Episode III:  Sawatch - Roof of the Rockies  March 30, 2008
  Bob Leverett
    What follows is episode III of my favorite places series. In this episode, I've taken a detour into Colorado. I'll resume the Wyoming journey in episode IV.
    Monica has volunteered to read and correct these episodes before they are sent out and with good reason. My aging brain takes frequent trips south these days while writing and I don't discover the errors in time to correct them (e.g. "at stake" meant instead of "at steak" written - Oh Boy.). So, I want to publicly acknowledge the important contribution of my dear wife.

Sawatch - Roof of the Rockies


Roof of the Rockies - an Elevation Profile


            Colorado is a land of rolling plains, long mesas, high arid valleys, and most of all, shining mountains. Colorado is quintessentially Rocky Mountain country. The Rockies reach culminating elevations in the Centennial State where a complex lattice of named ranges speak to the mountain building epochs that have shaped and reshaped the area beginning around 65 million years ago, and much more recently in the volcanically molded region of the San Juan Range in southwestern Colorado. For the uninitiated, it is difficult to grasp the extent of Colorado 's high coun try. The network of trans-mountain roads opens up a vast land of sculpted, colorful rock formations that unfold against a backdrop of snowcapped summits. The state occupies 104,000 square miles and at least half is mountain, plateau, and canyon country. Complementing the roads is an extensive network of high country trails that lead to hundreds of sparkling glacial lakes and alpine meadows. Colorado 's high country provides us with an abundance of geological puzzles that challenge the best geologists, those stalwart decoders of Earth history.

            Among serious mountain lovers, Colorado is more than just another region of pretty, postcard-quality mountain scenery. More specifically, Colorado is famous with climbers and hikers for the number of peaks that exceed a particular altitude threshold, the magic elevation of 14,000 feet. Peaks that attain this altitude are called fourteeners by a group of determined souls called peak baggers. By one counting, the number of fourteeners is 53 and by another compilation, it is 54. That is pretty close agreement for most of us, but a difference of even one peak is sufficient to fuel impassioned arguments about what should qualify as a separate mountain and whether a named summit that once had the status of a fourteener should be removed from the lists of peaks. By the way, the same argument occurs in the southern Appalachians with respect to the 6,000-footers.

            Colorado 's fourteeners are scattered over a vast area. Some peaks are well known and others known only to the mountain faithful. Famous mountains like Pikes Peak which inspired " America the Beautiful" have wide public recognition. Pikes Peak was once thought to be the highest summit in Colorado . Visually striking summits like Mount Evans and Longs Peak in the Front Range are visible to millions of visitors to the Denver area. Those ever-colorful Maroon Bells in the Elk Ran ge are also well known. They owe their popularity to modern photography. They are a subject for numerous photographers. Then there is Aspen Colorado , playground for the rich.

            But, there is infinitely more to the Colorado mountain landscape and for the statistically inclined, a veritable scenic and climbing feast awaits the high peaks enthusiast. In the center of this vast region of mountains, a range of the Rockies stands above all others in one important attribute - elevation. The Sawatch Range of the Rockies rises dramatically above the Arkansas River valley. Colorful mining towns like Salida and Buena Vista to the south and Leadville to the north are the principal inhabited gateways to the Sawatch region. The continental divide runs the length of the Sawatch.

            As mountain ranges go, the Sawatch does not cover a huge territory. It runs for a relatively short distance, between 80 and 90 miles. What the Sawatch surrenders in latitude, it compensates for in elevation. It is the altitudinal culmination of the entire Rocky Mountain chain in North America . Sky-piercing summits of the range line up like sentinels standing vigilant watch over the valley regions below. Mount Shavano , with its graceful snow angel, at the southern end of the range, presents soothing contours to travelers on route U.S. 24, while Mount of the Holy Cross , a religious symbol in times past, ancho rs the northern end of the range. Altogether 15 named peaks of the Sawatch top 14,000 feet in elevation and it is this statistic that distinguishes these mountains from not only the other Colorado mountain ranges, but all mountain ranges in the Continental United States.

