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SunLit

SunLit Excerpt: “Colorado’s Highest” charts exploration and naming of state’s 14ers

Author Jeri L. Norgren unravels the history behind Colorado's 58 highest peaks, with the help of photographer John Fielder and painter Robert L. Wogrin

Sunshine Peak 14,001’ – 58

This fourteener qualifies for the Colorado Geological Survey’s list of 58  14,000-foot peaks by a mere foot. Situated in the southern part of the San Juan Mountains, Sunshine Peak is five miles northeast of Handies Peak and one mile south of Redcloud Peak – all are 20 miles west of Lake City.

Although this peak had the previous names of Niagara Peak and Sherman Mountain, neither the Hayden nor Wheeler Surveys in 1874 knew of the origins or any longstanding history so didn’t continue the use of either name. During their 1874 survey Hayden’s men used Sunshine Peak as a triangulation station and simply referred to it as “Station 12”. Oftentimes they only assigned a number and not a name to these stations,  which they marked on the resulting maps as such. It wouldn’t be until 1906 when the peak would finally have a name which was given to it by the USGS without any explanation.

The first official ascent was by A.D. Wilson and Franklin Rhoda of the Hayden Survey in 1874. This group of three peaks, Sunshine Peak, Redcloud Peak and Handies Peak, was first spotted by Wilson and Rhoda from the top of Uncompahgre Peak a few days earlier. As Rhoda recalls in his Report on the Topography of the San Juan Country, “Southeast of us, and about eight or ten miles distant, was a mass of peaks, filling the whole space between Lake Fork and Godwin Creek, all of a bright red color.” They camped at Lake San Cristobal on the way to find the peaks, and the following day Wilson, Rhoda and party set out for all three. 

Rhoda’s account forewarns the reader of things to come. They were hoping to summit Redcloud Peak, but got only as far as Sunshine Peak, one mile away on the same massif. The “red mass” referenced below is Redcloud, the higher of the two peaks and the “first high point on the ridge” is Sunshine.

The object in view was to make a station on the highest point of the red mass above mentioned. . . . Before reaching the summit of the first high point on the ridge, we noticed stray clouds wandering up and down the neighboring canons, as if only waiting for us to reach the top before commencing the attack. 

Seeing that it would be impossible to reach the main peak before the storm would burst upon us, we made our station on the first point. The main peak is 41 feet higher and a mile and a half distant, being connected with it by a long unbroken ridge. Had time permitted, we should probably have occupied both points as stations, but we were unfortunately prevented from doing this by the peculiar circumstances to be described. “

Arriving on the summit both men quickly got to work setting up the instruments and sketching the surrounding mountains and river drainages. They had barely begun when they both began to feel a tingling sensation in their hair. Rhoda captures the reader with his detailed account of their terrifying experience.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

We had scarcely got to work when we both began to feel a peculiar tickling sensation along the roots of our hair, just at the edge of our hats, caused by the electricity in the air. At first this sensation was only perceptible and not at all troublesome; still its strength surprised us, since the cloud causing it was several miles distant to the southwest of us. . . . By holding up our hands above our heads a ticking sound was produced, which was still louder if we held a hammer or other instrument in our hand. This tickling sensation above mentioned increased quite regularly at first, and presently was accompanied by a peculiar sound almost exactly like that produced by the frying of bacon. . . . We felt that we could not stop, though the frying of our hair became louder and more disagreeable, for certain parts of the drainage of this region could not be seen from any other peak, and we did not want to ascend this one a second time.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“As the force of the electricity increased, and the rate of increase became greater and greater, the instrument on the tripod began to click like a telegraph machine when it is made to work rapidly; at the same time we noticed that the pencils in our fingers made a similar but finer sound whenever we let them lie back so as to touch the flesh of the hand between thumb and forefinger. . . . The effect on our hair became more and more marked, till, ten or fifteen minutes after its first appearance, there was sudden and instantaneous relief , as if all the electricity had been suddenly drawn from us. After the lapse of a few seconds the cause became apparent as a peal of thunder reached our ears. The lightning had struck a neighboring peak, and the electricity in the air had been discharged.

The men continued to work on top of the peak as the storm intensified. Rhoda exclaimed, “By this time the work was getting exciting. We were electrified, and our notes were taken and recorded with lightning speed, in keeping with the terrible tension of the storm-cloud’s electricity.” Having completed a rough sketch of as much of the surrounding country that was not obscured by clouds, Rhoda took the mercurial barometer out of its case hoping to get a reading before they were forced to descend and describe what happened.

“The lightning-strikes were now coming thicker and faster, being separated by not more than two or three minutes of time, and we knew that our peak would soon be struck. As I took the barometer out of its leather case, and held it vertically, a terrible humming commenced from the brass ring at the end, and increased in loudness so rapidly that I considered it best to crawl hastily down the side of the peak to a point a few feet below the top, where, by lying low between the rocks, I could return the instrument to its case with comparative safety.

“At the same time Wilson was driven from his instrument, and we both crouched down among the rocks to await the relief to be given by the next strike, which, for aught we knew, might strike the instrument which now stood alone on the summit. At this time it was producing a terrible humming, which, with the noises emitted by the thousands of angular blocks of stone, and the sounds produced by our hair, made such a din that we could scarcely think.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

When the next stroke of lightning released the electricity, Wilson made a sudden dash on his hands and knees to retrieve his instrument. He grabbed the legs of the tripod, flung the instrument over his shoulder and dashed back. Although this only took a few seconds, the electricity was so great that he received a strong electric shock accompanied by a pain in his shoulder where the tripod was resting. Rhoda explains what happened next.

“In his (Wilson’s) haste he dropped the small brass cap which protected the object-glass of the telescope; but, as the excitement and danger had now grown so great, he did not trouble himself to go back after it, and it still remains there in place of the monument we could not build to testify to the strange experiences on this our station 12. We started as fast as we could walk over the loose rock, down the southeast side of the peak, but had scarcely got more than 30 feet from the top when it was struck. We had only just missed it, and felt thankful for our narrow escape.”

They duo headed down as quickly as was humanly possible and met up with Dr. Endlich, who had ascended a lower summit on Redcloud Peak where he had experienced a similar phenomenon, although to a lesser degree. He told Wilson and Rhoda that he had seen the lightning strike their peak and feared it may have gotten them, so was greatly relieved to see them coming down the mountain. The men continued their descent and finally reached camp late at night, thoroughly drenched, tired and hungry. Rhoda humorously shares his thoughts regarding the ending of their harrowing day.

“If I could end the history of the adventures of this remarkable day by describing how we were pleasantly housed in dry, comfortable quarters, and how we contentedly “wrapped the drapery of our couch about us and lay down to pleasant dreams” I would. But, alas! How the romance would be taken out of the story if I should tell how we crawled into our low, short, and narrow little tents, with the water running under at the edges, and leaking through at the top, and how we had to lie as still as possible lest we might disturb the pools of water gradually collecting on our blankets, and precipitate them into the inner recesses of our bedclothes. All this and more shall I leave untold. . . “

The men of the surveys were a remarkable breed of adventurer and Wilson, Rhoda and Dr. Endlich didn’t let the experience with the lightning interfere with the work that they were there to perform. The next few days would see the men make another first ascent of a fourteener – Handies Peak, also known as Station 14.


Jeri L. Norgren is a fifth-generation Colorado native. Having spent most of her life exploring the mountains and all the wonders they hold, she became fascinated with the nomenclature of the highest peaks and began her journey. As a member of the Denver Fortnightly Club, she has authored numerous papers on various topics, including one that grew into this book. She lives on an historic farm in Englewood.


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