Peak(s):  Rito Alto Pk  -  13,794 feet
Date Posted:  09/06/2014
Date Climbed:   06/12/2014
Author:  gore galore
 The Almost 14,000 Footers of 1957  

Rito Alto Peak, 13,794
by gore galore

The year was 1957.

The Russians launched Sputnik, the Brooklyn Dodgers were on the verge of moving to Los Angeles, I was thinking about growing up cool wearing white sox and penny loafers and Bill and Eva Rathbun wrote an article about the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the pages of the Colorado Mountain Club's magazine "Trail and Timberline."

I came across the Rathbun's article some twenty years later when I was just learning about the Colorado mountains and then about a year ago I reread the article which gave me an idea for a trip to the Sangre de Cristos. But first there are some observations about climbing 14,000 foot peaks in the 1950's.

THE 1950's
If you were climbing 14,000 foot peaks during that decade, they were called just that or a derivative such as 14,000 footers or 14,000ers or 14,000's or sometimes fourteens or in California's Sierra Nevada as fourteen thousanders. The word Fourteener had not yet come into play.

An article in "The Geographical Journal" of April 2002 attributes the first mention in print of the word "Fourteener" was in 1967, in an article in "Summit" magazine on the location of the world's 14,000-foot peaks with the notation of: "The Cult of the Fourteener reaches its apex in Colorado where fifty-three altars await the worshipper."

But current research by myself traces the word "Fourteener" much further back in time to a 1952 publication and then to an obscure magazine article in 1945. It would take many years before the "Fourteener" word became mainstream most probably beginning with the publication in 1970 of the book "The Fourteeners: Colorado's Great Mountains" by Perry Eberhart and Philip Schmuck and certainly by 1977 with the publication of the book "The Majestic Fourteeners . . . Colorado's Highest" by Denver Post photographer George Crouter.

Those who finished climbing the 14,000 foot peaks by the mid 1950's became members of the exclusive and mythical "Club 52." It was loosely formed during the champagne celebration for Evelyn Runnette's completion of Uncompahgre Peak in 1947 as the twenty first person to climb all fifty-two of Colorado's 14,000 foot peaks.

But by the time Alex Carson of the CMC became the 52nd person to join "Club 52" in 1955 the United States Geological Survey determined Missouri Mountain as the 53rd 14,000 foot peak. Huron Peak would become a new 14,000 foot peak in 1956. The "Club 52" title eventually went out of use and its exclusiveness became obsolete as more and more people in the coming years and decades would climb all the 14,000 foot peaks.

It would be at the end of the decade in 1959 that Cleve McCarty climbed the 54 14,000-foot peaks in 54 days. Prior to McCarty, Carl Melzer and his nine-year-old son Bob had climbed all 51 in sixty-five days in 1937.

If you were climbing the 14,000 foot peaks in the Sangre de Cristos in the 1950's there were only eight: Culebra Peak, Sierra Blanca, Little Bear, Mount Lindsey (Old Baldy), Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Kit Carson Mountain and Humboldt Peak. Ellingwood Peak would come later in 1970 and Challenger Point in 1987.

The guide book in use to the Sangre de Cristo Range was the Robert Ormes "Guide to the Colorado Mountains," fifth-revised edition, 1955. It contained brief route descriptions to only eight peaks in the entire range being those of the 14,000 foot peaks.

The range was yet to be adequately surveyed and mapped. The Crestones and peaks north were covered only by Forest Service maps for general use and omitted several 12,000 and 13,000 foot peaks.

In 1956 a new survey was started by the U. S. G. S. and the anticipation was high from reading the Rathbun's article that new 14,000 foot peaks would be found among the higher unsurveyed peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. One of the peaks was Eureka Mountain, a popular peak being around the 14,000-foot mark according to the Rathbuns. They thought it just a shade higher than the next peak north, an unnamed (Rito Alto or Horseshoe) portion of Spread Eagle.