            To fully appreciate the dominating height of the Sawatch, some comparisons are necessary. By the rules applied to distinguish a separate mountain peak (300 feet of prominence from a neighboring higher summit), the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains of California have 11 summits that exceed 14,000 feet. Besides these, Mount Shasta in the northern California Cascades also enjoys the status of a "fourteener". For the present, the total for California stands at 12. Outside California , but within the continental U.S., Washington State is the only other state with peaks over 14,000 feet. Mount Rainier, which many regard as the most impressive single mountain in the continental United States , is the colossus of the Cascade volcanoes.  Liberty Bell, also a fourteener, is a subordinate summit of Rainier , but still qualifies under the rules as a separate peak. Washington State registers a count of 2, bringing the total outside of Colorado , within the continental U.S., to 14 fourteeners - an easy number to remember. However, that number is one less than the number of fourteeners in the Sawatch. Outside the continental U.S., Alaska has 21 fourteeners albeit by a stricter rule of selection (500 feet of prominence). Canada has 15 fourteeners and Mexico has 8. I rest my case for the Sawatch's altitude dominance.

            Elsewhere in Colorado , only the San Juans in the southwestern corner of the state approach the Sawatch in height. The scenic San  Juan Mountains boast 13 peaks that achieve the status of fourteener, with Uncompahgre the tallest at 14,321 feet (14,309 on the 1929 Datum) . However, the San Juan Range covers a much larger geographical area, occupying 10,000 square miles. By contrast, the Sawatch present their 15 fourteeners within a modest area of 1,800 square miles.

            Before further lauding the Sawatch, I should point out that Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada is the highest single peak in the continental U.S.   Its latest elevation based on a conversion from the National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929 to the North American Vertical Datum of 1988 is 14,505 feet. Under the former, its elevation is listed as 14,494 feet. Some maps show 14,495. Within North America, Mount Whitney must bow to a number of great Alaskan, Canadian, and Mexican peaks. There is a hierarchy here, but Whitney is solidly number one in the continental U.S.. Where does that leave the Sawatch? Well, Mount Elbert in the Sawatch is number two and the highest point in the entire Rocky Mountain chain. At 14,440 feet, it is only 65 feet lower than Whitney, but be it by one inch, one foot, or a thousand, coming in second often relegates the holder to a second-class, also-ran status. Third place is anchored by Mount Massive at 14,428, and fourth by Mount Harvard at 14,427.

            Given the altitude prominence of the Sawatch as revealed through the above statistics, except among mountain aficianados, in my humble opinion, the Sawatch Range is shortchanged by the numerically illiterate masses. Other ranges in Colorado and elsewhere within the continental U.S. are promoted for their ruggedness, prominent glaciers, remoteness, magnificent forests, or overall scenic beauty. Who could deny the spellbinding loveliness of the Olympic Range of Washington State? The Grand Tetons of Wyoming draw our attention to their dramatic abruptness. Glacier National Park is featured on more than its fair share of calendars. But where are the Sawatch? Within Colorado, the color-stratified Maroon Bells in the Colorado's Elk Range and Dream Lake in the Front Range are favorite subjects for the photographer's lens, and the Mount Sneffels region of the San Juans is often referred to as the Alps of America, but the Sawatch seldom show up as the mountain subjects on the covers of magazines. I admit to having a number of fine Sawatch photographs that have been imprinted onto dinner placemats, but that does not count. The problem for photographers is that contours of the major Sawatch peaks are a little too gentle to attract the photographer looking for dramatic relief.   

            If there is a lack of public attention given the range today, this appears not always to have been the case. In an earlier era, the Sawatch received concentrated visitation from Ivy League school climbers. Keen climbing competition gave rise to the name Collegiate Peaks , which includes the summits of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford , and Columbia . Mount Harvard vies with Mount Massive for distinction as the second highest summit of the Rockies . At 14,427 feet, Harvard falls shy of Massive by a single foot. I'm unsure if the accuracy of the measuring process is sufficient to resolve the true altitude to a single foot.

