RMFI's Legacy in the Sangre de Cristos

RMFI's Legacy in the Sangre de Cristos

July 1, 2016 by Jennifer Peterson

As our season in the high country kicks into full gear, we thought we'd focus this week's blog on the history and legacy of RMFI's work in the Sangre de Cristos (Spanish for "Blood of Christ'). The Sangres are located in southern Colorado and extend into northern New Mexico; they are the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains. There are 9 peaks over 14,000 feet in the range. Since the early 1990's, RMFI (then known as the American Mountain Foundation) has been working in a variety of capacities to address recreational impacts on Colorado's high peaks, initially making improvements to summit trails in the Sahwatch Range, specifically on Mount Belford, La Plata Peak, and Mount Huron. In 1993 and 1998, RMFI completed studies on 52, 14'000 ft. peaks in Colorado. The studies found that 14'er routes were marked with erosion gullies, networks of user-created social trails, and large denuded areas. It was determined that the lack of single, sustainable summit trails was the principal cause.

Beginning in 1997, RMFI shifted its focus to the South Colony Lakes Basin in the Sangre de Cristos and the surrounding peaks (Humboldt Peak, Crestone Needle, and Crestone Peak) where RMFI completed some of the most difficult alpine restoration and trail work ever accomplished in the region. Over the course of several years, RMFI repaired the trails throughout South Colony Lakes Basin, constructed a trail to the summit of Crestone Needle, built a trail over Broken Hand Pass, and improved the trail into Cottonwood Lake Basin. RMFI also completed extensive restoration in conjunction with the trail work.

In 2011, RMFI began one of its most successful 14’er projects on Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point. The project focused on reducing and mitigating recreational impacts to the fragile alpine lands by constructing a safe, sustainable summit trail from Lake Como Basin to the summits of Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point.

RMFI's latest 14'er project is focused in Willow Lake Basin and the surrounding peaks of Kit Carson and Challenger Point. A defined route from Willow Lake to Kit Carson and Challenger Ridge has never been constructed or designated. With the lack of a defined route, people tend to take the most direct and/or obvious path with little regard for the sustainability of the route or the fragile ecosystem around them. Consequently, the current route is a network of user-created social trails, which is causing significant vegetation and soil loss. The increased use seen on Challenger Ridge and Kit Carson, like other 14'ers in the state, creates an immediate need for a thoughtful, sustainably planned route to provide an enjoyable user experience that minimizes environmental degradation in the very fragile alpine environment. RMFI began reconstructing the summit trail in 2014 and will have the project completed by 2020.

Since 2002, RMFI has been leading a backcountry field studies course in conjunction with its high alpine work in the Sangres. Earth Corps, is an award-winning, college-accredited program that provides motivated, environmentally conscious students the opportunity to live and learn in the incredible natural classroom of the Colorado wilderness. The program integrates key lessons in environmental studies with the completion of multiple critical environmental restoration projects. In 2016, students will be working on the Kit Carson project while learning from experts in alpine ecology, botany, wilderness management, and other pertinent topics. The program runs from July 11-August 9 - be on the lookout for updates from the field during this exciting program!

RMFI's extensive experience has positioned the organization to play a major role in the current statewide effort to construct sustainable climbing routes and restore badly damaged sites along 14'er summit corridors. In 2015, the Colorado Fourteener’s Initiative completed baseline inventories on 42 existing 14'er routes in Colorado. The report concluded that $24 million is needed in direct field-related costs to properly build out 14'er summit trails, including $18 million to build new trails and $6 million to bring existing planned trails up to ideal conditions. In addition, the report card rated routes on a scale from A to F (A being the highest, F being the lowest). RMFI's summit routes to Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point, Humbolt Peak, and Crestone Peak and Needle all rated extremely high; the Sangres, in fact, were the highest rated mountain range inventoried in the state.

Fourteener work in the state is critical as recreational use and external environmental impacts increasingly threaten the health and function of fragile alpine ecosystems. Coupled with these threats are declining budgets at the federal level to support this important work. RMFI is excited to announce a new initiative spearheaded by the National Forest Foundation, which will create dedicated funds for 14'er work in the state to tackle the backlog of trail and maintenance work needed along key summit routes. We'll continue to keep you posted on the developments, but we're excited about the possibilities and are looking forward to a highly productive field season in the Sangres!


Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point. 

Kit Carson Peak.