Racking Up High Mountain Miles

T.R. Reid, Rocky Mountain bureau chief for The Washington Post, talks about climbing Colorado's "fourteeners." They're the mountains that stand at least 14,000 feet above sea level. Reaching their summit has become an obsession for some climbers, including Reid.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Colorado is home to 54 mountains standing at least 14,000 feet high. They're known affectionately as fourteeners and they're visited by a half-million climbers annually. Some of those climbers make it their business, even their obsession, to hike as many fourteeners as possible. T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief for The Washington Post. He's biked to the studios of Colorado Public Radio in Centennial.

T.R., good morning.

T.R. REID (The Washington Post): Hi, Renee. (breathes heavily)

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) OK. Catch your breath while I ask you this first question. Tell us about Colorado's fourteeners and the climbers who take them on.

REID: We are incredibly proud of our fourteeners. We've got two-thirds of all the 14,000-foot and higher mountains in the whole United States. Of course, we have a fourteener on our quarter, Long's Peak(ph). You've been to our beautiful airport in Denver; it has a whole bunch of white peaks in the roof. They represent our fourteeners. This is really what makes Colorado. We love them. And when you do get to the top, you absolutely see the beauty of our country. In fact, "America the Beautiful" was written on the top of one of our fourteeners by Katherine Lee Bates in the 1890s.

MONTAGNE: T.R., I think you've caught the fourteener fever.

REID: I've got it. Yeah. I've climbed a whole bunch of them.

MONTAGNE: How many of the fourteeners have you summited? And once you get to the top, why is it so wonderful, or is it just a game to sort of bag them all?

REID: I think I'm only up to 14 or 15. There's some dispute about the counting. You know, there are several where you can climb three in a day. You go up one, you go down the saddle to the next and down the saddle to the next. I, of course, count that as three. Would you count that as only one? I don't know. So there's some dispute about this.

The reason you do it is the solitude, the wildflowers, the sense of achievement, but mainly that incredible top-of-the-world view that you get up there. It's phenomenal. It's really true, you look west and you see purple mountains everywhere. You look east and you do see amber waves of grain all the way up to Kansas City.

MONTAGNE: I do gather that some climbers are turned off by this whole notion of what's called peak bagging.

REID: Yes. There's an organization called the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, and they're worried about this. For one thing, all the traffic really digs a trail into the mountain. And I hate to say it--I'm sure these are not Coloradans; they're probably tourists or something--but some people leave trash up there.

MONTAGNE: So how difficult are the trails, though? I mean, I do gather it's not just a piece of cake.

REID: That's a good question. To climb a fourteener is a strenuous, vigorous hike. When you get above two miles high, you feel it both in your legs and your lungs. And it gets hard above 12 or 13,000 feet.

MONTAGNE: We said earlier that climbers get obsessed with how many of the fourteeners they can climb. Are you fighting the crowds up there?

REID: You're losing the solitude; that's absolutely true. There are traffic jams on some of our fourteeners, particularly on weekends. It's a real pain. Fortunately, there's a solution to this problem. My fellow Colorado climbers will be angry for giving away the secret on national radio, but you go two miles down the road from the fourteener and you climb a 13,980-foot peak. It's exactly the same experience, the same wildflowers and there's nobody on it because it's not a fourteener. I was talking to the Forest Service superintendent. She said, `Hey, we got a couple out here that are 13,994, just climb them and jump the other six feet.'

MONTAGNE: T.R. Reid, when he's not climbing, is a regular here on MORNING EDITION and Rocky Mountain bureau chief for The Washington Post. Good to talk to you, T.R.

REID: It was great, Renee. Thanks.

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