Do you know how many fourteeners there are in Colorado?

While that seems like an easy question, there isn’t an easy answer. The exact number likely lies between 52 and 74…likely.

There are 59 named points (according to the U.S. Geological Survey) in the state that reach an elevation of 14,000 feet or higher. With such a simple definition, it is easy to think this would be the figure most use.

But this is one of the least-used figures.

GALLERY: Colorado’s Most Beautiful 14ers!

Of the 59 named points, the summit most rarely found on fourteener lists is Sunlight Spire (not to be confused with neighbor Sunlight Peak). For decades, Sunlight Spire was believed to have an elevation of 13,995 feet. In recent years, though, the USGS updated the elevations of many peaks with more accurate measuring tools. Sunlight Spire is now officially 14,001 feet.

The peak lives up to its name as a vertical spire of rock with a single crack that allows only experienced climbers to stand upon the airy summit. Every other Colorado fourteener can be climbed via routes no more difficult than Class 4, which isn’t usually considered technical rock climbing. To include Sunlight Spire and its Class 5 rating on your list will make climbing the fourteeners a much more daunting challenge.

58 named summits

Sunlight Spire aside, even the list of 58 named summits rarely is used due to some peaks’ lack of topographic prominence.

Topographic prominence often is used to define the separation between individual mountains and mountains with sub-peaks. It measures how high a mountain rises above its highest connecting saddle to a higher mountain. A generally accepted rule in Colorado is that a point must have at least 300 feet of prominence to be considered a separate peak.

Take Mount Cameron, a peak with an elevation of 14,245 feet that sits near Mount Lincoln, which is at 14,293 feet. When hiking from Cameron to Lincoln, one must drop only 138 feet in elevation to reach the saddle where the trail begins ascending to Lincoln, meaning Cameron does not meet the rule of being its own summit.

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Gray's Peak - OutThere Colorado

So if the “300-foot rule” is used, how many fourteeners are in Colorado? Likely 53, but it could be 52.

Wait, what? How can there be two options?

The wild card is Challenger Point. No survey has been done to determine how high the summit rises from its connecting saddle to Kit Carson Peak. The USGS often surveys exact elevations of summits because those figures are useful in surveying surrounding areas. But it doesn’t put as much effort into pinpointing the elevation of saddles. In using the USGS topo maps, the saddle shows up between the contour lines of 13,800 feet and 13,760 feet. The summit is 14,087 feet, meaning the prominence is between 287 feet and 
327 feet, so Challenger might not meet the “300-foot rule.”

RELATED: The 14er With The Highest Fail

53 considered ‘official’

Including Challenger leaves 53 fourteeners, which is the most commonly accepted figure, mostly due to the popularity of 14ers.com, which lists 53 “official” fourteeners.

But don’t get too excited because we’re not done yet.

Before the Internet and the rise of 14ers.com, there was – and is – the Colorado Mountain Club. CMC was tracking who climbed all of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks before the term fourteeners was coined.

CMC’s official list of fourteeners has 54 peaks (though its list has changed several times over the years).

CMC takes a less hard-line approach and presents a list based partly on the “300-foot rule” and partly on mountaineering aesthetics. There are three differences between its list and the 300-foot prominence list. First, it doesn’t count Challenger, which wasn’t even named until 1986 and the space shuttle tragedy.

CMC also adds a pair of mountains based not on their prominence but more on their beauty and the challenge of reaching their summits. While most of the summits eliminated by the 300-foot rule are easy walks from their parent peaks, these two are not.

The first is El Diente, a sub-peak of Mount Wilson. Though it rises only 239 feet above the connecting saddle, the peak features four major challenges – the Narrows, the Coxcomb, the Organ Pipes and the Gendarmes.

The other is North Maroon Peak, a sub-peak of Maroon Peak. North Maroon is only four-tenths of a mile from Maroon and only has a prominence of 234 feet. Yet the trip takes most parties 
90 minutes to 3 hours with three Class 5 “steps” that must be surmounted, often with technical gear. These two peaks are worthy of anyone’s list.

GALLERY: Colorado’s Most Beautiful 14ers!

What about 74?

The 74 figure is derived from 15 additional unnamed peaks over 14,000 feet that appear on a list created by Gerry Roach, author of “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs.” While these don’t have names, they are prominent enough to show up on maps, meaning they have at least 40 feet of prominence. The list certainly isn’t complete as not every sub-peak above 14,000 feet is included. I have yet to find a comprehensive list but am certain the number would go over 100.

Conversely, there is the Alaskan rule of requiring 3,000 feet of prominence to be a unique peak, which would leave Colorado with only 10 fourteeners.

So my recommendation if someone asks about how many fourteeners are in Colorado? Just confidently say “50-something.”

GALLERY: Colorado’s Most Beautiful 14ers!

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