Boulder writer James Dziezynski spills on his summits, secret and otherwise

James Dziezynski on Belleview Mountain in the Elk Range
Courtesy of James Dziezynski

In the early 2000s, Boulder Weekly sent freelance writer James Dziezynski out to research a series of stories on great, little-known places to hike around town.

The time Dziezynski spent on his feet then, and on more than 600 other summits around the state, schooled him so thoroughly in what Colorado foot paths have to offer that he penned a book revealing their secrets. Best Summit Hikes in Colorado details non-technical scrambles up 14ers, “secret” summits and peaks in every mountain range with elevations from 8,144 feet (Green Mountain) to 14,443 feet (Mount Elbert), with driving directions and GPS data. Each route sets itself out from the sea of options in Colorado with a notable feature — the site of a ghost town, a waterfall, an airplane wreck, a great meadow for wildflowers or wildlife spotting. The second edition of Best Summit Hikes in Colorado, first published in 2007, was released this year, and Dziezynski is touring to promote the book. Boulder Weekly caught up with him to get a little more background.

I heard the second edition includes 16 new summits and seven new routes. What are some of the additions?

For the second edition of Best Summit Hikes in Colorado, I looked at peaks nearby existing routes in the book. Since many of these summits have great overnight camping opportunities, it made sense to add in some additional mountains. I went out and revisited about 20 of the hikes in the book and came up with some wonderful options, such as Carbonate Mountain and Cyclone Peak near Tabeguache Peak in the Sawatch Range and Little Agnes Peak #1 and Little Agnes Peak #2 in the Zirkel Wilderness. Some of the new routes are simply updates to trailhead changes, but others, such as Mount Deming in the Gore Range, offer a new standard route with a variety of optional peaks.

What were some of the challenges in coming out with this edition?

Map updates were a time-consuming challenge, but I think the extra time put into them is worth it. Every map was redesigned from the ground up, and several GPS tracks had to be updated by getting out in the field and redoing the hikes.

It was also important to edit some of the more wordy parts of the first edition to make the book more concise. One of the bonuses of a print guidebook, as opposed to online guides, is you get a good “how to” section in the front of the book that covers everything from gear to meteorology. Making sure all of that information was up to date, while simultaneously cutting out any excess material, took some time.

In your writing for Boulder Weekly’s outdoors section for the last eight years, which of these hikes been written up in our pages?

Prior to writing the first edition in 2007, I had written a few Weekly features on several hikes that eventually made it into the book, including Navajo Peak in the Indian Peaks, Mount Alice in RMNP and the trio of Green Mountain, Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak right in our own backyard. Some of the positive response from BW readers helped encourage the initial decision to create a bigger, more in-depth book.

Where’s the town flattened by an avalanche? And the fossilized seashells?

There are actually a few ghost towns in the book that fell victim to avalanches, but the most prominent is Masontown at the base of Peak One in Frisco. It was one of many boomtowns of the era and it serviced the Victoria Mine, which had the unfortunate distinction of being in the direct line of an established avalanche path. It was demolished in 1912, rebuilt, then demolished again in 1926. It was rebuilt yet again, only to burn down in 1968 and since then, it is nothing more than a graveyard of old foundations, mining ruins and a few brick porches.

The seashells are somewhat common in the Elk Range, an area that was part of an inland ocean about 70,000 years ago. The soft sediment was perfect for impressing shells and floral, and it’s not unusual to find undersea fossils well over 13,000 feet. My own experience has found many on Belleview Mountain and Treasury Mountain, both near Crested Butte.

So you’ve climbed more than 600 peaks in Colorado — how long has that taken?

I made Colorado my home in 1999 so all told, about 13 years. I actually made a tally of named summits that I had photos of or recorded in my journal and the total unique summits were 653. This doesn’t include repeat visits to some of my favorites, such as Longs Peak (11 times), Mount Elbert (10 times) or venerable ol’ Mount Audubon (more times that I can count). I did have a period of about three years where I lived a rather Spartan life, freelancing and hiking like crazy. The great thing about Colorado is that there are many places where a good ridgewalk can net you two, three or even 10 summits in a single outing. This is the way I like to hike ranges that are far from Boulder. A good example is Weston Pass in Leadville, where a strong, eight- to 10-hour day can net you 10 to 12 official summits.

But in terms of being a mountain veteran, I’m still well behind a lot of the diehards in the state. Heck, there’s over 700 13ers alone, so I still have many, many more mountains to climb.

Outside Colorado, you’ve climbed mountains in Greenland, Antarctica, Central America and the Canadian Arctic. What’s the favorite among those?

Any climbing in the polar regions is a special treat. There’s a beauty and energy in those remote peaks that I’ve never experienced anywhere else, not to mention much of the rock in Greenland and the Arctic is some of the oldest stone on the planet. I’m not an elite mountaineer, so I’m not putting up the hardest lines, but simply getting to those faraway places and stepping into the unknown is quite delightful.

Mountain climbing in central America — and the Caribbean — is a very different experience but still quite amazing. There’s still a lot of geothermal activity in these peaks. Places like Dominca have some legit peaks with vertical gains of upwards of 6,000 feet. Even though you’re likely in trees the entire time, there’s technical sections that are quite surprising and unlike traditional mountaineering. One of my favorites is the scramble to Mount Nevis on Nevis Island, a jungle climb to an open summit overlooking the vast Caribbean Sea.

What keeps you coming back to summits in Colorado?

I’m amazed that after all the time I’ve spent in the mountains, I continue to discover so much in the Rockies. I love the physical side of mountain climbing, working hard for a goal that locks your focus and lets the trappings of the frontcountry slip away for a while. I love the challenge of route-finding. And all of the visceral sensations, from standing on the summit to all the animals and flora, the creeks and lakes — all of that is hard to resist. Ultimately though, I find sharing mountains with friends (both human and canine) is incredibly rewarding. If you pardon the term, it’s a very intimate experience to endure the hardships of a mountain together and to soak in your fleeting rewards as a team. Mountain time bonds friends as well as each of us to the bigger scheme of the natural world, as unknown and wild as it is.

What haven’t I asked about that you think people should know?

Besides the hikes in the book, I’m slowly working on adding additional hikes on my website,, that follow the same format as the book. These are free to use, and my winter project in 2012-13 is to add my collection of secret summits within two hours of the Boulder/Denver metro area.

Besides that, there’s Colorado-specific gear reviews, write-ups and other goodies there.

And like nearly everyone else in the world, I’m easy to find on Facebook and Twitter.

James Dziezynski will read from Best Summit Hikes in Colorado 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Boulder Book Store.