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Summer is a popular time to tackle the state’s most formidable peaks, but a little-kept secret is that some of the best conditions for attempting to summit Colorado fourteeners is during September and early October. The crowds start to thin out, the risk of lightning diminishes (at least a little bit), and you’ll get crisp, cool days that are perfect for trekking.
If you’re thinking of heading to the hills in the next couple of months, you’ve probably checked out 14ers.com, the iconic website and information hub by seasoned hiker and skier Bill Middlebrook. But you may not have yet found the Next Summit, which Alex Derr founded as a personal blog in 2018 and rebranded into an educational resource in mid-2020 during the pandemic. Derr, who is originally from Wisconsin, moved to Colorado to study environmental policy and management at the University of Colorado Denver (he earned a Master of Public Administration degree from CU Denver and did his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison). Like so many of us, he got curious about fourteeners and attempted Mt. Bierstadt. “I was chased down by a storm,” Derr, now 29, says. “But I loved it.”
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Since then, while working a marketing job during the day, he’s continued to hike and climb throughout Colorado, evolving the Next Summit from a simple resource guide to a source of news, opinion, and education about the mountains. With fourteeners in the news lately, we sat down with Derr to better understand the Next Summit’s mission, the biggest mistake hikers make, how social media has changed our relationship with the outdoors, and more.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
5280: When, and why, did you start the Next Summit?
Alex Derr: The trigger was one day when I was coming down Longs Peak. I summited really early in the morning, and by the time I was back down to the boulder field you could literally see the dark cloud above the mountain. And I was watching these people conga-line up the mountain. I stopped one guy, because I naively thought I could convince him to turn around. I’ll never forget it, he said, “Oh, I’m fine. I have this hat.” It was like a big rainproof, wide-brim hat. And I thought, Just wait till your hair is standing on end, and then you’ll be like, “Oh, I get it.”
So was safety the impetus?
I was noticing that there are thousands of search-and-rescue missions in Colorado every year, and the focus is on going out and rescuing the people, right? And I was thinking, How do we prevent this? So that’s sort of where it gradually started to morph from a personal blog about outdoor stuff to realizing, wait, there’s sort of a gap in the market. I don’t intend to replace 14ers.com. There are plenty of great places to read about routes. I’m looking at some of the more peripheral things, like weather, what to wear, gear, that kind of stuff.
You have a day job, so is it safe to call the Next Summit a passion project?
Oh yeah, I have a full-time job in marketing, but my goal is to be able to do it full time, 100 percent.
Tell us about your audience.
Interestingly, the audience is overwhelmingly based in the United States, but they’re not overwhelmingly Colorado based. About 30 percent of our readers are from Colorado—more than any other state—but just a bit more than California. And I’m really glad to be reaching those people because if you live here, you’re probably going to know a bit more. But if you don’t, you might not really know that much about the place.
What are the biggest mistakes you see people making on Colorado fourteeners and thirteeners these days? Is it understanding the old cliché that there are no easy fourteeners?
That’s a good question, and there isn’t a lot of good public data about that. But the two biggest things I come across are lack of research and preparedness, in terms of researching the route, researching the weather, and knowing what the conditions may be. And then the second is packing properly. If you didn’t check the weather, maybe you didn’t bring a rain jacket. And then there’s a storm, and you’re sopping wet in 50-degree weather. People don’t think about how quickly it can go from being a really enjoyable hike to literally a life-threatening situation. You don’t have to fall off a cliff; you can just get wet and then the sun sets.
And then you get hypothermia.
Yes. Even so, people push back. They’ll say, “Yeah, but how many people die on fourteeners?” And what I say is, “OK, but how many people are rescued on them?” That’s a massive outlay of public resources that could have been going to purchasing more public lands or building new trails. Instead, search-and-rescue teams are going out after 3,600 people a year.
What’s your take on the social media/influencer thing as it relates to the mountains here? We’re seeing more and more people on the peaks—some of them hiking up in high heels—and posting about it.
Any search-and-rescue person would say, That’s a really, really bad idea. But, yeah, I mean, that’s influencer culture. It’s about creating envy, creating a desire to be doing something cooler, and I just think for so many reasons, that’s obviously problematic. Because the most important things—safety, Leave No Trace principles, packing right—are sort of the least “cool” parts of hiking and mountaineering. And that’s what I’m hoping to do with the Next Summit: not only tell people about these places, but also educate them.
You’ve done a ton of hiking and climbing in Colorado and some other parts of the United States. Do you have any ambitions to do any higher elevation mountaineering in the future?
Denali’s on my five-year goal list. And then I’d like to do some kind of Himalayan climb in 10 years. I don’t want to do Everest because it’s a zoo. And I don’t want to do K2 because I don’t want to die. Broad Peak comes up a lot. But, you know, it really gets me when I read Everest articles and people are learning to put on crampons at base camp. It makes me think, Gosh, I’m technically more qualified than them to be up there—and I am definitely not qualified.