It was thought that both Eureka and Unnamed were slightly lower than Mt. Adams. "After photographing these three peaks from all sides, we feel that when they are surveyed, some will surely break the 14,000-foot mark."

In 1959 Bill Arnold, a noted climber of the time led a Colorado Mountain Club trip to the unnamed portion of Spread Eagle and reported that both Eureka and Unnamed as described by Bill and Eva Rathbun in their 1957 article "as being unsurveyed but very near 14,000 feet."

MY 2014 TRIP
In 2014 I decide to take a look at what the Rathbun's were photographing and describing in 1957. Mount Adams would seem plausible as a 14,000 foot peak from looking at the skyline but how did they figure Rito Alto and Eureka? I decide to climb Rito Alto knowing nothing about the peak except it is the higher of the two.

I have to say that I am quite partial to the mountains of northwestern Colorado where within about a two-hour drive there are enough mountains and routes to climb to last a lifetime. I know that Villa Grove in the San Luis Valley might be more than a two hour drive across two mountain passes with the Rito Alto trail head another hour on suspect roads.

With this in mind I begin planning my trip as something on the order of a far away trip say to a South American country. In this manner I clear my calendar months in advance for the time I will be gone, I update my tetanus vaccination with a booster shot, put my papers and affairs in order, change the oil in my car and as the day of departure draws near I call the local 911 operator as to the whereabouts of my trip.

I begin in anticipation as I motor out to the Interstate and through Tenmile Canyon and then up and over Fremont Pass and down into Leadville and then along the Arkansas River where the smoothness of the trip takes a sudden turn for the worse when I pull into the parking lot of the local roadside visitor center.

These centers are geared to the RV and auto touring crowd and I should have prepared myself in advance and known better than to walk in and ask where I might buy topographic maps specifically the Rito Alto Peak quad.

"Well we have these here," the well-intentioned volunteer replies as he begins leafing through the large regional laminated maps of many hundreds or even thousands of square miles on the desk before him.

"I don't think those are what I'm looking for," I inform him. "I need a place that sells topographic maps."

"Have you tried the bait and tackle store in town?" he suggests to me. "Thanks for the advice," I reply, "but I don't think it's worth the effort."

"Then let me call the outdoor shop for help," he says as he takes his phone from his pocket. "What's the name of that map again?" he asks as he dials the number.

"Rito Alto Peak," I tell him as he speaks to the clerk on the other end of the phone. He hands me the phone as the clerk wants me to spell the name. "R-I-T-O A-L-T-O P-E-A-K T-O-P-O-G-R-A-P-H-I-C M-A-P" I spell into the phone.

"Where's that at?" the clerk asks me. "It's in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado," I answer. I feel more like saying, "take a look out your window." "Oh," the clerk responds, "I'll look for it and get back with you."

Time is ticking and I want to leave as I give the phone back to the well-meaning volunteer whom I now detect is not going to easily give up the search.

"Where's that place again?" he asks as he shuffles through his pile of maps. I take the bait and tell him its south of Poncha Pass. "Well you can try Del Norte (only if I need a car part from the NAPA store) or Monte Vista," (if the drive in movie is still operating, I might go there.)

"I've never been to Center myself," he says (OK if you want a potato but not maps) "and there's nothing in Saguache," (there's a park if I want to take a nap.)

I want to almost shout "Stop it!" as I picture myself with neck and head barely above the quagmire of my own making that I have been sucked into.

There is more map shuffling on the part of the volunteer as he straightens up with that helpful look and asks, "south of Poncha Pass?"

"Yea, it's just a little further past the turn off to the highway to Alamosa." "Then you could probably look in Alamosa," he says matter of factually.

"Where's the bathroom?" I practically yell as I turn away from a litany of directions that only ceases when I finally close the door behind me. I'm free now and I console myself that although I don't have a topographic map for Rito Alto Peak, I do have a copy of the Rathbun's hand drawn map labeling "Unnamed" for Rito Alto Peak in their 1957 article and the current Ormes "Guide to the Colorado Mountains." I will have to rely on these to locate the trail head and climb the mountain.