            In the past, even more significant to the public was the Mount of the Holy Cross . At 14,009 feet, the peak is the northern most of the Sawatch's fourteeners. Its elevation was originally listed as 13,996 feet and then more recently began appearing as 14,405. The latest altitude reflects the shift to a new datum, as will shortly be explained. Mount of the Holy Cross receives its distinction from two dramatic snowfields aligned in the shape of a cross. The sacred symbol called to the religious in a more pious time, and people made pilgrimages to the mountain. There once was a national monument at Mount of the Holy Cross, but today, in a public context, Mount of the Holy Cross has been largely forgotten. Perhaps Holy Cross's salvation fro m permanent obscurity is Thomas Moran's famous 1874 painting of the peak that won a medal at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Reproductions of this painting are commonly encountered in museums.  

            Given that the Sawatch is the highest part of the Rocky Mountain chain, how can we describe this national treasure to focus attention on its superlative elevational status? One way is to publicize the individual fourteeners. A second is to capture the superlatives that characterize the range as a whole. Let us begin by meeting the Sawatch's 15 fourteeners. Elevations in the following table are given for both NAVD 1988 and NGVD 1929. Most elevations the reader will likely encounter in publications are the older NGVD 1929 determinations.


Sawatch Fourteeners




New Elevation

Old Elevation




Mt Elbert



Mt Massive



Mt Harvard



La Plata Peak



Mount Antero



Mount Shavano



Mount Princeton



Mount Belford



Mount Yale



Tabeguache Mountain



Mount Oxford



Mount Columbia



Missouri Mountain



Huron Peak



Mount of the Holy Cross





            Although Mount Elbert is the highest point in the Sawatch, Mount Massive boasts five individual summits over 14,000 feet. Over two miles of ridgeline on Massive stay continuously over 14,000. Massive earns its name. However, the name Massive has a story behind it. A number of years ago there was a movement to change the name Mount Massive to Mount Churchill . The ill-conceived move nearly caused an insurrection around Leadville. Local folks liked the name Massive, and at the end of the tussle, the name Massive remained.

            It is only fair to point out that height alone does not make a mountain impressive. A mountain is far more imposing if it: (1) rises abruptly above its immediate base, (2) has no intervening foot hills, (3) possesses a distinct timberline, and (4) either rises to a pinnacle or at least exhibits precipitous terrain. The absence of trees at the summit has a strong visual impact in favor of the perception of great height, particularly when snow covers exposed regions. Rock faces add significantly to the impressiveness of a mountain as do sharp tops, such as that possessed by that magnificent Wyoming peak, the Grand Teton .

            Relative to many other ranges of the Rockies , the peaks of the Sawatch do not score high on criteria (1) and (2). Still, they are impressive. Mount Elbert rises 5,236 feet above Twin Lakes in a 4-mile horizontal distance. In the last mile of descent, the elevation on Parry Peak of Elbert's south flank drops a full 3,400 feet. This level of steepness catches the discerning eye. Farther south, Mount Shavano rises to around 6,500 feet above the lowlands to the east along the Arkansas River , and in one place, the rise approaches 7,000 feet. In my determinations, Pikes Peak has a greater elevation change  starting at Manitou Springs than any of the peaks of the Sawatch.   The same is true of Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range as measured from the San Luis Valley . There may be others, but  Shavano is in the top five or six peaks for elevation change. Still, what do these statistics really mean? We are looking for a way to capture impressiveness from steepness. But measuring the overall steepness of mountains is harder than might be suspected, since each side of a mountain present s a different face. Additionally, as the eye follows the contours downward, the terrain may be precipitous in places, yet gentle in overall profile. Large glacial cirques with near vertical head walls can present spectacular views, especially up close, but from a distance, as the eye scans downward from the steepest part of faces, an otherwise impressive mountain may fade into degrading flatness, leaving a feeling of being cheated. On the other hand, a mountain that maintains steepness over a relatively long distance usually presents an imposing, if not aesthetically pleasing appearance, as though the mountain were behaving properly - like a mountain, as opposed to a hill.

