NOAA updating height projections of state’s tallest peaks
Photo by: 
Jim Lovelace
This image of Sunshine Peak (at right) was taken from nearby Redcloud Peak. Sunshine’s status as a “fourteener” may be in jeopardy based on an updated analysis.
This image of Sunshine Peak (at right) was taken from nearby Redcloud Peak. Sunshine’s status as a “fourteener” may be in jeopardy based on an updated analysis.

As Aubrey Schoff ascended the last hundred feet of Mt. Evans’ summit, her lungs burned and her body ached, but her attention was captivated by the rugged beauty of the Colorado Rockies. Originally from Wisconsin, Schoff moved to Colorado to experience all that the renowned centennial state has to offer — specifically, the “fourteeners.”

According to the Colorado Geological Survey, Colorado has more than 50 mountains exceeding 14,000 feet above sea level — the most of any state. Outdoor enthusiasts like Schoff flock to Colorado to witness the grandeur and majesty of these mountains. Summiting a fourteener is a rite of passage among many Coloradans. In fact, it is something of a sport for many locals to attempt to climb all of the peaks.

Yet, recent projections indicate that these massive mountains might not be as tall as previously thought. In an ongoing project conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to re-map elevations throughout the country, it is likely that more than one mountain will lose its status as a fourteener.

For instance, at 14,001 feet — the shortest of the fourteeners — Sunshine Peak near Lake City might not make the cut.

Rebecca Bruno, a land surveyor for the Bureau of Land Management in Gunnison, explains that NOAA will be updating vertical map datum based on gravity models of Earth, new GPS technology and data that has been compiled for more than a century. The last update, conducted in 1983, used a point near the Great Lakes as a reference for mapping.

“The further you moved away from the Great Lakes, the more you introduced error into that projection,” Bruno explained.

Thus, the new model will resemble that of the 1929 update, which used two points — one on each coast — as references. By using the coasts in their projection, more precise measurements are possible.

“There’s really no clear idea of what the center of the earth is, so measuring elevations can be quite difficult,” said Bruno.

Elevation is measured through gravity; the further you move from the center of the earth, the weaker the gravitational pull. While a difference of mere feet may not be evident to hikers, to a gravity meter it is relatively pronounced.

“With this new datum, everything will be lowered two to three feet in Colorado,” said Bruno.

Leo Malloy, founder of the Outdoor Education Program at Gunnison High School, has summited 38 fourteeners, including Sunshine Peak seven times. While Malloy personally appreciates the increased accuracy in mapping, he anticipates backlash from the hiking community over that particular mountain no longer being deemed a fourteener.

“It will definitely upset some people,” Malloy predicted.

Despite its title as the shortest fourteener, Malloy claims that if you hike Sunshine from the base, it can pose quite the challenge. While hiking with a group of about five students, the mountaineer encountered loose third and fourth class climbing.

Malloy began the Outdoor Education Program in 1995 and has since guided various student groups up Sunshine and its taller neighbor, Redcloud Peak. At 14,035 feet, Redcloud is in no danger of demotion.

While Sunshine’s future status is questionable, for now it retains the esteemed title of a fourteener. Hikers have until 2022 to summit the mountain as a fourteener before the update in datum becomes official.

For Schoff, who plans to hike Sunshine this coming summer, summiting a mountain is about more than the elevation.

“It’s a pretty emotional process all backed by a lot of determination,” said Schoff.