I drive to the summit of Poncha Pass and stop and look at the sweep of land before me. If this was my South American trip that I had prepared myself for the dryness would suggest, the Atacama and the folded foothills off to the left would suggest the beginnings of the Andes. The line of trees in the distance might be the dusty mining outpost of Villa Grove where I could perhaps procure the use of a burro to haul supplies into the mountains.

But what I was seeing was something far bigger and greater than either the Atacama or the Andes because this was the beginning of the San Luis Valley and the mighty Sangre de Cristo Range where lay the almost 14,000 foot peaks of 1957.

I use Villa Grove as my reference point in the valley. You can hardly call it driving through Villa Grove because it is only there for an instant and then it is gone. But it gives me a heads up for the approaching Highway 285/17 junction where I stop and open the Ormes "Guide to the Colorado Mountains."

It tells me to approach Saguache Road-AA about six miles south of the junction. Right on. Then go east about five miles on Saguache Rd-AA. Spot on. Then go south about three miles on Saguache Rd 64. Good enough. Then east for 3.5 miles, a sign says 4 miles, to the Rito Alto trail head. It is closer to 4 miles but near enough. Good old Ormes guide book.

It is a fitful night of sleep at the trail head from the day's happenings and the thought of climbing one of the almost 14,000 footers of 1957 the next day such that my mind seemingly wanders away somewhere out of sight. It is about eight or eight thirty in the morning just at that point where you are getting far enough from the trail head and progress is beginning to take hold when the rest of myself catches up with my mind and we continue as a whole to the intersection of the Cotton Creek trail.

The Ormes guide book says to continue 1 mile south to Rito Alto Lake and then another 0.5 miles southeast of the lake to a fork where the trail goes northeast 1.5 miles to Hermit Pass and then another 1 mile climbing the ridge from the pass to the peak. Whew!

I look at the hand-drawn map of the Rathbun's and see that Unnamed (Rito Alto) is in front of me at the Cotton Creek trail intersection. I can practically reach out and touch the west face. I think I will climb the west face. Good old hand drawn map.

I have my ice axe with me and head toward the first snow gully which at its top has a spigot of water coming off a large rock which serves as a faucet to refill my water bottle. I cross over to a grass and rocky rib to another snow gully. I climb upwards to where the snow has receded revealing a sea of scree. I continue climbing seemingly forever as the angle keeps laying back the further I climb until forever time comes and I make the south ridge just below the summit ridge.

There is a memorial to a fallen soldier at one end, from which I can see the large summit cairn across the horizontal summit ridge to the north. I cross and take the last few horizontal steps to the summit as euphoria sets in. I am happy. I am high up. I am in heaven. I made it. Hooray for me. I haven't climbed a whole bunch of 14,000 foot peaks but I am now on top of Unnamed or Rito Alto Peak one of the almost 14,000 footers of 1957.

I have to share my euphoria with the work that must be done for which I have come so far and climbed this mountain for. I look south and eyeball Mount Adams with the Crestones as I picture the Rathbun's must have done in 1957 and decide that it is entirely plausible to think that the then unsurveyed Mount Adams might be a 14,000 foot peak.

I come to a different conclusion for Eureka Mountain though as it is evident that I am looking down at Eureka from Rito Alto and the Crestones look much higher in the background.

I don't have the perspective of Rito Alto from adjoining peaks as the Rathbun's did so it is difficult to make a determination while standing on its summit. I have to wait until I return home and check some maps in the library.

Rito Alto Peak shows great relief from three directions being almost 800 feet higher than Hermit Pass to the south, its west face 2,674 feet above the Rito Alto Creek valley where I started climbing, 2,194 feet above Megan Lake to the east and almost 200 feet higher than the highest peak north of it, Electric Peak. I have to conclude with the Rathbun's that Unnamed might be a 14,000 foot peak.

