any parent today would be thrown in jail for doing what his dad did, which was encourage him—on his 13th birthday—to hike 18 miles by himself in Yosemite National Park, where the family was on vacation. The teenager begged out but the following day decided to trek eight miles—up and over 10,680-foot Vogelsang Pass—on his own. “I saw marmots and snowfields,” Athearn says. “It was the most eye-opening thing in my life. I look at where I’ve gone in my career and think back to that day. That was it.”

Athearn didn’t stop with Yosemite, though. In high school, he summited 10,358-foot South Sister, a volcano in the Cascade Range, and climbed his first fourteener—California’s 14,163-foot Mt. Shasta—at 17. While attending the University of Oregon, he spent summers backpacking in the Cascades. A few years after graduating with history and political science degrees, he summited Mt. Hood, a technically challenging 11,240-footer he’d lived in the shadow of while growing up in Portland.

Despite his love of being outdoors, Athearn initially made a career indoors, in politics, working with a city commissioner in Portland and then for the state speaker of the House in Salem. But politicking about gun control and prison reform felt thankless, so when he saw a job posting with the American Alpine Club in Golden, he applied and ended up working on climbing access and conservation policy for 10 years. From there, Athearn made the transition to fundraising—a “dark art that no one talks about,” he jokes—for the now defunct Colorado Conservation Trust.

Months into the Great Recession, Athearn decided to move on but didn’t know what he wanted to do next. That’s when his wife suggested CFI, which happened to be in the market for a new executive director in early 2009. Although the nonprofit had been around for 13 years, the momentum and early successes it enjoyed under Desrosiers had given way to funding challenges under its second leader, T.J. Rapoport. “CFI was in really bad condition when I took over,” Athearn says. “It was about to fold. But as the saying goes, ‘Never hesitate to exploit a crisis.’ ”

Exploit is one word for it. Resolve is another. Under Rapoport, who could not be reached for comment, CFI had become overly reliant on government funding—an unpredictable source of income. Athearn knew CFI needed to diversify and saw untapped opportunities with individual donors. In his mind, people who like to climb tall mountains often have several things in common: They’re determined. They’re accomplished in their professional and personal lives. They have free time for outdoor recreation. Most important, they have financial resources. “These are the sticky donors,” Athearn says. “The people who stick around because they believe in the cause. But we had to find them, and that’s not easy when the Forest Service won’t let you put ‘This Trail Was Built By’ signs on their land. So we did it the grassroots way.”

Athearn and his staff wrapped their trucks with images of people working on trails. They redesigned the warning signs they were required to post when building a trail to include the CFI logo. They trained their field crews to interact with hikers, all of whom they considered potential donors. CFI also benefitted from a relationship with Bill Middlebrook, founder of 14ers.com and a onetime CFI board member. “Middlebrook was the pied piper bringing people in,” Athearn says. “Then I tried to get to know those people and understand them. I’d ask them about their favorite peaks and then would tell them about the projects we might have going on there.”

Between 1996 and 2008, the nonprofit rarely recorded more than $45,000 in annual donations from individuals. In 2023, CFI received roughly $1 million from individuals and family-run foundations, a number that accounted for about half of the organization’s total annual funding. “Lloyd was CFI’s savior,” says McEllhiney, who has worked with Athearn for 15 years in her position as program manager for the Forest Service’s Colorado Fourteeners Program. “He’s an amazingly intelligent, articulate, driven human.”

Completed trail with rocks
Newly constructed trail on Mt. Shavano. Photo courtesy of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative

For better or worse, CFI and the Forest Service are inextricably linked, which means Athearn and McEllhiney have been, too. Although the agency is the landowner on 84 percent of Colorado’s named fourteeners and has funded its internal Colorado Fourteeners Program since 2001 (when McEllhiney became the program’s founding manager), the service doesn’t have the budget, the staff, the ingenuity, or the necessary nimbleness to maintain or build high alpine routes. “CFI is one of the most technically skilled trail-building organizations in the nation,” McEllhiney says. “There’s no way the work would’ve gotten done without CFI; the Forest Service’s regulations and HR policies for its employees wouldn’t have allowed it to happen. Hike before sunrise? Nope. Camp in the backcountry? Nope. Also, we don’t have the skills. And Lloyd’s right when he says that there’s nothing too crazy for them to consider. They are crazy, but they are crazy people who get things done.”

