TOP OF THEIR GAME

TAKE A PEEK AT WHO'S BEEN SWIPING THE REGISTERS ATOP THE FOURTEENERS.

The young man sitting in the downtown coffeeshop pulled the newspaper clipping out of his schoolbook. The dominant article on the page reported that the 50,000 hikers a year who climb Colorado's 54 peaks over 14,000 feet--commonly called Fourteeners--were seriously damaging plants and soil.

A much smaller article next to it reported that the registers climbers can sign on top of the Fourteeners were disappearing and that the people responsible were writing letters to the Colorado Mountain Club threatening to continue until none were left--despite the fact that the club is offering a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thieves.

"Look at that," the young man said, pointing angrily. "They run this big article about how the mountain environment is being destroyed, and right next to it they say they want to arrest me and my friends for doing something to protect it."

Meet Bob, who, given the current climate, refuses to use his real name. He says he and a group of eight or so friends are responsible for the thefts. They call themselves "Fourteeners Cleaner" and have photographs and bits of paperwork from the registers to prove that they did the deeds.

Bob, a Colorado native, says his group's assault on the registers began innocently enough in the summer of 1993. He had just climbed Mt. Harvard and found one of the tubular plastic canisters used to hold the paper registers smashed and the papers blowing around the mountain top. He picked up the shards of plastic and pieces of paper. "It looked disgusting," he says, "but basically I was just packing out the trash."

When he got back to civilization, Bob says, he called the Colorado Mountain Club, which places and maintains the registers. "I said, `If you're not going to take care of [the registers], you should take them down,'" he recalls. "The woman I talked to said, `Write a letter.'"

Bob says he was shocked by the response. He had begun climbing the Fourteeners when he was a teenager and had signed some of the registers himself.

"It was a conquest thing. I think I put down, `I kicked this mountain's butt,'" he says some ten years later. "Now I'm into a more sublime alpine experience."

The more he thought about the shattered register and the mountain club's response, says Bob, the more he thought about taking action. He and his friends stewed over what reasons the registers had for even existing.

They had heard that the registers were for science--to help measure the number of climbers and their impact. Yet some of the registers had been on the peaks for years and seemed of little value. That winter he climbed several peaks but couldn't locate the registers in the snow.

Then, in early June, he climbed Mt. Bierstadt at night to watch the sun rise and found another canister whose top had been cracked. Its papers were lying on the ground. He stuffed the debris in his backpack and, after returning to the city, mailed the canister--minus the register so no one would know which peak it had been taken from--to the Colorado Mountain Club.

"I wrote a note," he says, "that basically said, `Pack your shit out,' and to stop this Ugly American conquest issue."

The Fourteeners Cleaner tried to climb other mountains--Kit Carson and Crestone--to retrieve the registers, but the group's members were driven back by inclement weather. They succeeded in climbing Capitol and found the canister there intact. But they took it anyway. "By that time," says Bob, "we had decided they just didn't belong there."

On some peaks, the group couldn't find the canisters and assumed that someone else was also stealing them. But they found and took the registers from Little Bear and, in their latest assault, from North Maroon Peak.

Bob was preparing to mail the canisters, minus the registers, back to the Colorado Mountain Club when he saw the newspaper article about a reward for helping catch the thieves. He says he got rid of the evidence.

"I was a little freaked," he says. "I mean, I know some people who would sell their souls for $500."

Anne Vickery, the conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club, says the group's efforts are misguided. She says the registers have many uses, including helping the U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with groups like the CMC, better manage the trails by tracking how many people are climbing each peak.

The registers, which are returned to the club's archives when club members climb the peaks and find them full, have also been used to point out the economic importance of mountain recreation in legislative hearings, she says.

And, she says, they've proved useful in locating lost hikers. "We can see that [the hiker] signed the register on this peak and that peak," she says, "so he must be located in such and such a drainage."

Vickery says she knows there are purists who don't like to see man-made items left on the peaks or who reject the idea of "conquering" mountains. "But," she says, "they shouldn't judge other people."

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