FRISCO (AP) – This summer if you hike Quandary Peak south of Breckenridge or Grays and Torreys, the two Fourteeners just east of Summit County, an unblinking eye will be watching you.
Infrared sensors placed near the summits by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative counted thousands of people last summer.
The nonprofit that protects Colorado’s tallest peaks from environmental degradation is experimenting with a new way to discover how many people hike Colorado’s 54 mountains taller than 14,000 feet above sea level.
The information will help determine priorities for trail maintenance on the Fourteeners, said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the nonprofit, and the infrared sensors give more reliable counts than other methods, like trail registers or volunteer head counts.
“Our goal is to protect the resource, keep these areas open, make sure the ecological process is working well while still allowing people to have those great experiences in nature,” he said.
The organization spent about $15,000 on the project last year and placed five sensors on the routes to seven popular summits: Quandary, Grays and Torreys, Castle in the Elk Mountains near Aspen, Handies Redcloud and Sunshine in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride.
The organization’s researchers placed the traffic counters in high-alpine spots above trail junctions where they were sure most of the hikers who passed by would reach the summits.
To protect the sensors from curious animals and the elements, and to keep hikers from noticing them, the organization put the hand-held battery-powered sensors and their processors inside metal boxes with holes punched in them. Then they hid the contraptions inside large piles of rocks, called cairns.
The sensors were pointed toward the trails and installed at about waist height, so as not to count a pair of legs as two people.
The counters sense people based on the difference in temperature between a person’s body heat and the surroundings.
Athearn said the organization was surprised by some of the study’s findings.
“In all of the locations that we surveyed, the peak use came in July, declined in August and then declined again in September,” he said.
He expected most hikers would visit in late summer when the weather is more predictable and rainy monsoon season has ended.
Unsurprisingly, the counters recorded more hikers at the Fourteeners closer to Denver and Interstate 70, the Summit Daily News reported.
Last summer, Quandary and the combined summits of Grays and Torreys, usually hiked together, saw 18,000 to 20,000 “use days,” a term the organization uses to account for multiple trips made throughout the season by the same person.
The sensor on Quandary recorded three days with close to 500 people on the trail.
The most popular day was Friday, Aug. 8, when 491 people passed the counter, but Athearn thinks that date could be an error. He suspects the most used day was Saturday, Aug. 9, though fewer hikers were recorded, because Saturdays were the most popular days at every peak.
The other two most popular days at Quandary were Saturday, July 5, with 477 people and Saturday, July 12, with 474.
On the Grays and Torreys, the sensor recorded the most people Saturday, Aug. 2, with 690 people.
However, hikers chose a different route when the trail was flooded between June 28 and July 16, so they weren’t counted during some of the weekends with the most traffic on other peaks.
The weekend days with data showed roughly 380 to 400 people climbing Grays and Torreys, with Saturday numbers slightly higher than Sunday.
Athearn said numbers dropped off in the middle of the week at all the peaks, so hikers looking for more solitude on the Fourteeners can still find it on weekdays.
Weather sometimes disrupted the data collection when snow and rain blocked the sensors or obscured the trail so hikers didn’t pass them.
Most of the organization’s gaps in data, however, were caused by hikers who covered the sensors when they added rocks to the cairns.
“A school of thought among some Fourteener hikers is every time you pass a cairn you pick up a rock and place it on the cairn someplace,” Athearn said. “Some people think it’s good luck to do that.”
Then on Quandary, one or more hikers disassembled the cairn hiding the counter a couple of times.
Cairns can be somewhat controversial, Athearn said, and most outdoor enthusiasts and land managers believe they should be created only when appropriate for navigation.
“There are some people out there who think that some of these things are detracting from the naturalness of the peak,” he said.
The organization added its counters to existing navigational cairns or made them look as much like those cairns as possible.
The nonprofit is working to ensure every Fourteener has a built trail through at least the vegetated terrain and high-alpine tundra that will last for decades.
Athearn said the goal is to keep impact concentrated on the trail, but the difficult high-altitude manual labor takes time and money.
“About half the peaks now after 20 years of work have a sustainable route that’s been laid out and largely constructed,” he said. But “virtually all of the trails aren’t built to the standard we’d want to have them at.”
Until then, he said, it’s hard to say whether a peak is being damaged because too many people are hiking it or because its trail isn’t built properly.
As more people climb Fourteeners, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employees charged with managing them will consider enlarging infrastructure and reducing the number of people allowed to hike the peaks at certain times.
Limiting access would have ripple effects in the economies of local communities and the whole state, Athearn said. “Fourteeners are such iconic crown jewels of the state that they draw people in from other parts of the country.”
Reliable data could help mountain towns plan infrastructure and development.
This summer the organization plans to expand the study to include Mount Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado, and a couple of other Fourteeners. The counters will also be checked more often to prevent data gaps.