The absence of a snowpack worries the cities and towns that rely on snowmelt to fill reservoirs. But the bald peaks are causing concern about the early onset of the Fourteener Season, a four-month period in which about 250,000 climbers mount assaults on Colorado's famous 14,000-foot peaks.
The Fourteeners are a great source of pride in Colorado, which is home to 54 of the nation's 91 peaks over 14,000 feet. But rescuers and alpine specialists fear that the weather conditions here could make for a risky climbing season. Already, they say, inexperienced and ill-prepared climbers have attempted ascents they would have balked at in years past, when portions would have required slogging through snow and ice.
Now, more enthusiasts are climbing earlier, just when the state's high-altitude peaks are potentially more dangerous than ever. The extensive snowmelt has exposed vast, unstable boulder fields that usually remain snow-covered year-round and that now are prone to slide. And, if current weather patterns hold, the early heat and lack of moisture could mean sudden and severe lightning storms in the mountains, which can prove highly dangerous to exposed climbers.
Ed Crothers is one of the owners of the Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park, which is the oldest guide service in the state. The school recently held a guide meeting and reviewed the special problems in store for this season.
''Our biggest concern is rock fall,'' Crothers said. ''There are receding snowfields with rocks held in place by snow and ice. Those rocks are no longer being held in place.''