What the Rathbun's photographed and compared with the skyline in 1957 and that which was eyeballed by myself in 2014 was settled by the surveys of the U. S. G. S. in 1957 and 1959. The Rathbun's prediction that Mt. Adams would be the highest of the groups of peaks which "rival the fourteens" was confirmed by the new Horn Peak and Electric Peak 15 minute quads but unfortunately Adams turned out to be 69 feet short of 14,000 feet, Eureka Mountain only 13,489 feet, Electric Peak as 13,621 feet and the peak labeled both Rito Alto and Horseshoe as 13,794.

John L. J. Hart author of "Fourteen Thousand Feet" wrote in a 1962 article in "Trail and Timberline" that "the greater portion of the Sangre de Cristo Range north of Blanca has now been surveyed by the USGS without disclosing any new 14,000-foot peaks. My guess is that . . . the portions of this region not yet surveyed by the USGS . . . will not disclose any 14,000-foot peaks not already on the list."

Hart was only partially right because with the adoption of the 300-foot rule proposed in 1968, Ellingwood Peak in 1970 and Challenger Point in 1987 joined the list of 14,000-foot peaks.

Although I can relate to the anticipation of those climbing Unnamed in 1957 as a possible new 14,000 foot peak, the reality in 2014 is that Rito Alto is not. Nevertheless I consider myself very high up while standing on its summit. I do some math calculations to verify just how high up this summit is.

I live at 9,156 feet. Using the rules of subtraction, I find that I am a whopping 4,638 feet above Dillon. Wow.

I climb a lot in the Gore Range whose highest summit is Mount Powell at 13,560 feet. I am a full 234 feet above the monarch of the Gore Range. Amazing.

I don't like to rub it in but on the list of Colorado peaks by elevation Rito Alto is tied with Square Top Mountain at 13,794 feet with Animas Mountain eight feet lower at 13,786 feet. That would mean I am 96 inches higher than Animas Mountain. Profound.

As I look northward from the summit of Rito Alto Peak, somewhere out there is the Mile High city of Denver, the Queen city of the plains. By my calculations I am an eye popping 8,514 feet higher than the mile high marker on the state capitol steps. Astounding.

By any of my math calculations I conclude that I am unbelievably high up standing on the summit of Rito Alto Peak. My work is done now and as I prepare for my descent I have one thought in mind.

It is that I don't know much about Bill and Eva Rathbun other than their article mentions the planning of their projected traverse of the 125-mile crest of the Sangre de Cristo Range. That would come true in 1961 but by another party of Bill Arnold, Lester Michel and Jim Michel who traversed the range crest from Poncha Pass to Music Pass in nine days.

But 1957 was the year of the almost 14,000 footers. That was the year the Russian Sputnik precipitated the space race, the Brooklyn Dodgers made the transition as the Los Angeles Dodgers the following year, Bill and Eva Rathbun wrote a wonderful article with map that gave me an adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and despite wearing white sox and penny loafers I never did grow up to be very cool at all.

 Comments or Questions

The Latest Edition...
09/06/2014 23:59 your contributions to this site is/was quite enjoyable and interesting. Thanks!
Since you took this plunge into foreign lands, do you plan, or have you ventured out in those parts again? You might like a few of those other peaks, such as the almost fourteen Mt Adams.

Great Read
09/07/2014 12:58


09/07/2014 17:52
for this dip into history. People climb mountains all the time now, but your clear reverence for the contribution of people like the Rathbuns is refreshing. Yes, that was a great time, when there was still some mystery and uncertainty about just how many 14ers there really were. Climb on!

09/07/2014 18:52
Your perception, sense of wonder and innovative mix of past and present creates a delightful read. Thanks for the extra effort.


Thank you!
09/08/2014 14:12
I do so enjoy reading your accounts. The older I get, the more fascinated with history I become and your contributions feed that fascination. Can't wait for the next chapter...


Nice history lesson
09/10/2014 18:09
That was a well-researched and fun history lesson. Thanks!

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