Colorado’s 58 – Or Is It 54 – Fourteeners?

*Note: This audio essay first aired on KRCC (Colorado Springs’ NPR affiliate, 91.5 FM) on September 2, 2021. The link to the program is here; the audio file and the text from the essay are below.

“Fourteeners” is a weird word. 

If you think about it, 14 is just one of those numbers that doesn’t get a lot of interest or attention. Sweet 16. Turning 18. 21. Those are all a big deal, but nobody much minds fourteen. 

Except here in Colorado.

Because “Fourteeners” refers to our state’s 14,000-foot-high peaks, all falling in the Rockies that run from northern British Columbia all the way down through Colorado into New Mexico, a distance of roughly 3,000 miles. 

They’re our state’s backbone, and the Fourteeners are the biggest vertebrae. 

Jeri Nordgren’s book on the history of naming these peaks—titled “Colorado’s Highest”— says the U.S. Geological Survey claims there are 59 Fourteener peaks in Colorado. The ColoradoGeological Survey says there are 58. The Colorado Mountain Club lists 54. 

So why the discrepancy? 

Well, each group has slightly different criteria for what counts toward elevation, like the summit’s rise independent of another peak.

The first great American survey of Colorado’s lands was in 1873, by explorer and university professor Ferdinand Hayden, who coined the term “Front Range” on that expedition, which we still use everyday.

Of course, different groups have had different names for peaks too—the Arapaho called our Pikes Peak “the Long Peak,” the Tabeguache Utes called Pikes Peak “Tava,” meaning “Sun Mountain.” 

The Spanish had two names for Pikes Peak: “Montana del Sol” and “El Capitan.” 

Of the 58 Fourteeners on the Colorado Geological Survey list, the Fourteener titles fall in four distinct categories: 17 are descriptive words, seven are Spanish terms, five honor colleges, and 29 are personal names, including one Lt. Zebulon Pike, the namesake for our very own Fourteener here in the Pikes Peak region. 

Until our next mountainside chat—be good, be well, and no matter what, climb on.

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