            With viewers regarding different characteristics as most important, alternative systems to quantify a mountain's steepness and impressiveness have evolved and have become highly sophisticated with the advent of peak bagging brought to the Internet. In sublime ignorance, I developed my own simple system in the late 1980s. Though it falls far short of the sophistication of the concepts of prominence and spire, I will nonetheless, present it as a hopefully useful introduction of the subject.

            First, the prominent summits of a mountain are identified and the drops measured at 1-mile intervals. Each transect down the peak is continued until the base is reached. However, identifying the base requires some judgment especially in cases where the gradient near the bottom becomes increasingly gentle, but nonetheless continues dropping. Settling on the point or points to locate the lowest region of a mountain's base can be arbitrary and subject to preferential treatment. Comparing the base to summit rise of Mount Washington in New Hampshire versus Mount Leconte in Tennessee is a case in point.

            After all summit-to-base transects are plotted, an average is obtained for them expressed in the drop (or rise) in feet per mile. The average serves as an aggregate measure of steepness. Concurrently, the individually longest summit-to-base drop for the mountain is pinpointed. However, the course should not exceed, say, 10 miles as the crow flies, and must present an unobstructed view from some vantage point such as the side of an adjacent mountain. This second statistic is reported both as a total drop and as an average drop in feet per mile. Finally, the individually steepest portions of the mountain are located and measured over 1/4 mile, 1/2 mile, and 1 mile courses.

            I settled on these three metrics to portray the steepness of a mountain. The composite picture obtained from the three is more important than what is conveyed by any single statistic. A major peak, which builds to its summit by adding elevation through a succession of smaller ridges will not provide an unbroken view to the eye from up close. It can appear like a series of separate mountains. However, when viewed from a distance, the smaller ridges may blend in against the backdrop or profile of the whole mountain complex. There are then short and long range views. Measuring such terrain across a straight course will likely yield reversals in altitude as some measurements fall in ravines while others hit the tops of ridges. The average drop of the course on a per mile basis might be modest as horizontal distance accrues across the fo othills, but the overall drop and visual impact could improve from a more distant base and be markedly enhanced by rock faces. My conclusion was that capturing this kind of terrain complexity requires both short and long course measurements such as the simple ones proposed above.

            In the late 1980s, I did a detailed analysis of Mount Elbert, Mount Massive, and Mount Harvard more as an exercise in seeing what the above method would provide. I'll spare readers of the deluge of statistics that the exercise yielded and settle on a summary of Elbert as presented in the following table.



Value in feet

Distance in miles



Average drop per mile










Longest base to summit drops:              (1)



Arkansas River




Parry peak






Steepest mile drop



Parry Peak






Steepest Half Mile drops



Off North point - NW




Off Summit NW






Steepest Qtr miles



Off Parry Peak




Off South Elbert


Beyond Elevation


            I would be remiss if I portrayed the Sawatch Range as significant only because of its elevation and overall massiveness. The range has many charms and interesting features to draw visitors. For example, atop 14,276-foot Mount Antero , named for a chief of the Uintah branch of the Utes, one can hunt for a variety of semiprecious gemstones. Beautiful, completely formed aquamarine, topaz, and smoky quartz crystals from Antero are highly prized in rock collecting circles.  Silver was the initial attraction of the mountain, but later its gemstones became the focus of attention. So prized is Antero as a mineral haven, that the Colorado Mineralogocial Society created in Mount Antero Mineral Park atop the peak in 1949. Beryllium has been mined on the mountain in recent years.

            As one might expect, the mining history of the region has fostered tales of riches gained and riches lost. Mount Princeton is associated with a legend about Indian treasure that was stolen by a party of Spaniards from New Mexico on a raid of an Indian village. The Spaniards were later intercepted by the Indians and killed. The treasure has remained lost and the subject of numerous treasure hunts.

