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COBWEB CORNERS: How high?

By Mel McFarland

       When I worked on the mountain, a common question was, "So is it 14,110 or 14,115?"
       Some signs say either. The Pikes Peak summit is 14,115 feet by the latest measurement. As calculating such things gets more accurate, old numbers change. The new measurement occurred in about 2005. A hundred years ago such a change caused major confusion.
       The United State Geological Survey (USGS) is constantly working to make the most accurate maps possible. It put the Pikes Peak summit at 14,908 feet in the 1880s, reduced it to 14,147 feet in 1910, then to 14,109 feet in 1913. Official markers showing these different heights could be seen in 1913, all within a few feet of each other!
       Up in Cripple Creek, as well as in Colorado Springs, stories popped up in the newspapers that the mountain was shrinking. In a few years it would be gone! From Washington, DC, the USGS sent out a special notice to the local papers to confirm that the mountain was NOT shrinking, that it was only a matter of more accurate measurements. The USGS did agree that probably at one time the mountain was bigger, but not the 18,000 feet tall that Zebulon Pike had estimated.
       As geologists develop their theories as to how these mountains were formed, the estimate of height changes. My favorite is that Pikes Peak is a small portion of a huge volcano that stood over Cripple Creek a million years ago. At some point it did a "Mount Saint Helens" and exploded, leaving bits here and there. Then in the ice age, 10,000 years ago or so, it was formed into the shape we recognize. The height we see from down here at 6,000 feet above sea level gives it an impressive look. When Pike guessed its height he was standing somewhere on the back of Cheyenne Mountain and underestimated how far away it was.
       My favorite story is the one that circulated in Colorado Springs in 1948 when the summit was measured at 14,110 feet. Locals joked it was because of how they had restacked the rocks on the top. I have had people ask if they could get higher up on the mountain. Yes, if you climb up on the roof. The idea for a new summit house includes making the building taller, about three stories to the observation deck, which would be great in a lightning storm!

(Posted 3/25/14; Opinion: Cobweb Corners)

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