Mark James contemplates his great-great-great-great-great uncle, the renowned peak the man famously ascended and the little-known summit that instead took his name elsewhere on Colorado’s Front Range.
At 14,115 feet, Pikes Peak boasts a more “convoluted landscape,” James says. “All those boulder fields and arroyos and fall-offs and abysses.”
The well-traveled backpacker living near the Colorado-Wyoming border reacquainted himself with the peak this summer, in honor of Edwin James’ first recorded climb exactly 200 years ago. He and a small group of relatives found themselves in a hairy situation July 14, descending that bizarre ruggedness in a hailstorm.
“I guess if you look at his life as being constantly embattled and kind of tormented,” James says, “then Pikes Peak is more his personality.”
More than James Peak, the 13,294-foot nucleus of the namesake wilderness in this state’s central Rockies.
Mark James, 65, hiked the peak a couple of summers ago. He found it to be more like “a giant hill,” defined by “nice, rolling tundra” — in contrast to, say, the 14,000-foot jaggedness of Grays and Torreys peaks, named for Edwin James’ naturalist contemporaries, or Longs Peak, the fourteener christened for the military major who led the expedition that covered what we now know as America’s Mountain, and with whom James was often at odds.
For instance, the party’s physician, botanist and geologist did not appreciate the aggressiveness toward the buffalo. James journaled “it was with difficulty, we restrained our hunters from slaughtering many more than we needed.” He wished “that the wanton destruction of these valuable animals, by the white hunters, might be checked or prevented.”
Their plight was among his life’s laments. As were those of Indigenous people and slaves.
“Each and every endeavor to which James had devoted his life eventually came to naught,” reads a paper by Thomas Lammers of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
In a letter to John Torrey, it seems James came to terms with his place in the world. “It did not take me long to discover that it was not for me to make my mark upon the age ...”
But his mark is honored by James Peak Wilderness, the 17,000-plus acres of unspoiled, alpine splendor spanning Boulder, Gilpin and Clear Creek counties. Better known is the bordering Indian Peaks Wilderness.
So Edwin James was, by some accounts, the first to document a 14,000-foot summit in North America — in 1820, 10 years after Zebulon Montgomery Pike reported the mountain to be unreachable. So Edwin James was the first to identify much of the flora we know today in Colorado, including the state flower, the blue columbine. So academia looks to him as legendary, prophetic. It has never been Mark James’ goal for a more famous landmark to bear his ancestor’s name. Rather, it’s fair to think Edwin James would support ongoing efforts to restore native names.
“But it is a beautiful setting,” the distant nephew says of James Peak Wilderness. “I think he would approve.”
He would approve that this was the fate of the landscape. Conservationists feared another fate, says Ralph Swain, the U.S. Forest Service’s longtime regional wilderness and wild and scenic program manager.
Southwest of Boulder and stretching toward Winter Park, Rollins Pass represented capitalistic ambitions; John Rollins in 1866 gained approval for a toll, and plans for a railroad hatched. South of this, as concerned parties in the 1990s noted, was James Peak. The alpine rolled north to Rocky Mountain National Park and south to Berthoud Pass and Mount Evans Wilderness.
“And so people and conservation groups joined together and said, ‘This is the last remaining chunk between Rollins Pass and Berthoud Pass,’” Swain says. “’If we don’t get it protected now as wilderness, there might be a desire in the future to punch another road over the top to Winter Park or somewhere in there.’”
The declaration for James Peak Wilderness came in 2002. It’s one of Swain’s favorite places today.
“It’s very unique,” he says. “Having something so close to the Front Range where you can go through thick conifers and then break out above treeline to rocky crags and tundra and to the top of the peak. The view on a clear day looking west to Winter Park and east to the Front Range is very spectacular.”
But the proximity to the population center is problematic, Swain says. Volunteers with nonprofit Indian Peaks Wilderness Alliance lend a hand in the neighboring wilderness, spreading word of Leave No Trace ethics to the clearly unaware.
That trash would scatter, that the fragile tundra would be trampled, that ecosystems would be threatened, that fires would burn bigger and hotter due to manmade climate change, such as those that closed James Peak Wilderness and its surrounding national forests in an unprecedented move last week — it would all probably come as no surprise to Edwin James.
He regretted what he saw late in his life, settled in Iowa. “The locomotive engine and railroad car scour the plain in place of the wolf and curlew,” he wrote in a letter in which he also noted the spread of invasive species.
He “clearly connects the industrial revolution and westward expansion with the twin dislocation of native plants and Native Americans,” reads a 2010 article by Kyhl Lyndgaard in the University of Nebraska’s Great Plains Quarterly. “James’ lifelong insistence on racial equality is strikingly modern. His precise observations and concern for environmental and social justice never left him, even as his idealism was tested by his circumstances.”
James railed against Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, calling it “pregnant with injustice and cruelty.” He thought the same of slavery — “a sin against God,” as Fannie James Bissell wrote of her father’s feelings. His Iowa homestead was a refuge along the Underground Railroad.
During America’s recent months of racial reckoning, Mark James has found himself “free thinking” about his uncle: “I think in this present age, he’d still be pretty combative.”
And what would he find on his namesake peak? Mark James tried to capture that in photographs during his hike a couple of summers ago.
This has been part of the mission for a book he plans to release next year. “On Common Ground’’ will include pictures of Colorado’s natural beauty through the lens of a pinhole camera, emulating those pale, grainy tones of early surveying cameras.
It’s how Edwin might’ve viewed things, Mark James says, how he might’ve preferred. “In a timeless sort of manner.”