            One of the most enticing legends about the Sawatch is the legend of the Snow Angle of Shavano. According to the legend, a severe drought was causing the Indians of the area to have to leave. As a final resort, an Indian princess knelt at the foot of Mount Shavano and prayed from rain. Before the Indian God to whom she prayed would help, a sacrifice was demanded. The princess would have to sacrifice herself for her people. She consented and gave herself as a sacrifice. Every year thereafter, the princess appears on Shavano as a snow angel - the Angel of Shavano. The Angel weeps for her people and the tears flow in the form of melted snow, symbolizing her sacrifice and providing the moisture needed to nourish the land bel ow.


Transcendental Viewing of the Sawatch


            For several years running in the 1980s, I took Jani and our two children to a spot in the Arkansas River Valley in the presence of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive . In each of those three years, the family stayed at a ski lodge named Pan Arc, which was unobtrusive yet spacious and had reasonable summertime rates. I don't know if Pan Arc Lodge still stands, but as I recall, the Lodge is located just off U.S. 24 about 10 or 12 miles south of Leadville. In the vicinity of Pan Arc, the Denver and Rio Grand Railroad and the Arkansas River parallel U.S. 24.

            To the east of the Arkansas River rises the solitary Mosquito Range , a lofty but rather nondescript area of the Rockies . High point of the Mosquitoes is Mount Lincoln , which is 14,293 feet (14,286 on the old survey). By the peak naming rules previously explained, the Mosquitoes have four legitimate fourteeners, none of which excite technical climbers, but nonetheless provide a wealth of backcountry exploring. From the Pan Arc Lodge, we could walk, cross the railroad and Arkansas River on a small road, and then head up into the mountains via gentle foothills. My son Rob located a number of areas just above the river where Ute Indians had fashioned stone tools - arrowheads, knives, spear points, and scrapers. But regrettably for us, over the years, the area had been scoured by artifact hunters. All that remained for us were chipping flakes, easily recognizable to the keen eye of my son Rob.

            Vegetation to include Juniper and Ponderosa Pine was scattered over the lower slopes. The dispersal of the trees afforded us with many excellent views of the towering Sawatch to the west. One feature of the area I did not like was the numerous mining claims that pock-marked the San Isabel National Forest Service land. Each claim was identified with a pair of cross-fashioned stakes with a small wooden sign recording the name and address of the claim holder. The whole process is a holdover from our archaic mining laws. Nonetheless, I managed to tune out my displeasure and explore the rolling foothills always keeping an eye on the mighty Sawatch to the west.

            From the front of Pan Arc lodge, one could gaze across the open, sage brush-spectacled country to the jumbled foothills of the Sawatch. Nothing intervened to divert attention. One's gaze was drawn into those shining mountains. Midway up into the foothills of the Sawatch the vegetation changes from open country to a covering of small trees. As additional elevation is gained, trees achieve greater size. It is a mix of aspen and several conifers including Ponderosa Pine, Englemann Spruce, and Douglas Fir. Larger trees occur in a band between 500 and 1,000 vertical feet. Thereafter tree size begins to diminish until alpine tundra is reached at between 11,000 and 11,500 feet, which presents one with an enchanting view of the remaining snowfields that follow to the 14,000-foot crests. This region of the Sawatch's foothills and high peaks presents the eye with a continuous panoramic feast of glistening, snowcapped summits. Scanning north to south, one can survey the complex massif of Mount Massive, followed by Mount Elbert, South Elbert, Parry Peak , Twin Peaks, Mount Hope , and Quail Mountain . A small area of rugged La Plata Peak is barely visible on the southern horizon.  

            I recall one stay at Pan Arc when my daughter and I stood in front of the lodge, leaning on our car and gazing for what seemed an hour at the scene that unfolded before us. The sun was reflecting off the snowfields on Mount Elbert and Mount Massive . Fleecy clouds rode above those great peaks, giving way to an azure sky. The sun danced on the fields of snow. Surely, this was country designed with approval of the Almighty. At the time, my daughter was recovering from a severe allergic condition that had caused her no end of discomfort, so we could not climb together on that trip. We were content to stand and gaze, transfixed by the interplay of sun and shadow on the snowfields. The scene was mesmerizing and confirmed for both of us why we loved mountains.