Since 1994, the Forest Service and CFI have entered into dozens of so-called Challenge Cost Share Agreements that allow CFI and its partners to work on Forest Service lands and outline the breadth of work and funding sources, with the Forest Service typically chipping in only about $1 for every $10 to $28 that comes from a group like CFI. The partnership has had its ups and downs—funding snarls, bureaucratic red tape, disagreements about priorities—but the process they’ve streamlined over the years is working.

The original objective was for every fourteener to have at least one sustainable, standard route to the summit. Those paths, nearly all designed by McEllhiney through a four-year process, were not drawn up to make the hike from the trailhead to the summit easier. The byways have been arranged to limit the impacts to the local ecosystems.

People lounging on rocks
CFI workers relaxing on the job; relocating rocks on Mt. Shavano. Photo courtesy of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative

Often dragging out-of-breath biologists with her, McEllhiney would snake up the mountains, placing multicolored stake flags in the ground, zigging here to avoid a patch of Ranunculus gelidus (Arctic buttercup) and zagging there to skirt a colony of Saussurea weberi (Weber’s saw-wort), rare or unique plants found in Colorado’s alpine tundra zone that are fragile enough to perish after just five errant footsteps. “The soil up there is thin and rocky and slow to develop. The freeze-thaw cycle is relentless. Water availability is variable. And the UV radiation at 13,000 feet is high,” says Brian Elliott, a biologist who worked with McEllhiney to route trails around imperiled species on 19 Colorado fourteeners. “These plants are irreplaceable populations. Once gone, they don’t come back fast, or sometimes at all.”

Once McEllhiney outlined a trail, Athearn and his crew—often Cronin and Venman-Clay, since 2012—would analyze her notes, slope gauge readings, and GPS coordinates. After suggesting changes to the design based on their trail-building expertise, they would spec out the features necessary to bring the trail to life and then find ways to make it happen in difficult terrain in short windows of time.

Athearn has, at times, had to hire helicopters to deliver thousands of pounds of building materials to remote mountainsides when “shopping local”—i.e., using logs and rocks from the surrounding terrain—isn’t possible. When marauding cattle damaged CFI vehicles in the field, crews had to figure out how to erect barriers to protect their equipment. Ingenious seasonal workers figured out how to build solar power systems that could keep critical satellite phones charged (and also conveniently be used to fire up a blender for daiquiris). Just last year, Athearn’s team had to handle a situation in which a pack horse broke its leg in a talus field on Uncompahgre Peak and had to be put down and buried in the backcountry. The crew had to take over for the animal using pack frames to carry the load. “We are the partner who helps Loretta get the actual building done,” Athearn says. “No matter what.”

And build they have. As CFI begins its 30th summer season this month, the tally sheet looks like this: The nonprofit has spent tens of millions of dollars over the past three decades building at least one sustainable route on 36 fourteeners, all of which currently rate a C- or better. On these routes, work may not be fully complete, but a trail is largely in place and hiker footsteps are falling where they should. CFI is hoping to raise funds that would allow further reconstruction work on Mt. Columbia and Mt. Wilson, where existing routes need to be extended from where previous work ended.

CFI has inventoried 15 other existing social routes, six of which the nonprofit has no current plans to improve. Of the other nine, major reconstruction work is under way on two—Mt. Shavano and the Black Cloud route on Mt. Elbert. The nonprofit has also developed a plan for a reroute on Mt. Princeton, but reconstruction awaits funding. Route planning work has also occurred on Castle and Conundrum peaks and Snowmass Mountain but needs environmental analysis and approval from the Forest Service. Three other routes, one on Mt. Lindsey and two on Mt. Sherman, are awaiting a different kind of approval: legal access to cross private land. (The rest of the peaks either have routes that are too dangerous to inventory, were built by the Forest Service alone, are maintained by the National Park Service, or were built by organizations other than CFI, such as the Rocky Mountain Field Institute.)

