If you’ve ever climbed one of Colorado’s fourteeners, you know just how difficult it can be to make it to the top. From that lofty elevation, it seems nearly impossible that anyone could push him or herself nearly twice as high into the so-called “death zone”—the altitudes above about 26,000 feet where there’s not enough oxygen for humans to survive.

But people regularly venture there, as Golden’s inspiring Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum clearly illustrates. Named for one of our nation’s best-known mountaineers, Bradford Washburn, who began climbing as a child and pioneered many routes in Alaska, the museum celebrates the sport and spirit of mountaineering. A collaborative project of the American Alpine Club, Colorado Mountain Club, and the National Geographic Society, the compact museum opened in 2008 after being blessed by a Nepalese monk.

The engaging displays cover all aspects of mountaineering, from the first ascent of Mt. Everest and the world’s other 8,000-meter peaks to how climbers live (and sleep) for days on vertical rock walls. Another exhibit showcases one of mountaineering’s most famous pieces of equipment: an axe that American climber Peter Schoening jammed into the ice on K2, the world’s second-highest peak, and somehow held onto to save the lives of five of his climbing partners during an infamous 1953 expedition. Thanks to the donations of mountaineers and collectors around the world, the museum boasts more than 5,000 pieces of gear, photos, and other artifacts.

The museum also has several displays of local interest, including one about Colorado’s famous 10th Mountain Division ski troops, plus information on mountain culture and art, as well as how climate change—and mountaineers—are affecting Earth’s fragile alpine environments and what we can do to help. A visit to the museum is a must for anyone who loves bagging peaks or wants to learn more about the unique history of this time-honored experience.

Visit: Located in downtown Golden at 710 10th Street, the American Mountaineering Museum is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with extended hours (until 6 p.m.) on Wednesdays, as well as Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $1 for children under 12.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.