            On another trip, Celeste, Rob, and myself set out to climb Mount Elbert , but got too late a start. We climbed to just under 13,000 feet before turning back. One should not get caught in the summer on those high summits in the afternoon. Lightning storms arise suddenly and are ferocious. They can be deadly and we weren't in a risk-taking state of mind. On another occasion, Celeste and I climbed high on the side of South Elbert to an old area of mining. I am always surprised at how high up in the mountains mining took place. At about 13,200 feet altitude, I found myself feeling dizzy and so we cut the trek short. On the South Elbert climb, my daughter was in the better shape of the two of us. I was accustomed to being the one to push on, exhorting the children to follow, but something told me to stop and turn back, that to push on would be dangerous. I now realize that I was becoming dehydrated and was close to heat exhaustion. Although the air temperature was cool, the direct rays of the sun on my bare head in combination with loss of fluids had created a situation rife for a case of heat exhaustion. Coming from the humid East, I had not given myself sufficient time to acclimate to the high, dry climate. I certainly had not drunk enough liquids. Dehydration was a lesson that I had to eventually learn the hard way with a severe case of heat exhaustion that laid me low for a couple of weeks.

            When thinking nostalgically of the Sawatch, a number of images take form in my mind. I close my eyes and see the Pan Arc Lodge and in the distance, the long line of great peaks. I recall the drive south on U.S. 24 bypassing the great uplift of Mount Princeton, and will never forget my first sight of a snow formation in a series of rock crevices on the side of Mount Shavano .  The snow lays in the crevices in such a way as to suggest an angelic appearance. The formation was long ago given the name "snow angel". What a sight! I also think of the Inn of the Black Wolf set at the base of Independence Pass. In the 1980s, the matron of the Inn , an attractive, slightly stocky woman of Cherokee ancestry named Taylor Adams raised Tundra Wolves as a pastime. A large pen in the back of the Inn had a number of imposing specimens. When well fed, male tundra wolves can become very large animals weighting 120 lbs and more. One wolf she had, named Big Huey, weighed 170 lbs. His head was enormous. She would take her wolves for romps in the snow in the high country.

            According to a story written about Adams , at a relatively young age, she had a calling to protect the black tundra wolves from sure extinction at the hands of hunters. She lived in Alaska for a period, but later returned to the Continental U.S. At the Inn , she had a couple of the black wolves mixed in with the more normal gray-to-tawny coloring. Our family stopped at the Inn for lunch a couple of times. On one occasion, Taylor was sitting at the bar and she struck up a conversation with us. At first, Taylor eyed me suspiciously, wanting to know if I was one of those "damned Texans". She had picked up on my accent. However, when I explained that it was the residue of my Tennessee drawl that she was hearing, she softened up on me. She definitely did not like the Texas swagger and was vocal about it. In the summer, she got a lot of Texans as customers. I wondered how she could retain them as customers with such a negative opinion of them.             

            My desire now is to share my many memorable Colorado haunts with my wife Monica. I am hoping that her love of solitude, rushing waters, fields and forests, wildflowers, and colorful rock formations will make Colorado an important experience for her, as it has been for me.     


== 2 of 3 ==
Date: Mon, Mar 31 2008 9:49 am
From: Larry

Bob, Spectacular writing! So detailed, I wish I could write like that.
When I return to Colorado this fall, I will pay closer attention to
detail. In part due to your descriptive writings. I'll get lots of
photos! I rode the Cog up Pikes Pike in 2000, what an experience.
Manitou Springs is such a cool town. 


== 3 of 3 ==
Date: Mon, Mar 31 2008 11:30 am
From: dbhguru@comcast.net


Thanks. Yes, I agree, Manitou Springs is a cool town. There are so many great places in the West. I find myself straining to find just the right words to convey the feelings I get when I'm in a land that has been impacted but not yet destroyed by the heavy human hand of exploitation. The next couple of generations will see big changes in the West, but today we still can roam over vast areas that have that ambience of a western landscape - simply unlike any other place on Earth.