“We’re in a much different place than we were nine or 10 years ago,” Athearn says. “Over the next five years, the current huge projects will be resolved. Then we can pivot to ongoing maintenance, modest reconstruction, dealing with Mother Nature when she throws us a landslide, and working on private-land access issues.” The last item on that to-do list is a relatively new frontier for CFI, one that will determine if the public can ever follow a sustainable trail to legally touch the top of every 14,000-footer in the state.

2 people moving a boulder on trail
Relocating rocks on Mt. Shavano. Photo courtesy of Brooks Upham

John Reiber has never enjoyed being a gatekeeper. He’s always wanted the public to have access to the lands he’s owned, some of which have included mining claims on Mt. Democrat, Mt. Lincoln, and Mt. Bross, three of the four fourteeners that make up the famed Decalibron Loop outside of Alma. Some of the land he owns has been in his family since the 1950s; he bought terrain on Mt. Democrat in 2010. But a decision in 2019 by the U.S. Court of Appeals changed Reiber’s mind about being so generous.

The original case stemmed from an incident in 2008, when Colorado Springs resident James Nelson was seriously injured while riding his bicycle on a path on United States Air Force Academy land. The court upheld a lower court’s decision to award the Nelson family $7.3 million, saying that the academy knew about the sinkhole Nelson pedaled into and had shown a “willful or malicious failure” to warn recreationists of a known hazard that was likely to cause harm.

The Air Force Academy argued that it was protected by the Colorado Recreational Use Statute (CRUS), which gives immunity to landowners who allow people to use their properties for recreational purposes without a fee. When the Court of Appeals upheld the award, ruling the “willful or malicious failure” language in CRUS provided an exception to the protection the statute provides landowners, Reiber and others—including the owners of 14,042-foot Mt. Lindsey in the Sangre de Cristo range—closed their lands for fear of being sued.

“John’s property is very easy to get to, meaning casual tourists and undereducated recreationists can get themselves in trouble pretty easily,” says Athearn, who has worked with Reiber on access and sustainable trail-building on his land. “He has old mining shafts on his land, and if a dad wants to, say, hold his kid by the ankles and hand him a flashlight to look down in there…well, that means John is exposed. If we wanted people like him to feel safe opening their lands—something that’s important to Coloradans and to local economies—we had to update the recreational use law after the Air Force case.”

In 2023, the Fix CRUS Coalition, made up of more than 4,000 individuals and 49 businesses, government agencies, land trusts, and nonprofits, including CFI, formed to try to amend CRUS so that landowners could feel secure enough to continue allowing public access. A bill with that exact intention that had been introduced during the 2023 state legislative session never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the months after that initial bill failed in March, Reiber collaborated with the new coalition on some workarounds for the 2023 hiking season—creating an online waiver that allowed limited public access—and ultimately sold 300 acres on Mt. Democrat to the Conservation Fund, which later gave the land to the Forest Service. But he said that if changes to CRUS weren’t made in the state Legislature in 2024, he might have to consider closing the loop again.

Both Reiber and Athearn, as well as many others, testified in support of a new bill—SB 24-058—that passed both houses and was sent to Governor Jared Polis, who signed it into law on March 15. The legislation updates CRUS and provides better protection for landowners who want to allow recreation on their properties, so long as they post signs alerting users to known hazards at the trailhead. “Like most anything, neither side got everything it wanted,” Reiber says, “and it’s going to take some work to implement things. I had hoped for the ‘willful or malicious’ language to be changed, but there is enough benefit for landowners for it to be effective.”

