The mountains are an ever-present part of daily life in this corner of the world, spicing the lives of the humans scurrying around them far below with rugged adventure, commanding weather patterns and serene beauty. We recognize their faces, we know their names, we’re even familiar with their mercurial moods, capable of lightning bolts one minute and rainbows the next. Yet for many mountain lovers, the history hidden in these craggy peaks remains elusive.
Why on Earth, for example, does a wild and imposing peak get a name like Sneffels, a moniker one might envision for a child’s pet bunny?
Tonight (Thursday) at 6 p.m., Wilkinson Public Library presents author Jeri Neff and photographer John Fielder in a Zoom author event, as the two will talk about their recent collaboration, “Colorado’s Highest: The History of Naming the 14,000 Foot Peaks.” The beautiful coffee table tome is complete with photographs by Fielder, a renowned Colorado landscape photographer, of all 58 of Colorado’s peaks over 14,000 feet, along with little-known histories meticulously researched by Neff. Also featured are oil paintings of the peaks by Robert L. Wogrin, and historic pen and ink sketches from 19th century expeditions.
“We're really excited to share new perspectives on the Colorado peaks we all know and love through the amazing research of Jeri Norgren, beautiful photographs by John Fielder and paintings by Robert Wogrin,” said Joanna Spindler, adult programs specialist at the library. “The names of the peaks are a conduit through which we can appreciate their history, the people who mapped and surveyed them in the 1800s and the adventures that inspired their names.”
While much has been written about Colorado’s history during westward expansion, little has been compiled regarding the history of Colorado’s legendary 14ers and how they came to acquire their current names. Neff, a fifth-generation Colorado native, became interested in the name of a particular peak by pure chance and stumbled onto the surprising dearth of published works.
One evening four years ago, Neff was attending a meeting of the Denver Fortnightly Club, a women’s literary group established in 1881, and the president was reading a historical record of the club’s old minutes. The minutes noted that the club had been key in getting the name of Mt. Rosalie changed to Mt. Evans, a prominent 14er towering over Denver’s skyline, near the turn of the 20th century.
“That started the whole thing,” said Neff, whose piqued interest led her on a two-and-a-half year research journey. “I wanted to know how other peaks got their names. Nobody had ever put all this history into a book.”
Fielder, who contributed the stunning photographs for each peak in the book, has been documenting the state’s natural beauty for nearly half a century. Working on “Colorado’s Highest” gave the prolific photographer an opportunity to head for the hills to capture the perfect shot of the 14ers of which he’d not yet photographed. Getting the shot wasn’t always a stroll in the park, however.
Fielder uses llamas in his photographic expeditions to help carry the weight of heavy camera equipment. Once, at a remote camp at 12,000 feet, a bear entered the camp during the night, badly startling the pack animals, who pulled up the stakes on their tethers and bolted. Fielder found one of the llamas the next morning, but the other, Earl, had vanished.
“It took 12 days to find Earl, the lost llama,” Fielder recalled.
Earl had wandered into a stand of alpine willow bushes where his tether had gotten caught in the foliage. Happily, he survived for nearly two weeks eating the foliage and drinking from a nearby stream before being found by a wilderness ranger. No llamas were harmed in the making of this book.
For Fielder, sharing “Colorado’s Highest” with readers is a means of encouraging people to get outside while also enhancing their understanding of the history.
“Biodiversity is challenged as it never has been before,” he observed. “I hope this book gets more people out there. It’s the people who smell it, taste it, touch it, hear it — not just see it in a picture book — those are the people who vote the right way, and that’s how you protect nature — with laws.”
And as for how Sneffels got its name?
In 1874, the men of the Hayden survey expedition were climbing its rugged flanks when one geologist noted a crater-like feature that reminded him of the entrance to the underworld as envisioned by Jules Verne in his 1864 bestseller “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” a volcano in Iceland called Snæfell.
“It was an off-handed remark,” said Neff, “but that’s what the name ended up being.”
And if you’re curious why the ladies of the literary club of the 1890s wanted the name of Mt. Rosalie changed to Mt. Evans, you’ll have to attend the author talk. Suffice it to say that tales of romantic intrigue and scandal don’t escape even the naming of great mountains.
For more information or to purchase a book, visit Fielder’s website at johnfielder.com or call Between the Covers after Sunday to purchase a copy.