Cardboard signs creating a trash mess on Colorado’s 14ers

DENVER -- As summer winds down, outdoor enthusiasts are looking for new ways to keep trash off Colorado’s famous peaks.

According to new statistics from Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains saw 20 percent more hikers in 2016 compared to 2015. This year is poised to push those numbers even higher.

“I personally am so happy that more people are getting to experience our mountains and getting out and enjoying the Colorado lifestyle," hiker Melissa McQueen said.

"On the other side, we’re all going up there to experience the nature and it really takes away from it when you see things that aren’t natural."

She is talking about the piles of trash often left behind on some of the busiest summits.

“I’ve carried out used cans of tuna fish and a lot of clothing. Candy wrappers is a big one,” she said.

Her husband, Brad, once carried out a 20-pound piece of mining equipment someone left in the middle of a trail. So, the couple decided to do something about it.

“In sort of the frustration of increased trash he was seeing on the trails, he started this hashtag #Cleaner14er campaign to try to make more people aware of leaving trash on the 14ers," McQueen said.

But #Cleaner14er is losing out to another social media frenzy.

“In the era of social media, it has really become a popular thing taking a picture at the summit holding a sign that says the name of the peak and how high it is,” McQueen said.

The signs are often made of bits of cardboard. While they make for great photos, they are becoming a problem on some peaks.

“The problem is people are unfortunately leaving the signs behind on the summit,” McQueen said.

Many hikers leave them in hopes of helping other climbers who might not have carried up their own signs. However, they don’t always get removed.

“We’ve had people find 10 signs sitting up at the summit. We have seen signs blow off of the summit,” McQueen said. “Paper up that high takes a really long time to decompose.”

Some have sought ways to alleviate the cardboard pileup. For example, atop Quandary Peak, there is a rock that has “Quandary Peak 14,265 ft.” written on it in permanent marker.

Colorado’s climbing community believes these permanent signs are almost worse.

“I mean, it’s graffiti on the mountain,” McQueen said.

One of the other big problems on high country trails is human waste and toilet paper. They don’t decompose at high elevations.

“It’s wearing down the resources for those animals that make their homes up on the mountain,” McQueen said.

She said a couple of weeks ago, her friends observed “a pika actually eating some used toilet paper that had been left high on the trail.”