Thoughts on "Just What is a Fourteener?"

By Alan Silverstein; email me at
Originally written around 1995 or earlier; last update: October 30, 2023

When is a high point a separate mountain, and when is it a sub-peak? This essay to consider the issue is motivated by the Appendix to the book, "A Climbing Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners", by Borneman and Lampert (1978).

I'm fascinated with names and numbers, so the Appendix in the first edition especially interested me. The inclusion of Ellingwood Point caused many climbers to consider it a separate Fourteener, regardless of the earlier USGS and CMC positions.

The second edition (1989?) considers the matter resolved, as Ellingwood now appears on both USGS and CMC Fourteener lists. The book's list of subsidiary peaks established six (now seven) "well-known" sub-peaks:

  1. Challenger Point
  2. North Massive
  3. Conundrum
  4. South Elbert
  5. South Massive
  6. North Eolus
  7. Cameron

Of these, South Elbert, North Massive, and South Massive are not officially recognized by the USGS Board on Geographic Names.

As the Appendix describes, there is no general agreement on criteria for separating Fourteeners from sub-peaks. My [old, paper, USGS] map studies show there to be a total of 115 points in the state above the arbitrary height of 14000' (4267 meters), at the arbitrary 40' vertical resolution of the maps. How to decide which are Fourteeners and which are merely sub-peaks?

It cannot be coincidence that all 54 "recognized" Fourteeners have names sanctioned by the USGS Board on Geographic Names, while only four (now) of the 61 additional high points bear official names. Naming a mountain, or any object, carries a lot of power in people's minds, though it doesn't change the topography at all.

(The recognized Fourteeners have generally unique names. There are few exceptions: the Wilsons; the Maroons; the Crestones; Sunlight and Sunshine; and including sub-peaks, the Eolus's.)

So there is a correlation between being officially named and being considered separate. Two other popular criteria are saddle drop and distance from other peaks. It seems to me that many additional criteria (attributes) are intuitively used in people's judgements. The complete list might be:

Given all the criteria that might be applied, and different people's prioritizing of them, it's understandable that individuals don't agree on what's a "Fourteener" (hence worth climbing) versus what's a negligible sub-peak. It seems that a peak needs to meet all the criteria to some extent, or some subset pretty well, or at least one characteristic very well, and meanwhile not fail any criterium too badly, to have most people judge it as separate rather than as a sub-peak.

Considering all the above criteria, one can appreciate why North Maroon is "separate" from Maroon Peak; the traverse is long and tough and both climbs are independently classic. Ellingwood Point looks very distinguished from Blanca, though it's not hard to reach. Little Bear is very challenging to climb from any direction.

Meanwhile, sub-peaks North and South Massive, South Elbert, and Cameron are not very interesting, difficult, or distinguished summits. North Eolus and Conundrum, however, do look fairly independent, and have official names, so it surprises me they are generally considered sub-peaks. In their cases the low saddle drops and easy access from the main peaks probably prevail over their appearances.

Newly-named (in 1987) Challenger Point has the deepest saddle drop (at least 280') of any Fourteener sub-peak, though it's only about 2000' from the main peak. The traverse is non-trivial. From some angles, such as from Crestone Peak, Challenger is quite prominent, while from other places it is uninteresting. Now that it bears quite a famous name, it has gone from neglected to notorious. I've heard people ask, "will it be considered a new Fourteener?", as if there were some source of an official answer, or as if the answer changed anything.

Actually, it might have some real effects. If more people see Challenger as a separate Fourteener, hence a significant climbing goal, more of them will attempt Kit Carson along with it from Willow Lake, which is a lesser-known but probably safer route. It seems the CMC has mixed feelings on the issue. It endorsed the name, but declined involvement in the placing of the memorial plaque, and one of its members felt it necessary to write a disclaimer on the front of the original summit register! ("The placing of this register does not reflect the official position of the CMC ...")

All this discussion presumes that measurements and designations matter. They are as arbitrary as the rules of football, but just the same, they are taken seriously. People spend a lot of time because of them, sometimes even losing their lives in consequence.

The ultimate irony is that all future USGS 7.5 minute topo maps will be metric. [No longer true?] I have the recent, provisional map for Mount Whitney, California, on which it is hard to pick out the Fourteeners. Even the set of sub-peaks changes as the isoclines are revised and the contour interval becomes 20 meters (about 66 feet) rather than 40 feet.

2023 retrospective

During the many intervening years since I wrote this essay, much more precise elevation measurements became possible, and many mountain heights have been revised a little too. A result is that purists now include or exclude some summits based on absolute criteria like 300' saddle drop. Also, USGS "topo" maps went digital and are no longer available on paper -- unless perhaps you pay an exorbitant amount to have them printed?

The now authoritative list shows 53 Colorado 14ers, excluding El Diente from the old list of 54 due to low "prominence" (saddle drop) from Mount Wilson. It includes that peak plus 4 others with asterisks: Cameron, Challenger, Conundrum, N Eolus. Adding back those 5 makes a list of 58 that some people prefer. But no mention of S Massive, N Massive, or S Elbert, that B&L thought were significant subsidiary summits.

Fortunately for me, I've climbed all 53 (with 2/3 of them at least twice), plus all 8 of the now dubious mentions!