Monday, January 20, 2014

The Five Most Prominent Colorado Peaks

Mount Elbert in June
Mount Elbert is Colorado's most prominent peak
with 9,093 feet of topographical prominence
It seems obvious, but one of the most common debates in the mountaineering world is what exactly constitutes a mountain. It may be empirical, and it seems that you know a mountain when you see one, but when it comes to records and ticklists and media credit, there is a need to come up with a strict definition of the word. In Colorado, for example, there are several peaks whose status as either "official" (sometimes called being ranked) or "unofficial" is determined by topographical prominence.

So what is topographical prominence? Simply put it is the height of a given peak above its highest connecting saddle with a higher peak. In other words, if two peaks were connected via a ridgeline and saddle, if the lowest point on the saddle was at 13,800-feet and the lower peak was at 14,200-feet and the higher peak was at 14,400, the lower peak would have a topographical prominence of 400 feet. The prominence of the higher peak would depend on its connecting saddles or ridges with a higher peak.

In Colorado, mountaineering tradition has generally decided that in order to be "official" a peak must have at least 300 feet of topographical prominence. As Gerry Roach states in his famous guidebook Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, "There is nothing sacred about 300 feet. It is just a round number that seems to make sense in Colorado." In other parts of the country or world, different requirements have been adopted by local climbers. But this 300 foot mark in Colorado has drawn an arbitrary line in the sand whose rigid definition is not always accepted.

For example, North Maroon Peak, the closer and more apparent of the two Maroon Bells as seen from Maroon Lake, has only 234 feet of topographical prominence and is not considered "official" but is included in almost every list of 14er aficionados. On the other hand, North Massive, which has very close to 300 feet of prominence, is generally considered a sub-peak of Mount Massive and infrequently climbed by Colorado peak baggers.

So what are Colorado's most topographical peaks? The following is the list of Colorado's five winners:

1. Mount Elbert (summit elev.= 14,433 feet; topographical prominence= 9,093 feet)
No surprise here, you have to go all the way to the Sierra Nevadas in California to reach higher ground than Elbert. As a result Elbert stands above all the others in this category.

2. Pikes Peak (summit elev.= 14,110 feet; topographical prominence= 5,530 feet)
It was once proclaimed that Pikes was the highest peak in the state. And though surveys later showed there were actually 29 peaks whose summits were higher, it is easy why early Colorado climbers saw this massive singular peak and estimated it to be the state's ruling monarch. Pikes sits alone, far away from other 14,000 foot mountains. And from the east especially, it looks like a very large mountain. And it is. Therefore it is not shocking that Pikes is second on this list.

Crestone Peak
Crestone Peak, Colorado's fifth most prominent
3. Blanca Peak (summit elev.= 14,345 feet; topographical prominence= 5,326 feet)
As the queen of the Sangre De Cristo Range, a range known for rugged and prominent peaks, it is again no surprise to find gigantic Blanca at the number three spot on this list.

4. Culebra Peak (summit elev.= 14,047 feet; topographical prominence= 4,827 feet)
Perhaps the most anomalous peak on the list, frustrating Culebra of the Sangre De Cristo Range lands at number four. Culebra is Colorado's southernmost fourteener and one of the only of the state's highest peaks whose summit is on private property. Though it is legal to climb Culebra, you must pay a hefty entrance fee. As a result of its isolation, even at a paltry 14,047 feet Culebra finds itself in the elite class in terms of prominence.

5. Crestone Peak (summit elev.= 14,294 feet; topographical prominence= 4,554 feet)
As mentioned before, the Sangres are a range known for steep ramparts that leap from the lower valley that surround them. Therefore the fact that three of the five most prominent peaks in the state reside in this range is logical. When any climber looks on Crestone Peak, he doesn't need any number to know that it is a singular and majestic peak. But this anchor for the heart of the Sangre De Cristo Range deserves a spot on this list and on every Colorado climber's ticklist.

Honorable Mention:

6. Uncompahgre Peak (summit elev.= 14,309 feet; topographical prominence= 4,242 feet)
7. Mount Wilson (summit elev.= 14,246 feet; topographical prominence= 4,024 feet)

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