In the fourteener world, that’s a big deal. For CFI, it means that the first step toward conversations that could make Mt. Lindsey, Mt. Bross, Mt. Sherman, and other peaks legally accessible has been taken. “People want to see these peaks, they have checklists to check off,” Athearn says. “It’s like a private art collection or a private golf course; if something is off-limits, people want it that much more. And just because they’re private doesn’t mean we can’t find a way to allow access.”

Pulley system of supplies
Hauling boulders on Mt. Columbia. Photo courtesy of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative

The historical land surveys Athearn had of Mt. Shavano were all wrong. For years, he and McEllhiney had been under the impression that the summit was on public land and that there were three private parcels—mining claims—blocking the public’s way up. Instead, based on physical mining claim markings on the mountain, it appeared that one of the claims encompassed the summit. That claim was owned by a person named Joseph McDaniel of Arkansas. “We called every McDaniel in the Arkansas phone book,” Athearn says. “We finally found a Joseph McDaniel Jr., whose mother and late father owned the top of Mt. Shavano.”

CFI had never been interested in purchasing real estate, but Athearn couldn’t see any other way to protect Mt. Shavano and allow legal access to its rocky summit. So after months of court hearings to determine heirship from Joseph McDaniel Sr.’s will, which was handwritten on a yellow legal pad, CFI purchased the claim atop Mt. Shavano. The nonprofit was also able to buy the other two private parcels. For all three claims, CFI spent $50,000 in 2017 to acquire 31 acres of mountainside, which it will give to the Forest Service when trail improvements are complete.

With the land issues resolved, McEllhiney set about finishing Mt. Shavano’s foot-by-foot trail design—a 1,200-hour undertaking in total—that would accommodate roughly 7,000 hiker use days a season. The nearly $2 million route would run 4.5 miles and gain 4,600 feet. It would require CFI to build three miles of completely new trail and heavily reconstruct 1.5 miles of the original social trail. Two contingents of seasonal workers would need to fell 180 trees, remove 310 stumps, move 1,189 large rocks, place 30,961 cubic feet of backfill soil, build 269 timber check steps and 1,855 cribbed rock steps, and install 23,364 square feet of rock wall. The workers would also have to close and restore the environment surrounding roughly 2.5 miles of the existing social trail. The project is scheduled to wrap up in 2027.

McEllhiney will not oversee the completion of the longest trail she’s ever designed: The 60-year-old plans to retire in August after 35 years with the Forest Service. “There comes a time when the old body says, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” she says, “and I am at that point.”

Athearn knows what a change that will be for him and CFI. “It’s the loss of a trusted partner,” he says. “Working with federal agencies is tough because of their decentralized nature. People don’t stay in positions very long, so you’re constantly adapting to new people. When people like Loretta stay in one place and know how to work the system, things get done.” Without McEllhiney running interference, CFI will have to hope the Forest Service continues to allow the nonprofit to do what it does best: protect the peaks and people’s ability to get out there to experience them.

In the meantime, CFI staffers will be hard at work this month preparing for summertime projects on Mt. Elbert and Mt. Shavano. They’ll coach new Peak Stewards, volunteers whom CFI sends out to the fourteeners to educate hikers about leave no trace principles. They’ll coordinate the Adopt-a-Peak program, which facilitates volunteers to do trail maintenance projects or vegetation restoration work. They’ll train seasonal workers to use griphoists and rock bars safely. They’ll manage the logistics of housing and feeding those workers in high-elevation backcountry camps that take more than a week to physically set up.

Most important, they’ll remind themselves that no matter how grueling the work might be, there’s a reason why they’re all there. For some, it’s because they love seeing the sunrise in the mountains. For others, it’s because they can’t imagine a 9-to-5 job. Still others like the physical challenge. For Athearn? “I do this because of that day in Yosemite at the top of Vogelsang,” he says. “I want people to have that experience, to be able to access places that cause personal growth and deliver a sense of accomplishment. That’s what the fourteeners do, and someone needs to conserve them.”