For Colorado residents and visitors alike, few outdoor recreational opportunities can rival climbing a Fourteener as a true rite of passage. It’s real man-versus-mountain-type stuff.
What’s a Fourteener? Quite simply, it’s a mountain that is at least 14,000 feet above sea level. The Centennial State has 54 of these peaks within its borders, which is the most of any other state. (It actually has 58, but to officially count as a Fourteener, a peak must be 300 feet higher than the saddle of an adjacent peak.)
At any rate, that makes Colorado ground zero for serious summit-baggers — those who are determined to reach the peaks of as many mountains as possible — as well as for newbies who are looking for an unparalleled, truly adventurous experience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, you don’t simply walk up a Fourteener, no matter how “easy” it’s supposed to be. If bagging a 14,000-foot summit is on your bucket list, there are a few things you need to keep in mind prior to hitting the trail.
- Train in advance. According to Trails.com, unless you exercise regularly and are in excellent physical condition, start training roughly three months before your hike. This should include both aerobic and strength training; consider adding hills and longer sessions. The latter is especially important, since Fourteener hikes can last anywhere from hours to a couple of days, depending on the mountain.
- Do your homework. Each mountain is different, says Trails.com. Research the mountain you wish to climb in advance, so you won’t be surprised by trail conditions, potential hazards, snow fields and periods of scrambling. If you’re not an experienced rock climber, don’t choose a mountain that will require specialized equipment. Study local weather conditions to ensure you bring the correct clothing and gear, and don’t forget that snow and ice can be real possibilities in late spring and early fall (or, honestly, anytime during the year).
- Recruit a buddy. Any Fourteener is potentially dangerous, so do not hike alone. Trails.com advises to hike with a buddy; better yet, if it’s your first Fourteener or even your first major hike at altitude, join a group. The Colorado Mountain Club is an excellent resource.
- Take a class in advance of the big hike. The Colorado Mountain Club, founded in 1912, offers a variety of courses; you can learn more through its online calendar. The REI Outdoor School has a selection of courses and outings, as well.
- Fully equip your pack. According to 14ers.com, you should first choose a day-hiking pack that is lightweight and streamlined, yet has enough room for a bladder-style water reservoir and all the necessary gear. Plan to bring layered clothing (there can be a wild range of temperatures on a Colorado Fourteener, so don’t forget a warm hat and gloves), a watch, sunscreen, a headlamp, a pocket knife, any appropriate maps, a compass, a first-aid kit, matches, plenty of water and food, and a cell phone. You might want to consider investing in a personal locator beacon; cell phones won’t work in many areas, so the latter could be a life-saver in an emergency.
- Share your plan. Be sure to let someone at home know when you plan to start your hike and when you plan to return. Make a note to contact that person as soon as you complete your hike; that way, if you’re overdue, a search can be initiated. The experts at Backpacker Magazine also recommend signing the trail registry; in the absence of one, leave a note in your car that describes your plan.
Fourteener Risks and What to Do
Safety is a major concern on a 14,000-foot mountain. While many Fourteeners provide realistic hiking and climbing experiences for newbies, you must never forget that this isn’t a routine walk in the woods. The experts at 14ers.com have quite a few tips:
1. Be aware of altitude sickness. Coloradans who live a mile high, or even higher, may not experience many symptoms above timberline — perhaps a dull headache and some shortness of breath. If you’re coming from lower elevations, however, consider arriving in Denver a few days early to get acclimated to the 5,280-foot altitude, then try to spend the night in a higher-elevation town. If possible, do a little hiking above 8,000 feet. According to the experts at Backpacker Magazine, drinking plenty of water and eating carbohydrate-rich, low-fat foods will help, as can ibuprofen. Trails.com recommends that you get plenty of rest and avoid alcohol, as well.
2. If you or anyone in your group is experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness, the best course of action is to descend immediately.
3. Dehydration is a major concern in the thin, dry air at high altitude. Bring plenty of water (it may seem like too much, but trust us, it won’t be); experienced Fourteener hikers recommend 3 liters of water in a bladder-style reservoir, with perhaps another emergency liter in a bottle.
4. Storms are a serious risk, particularly in the summer months, when monsoon-season storms fire up at mid-day. Above timberline on a high mountain peak, you’re utterly exposed if lightning strikes. Get started as early as you can, even if that means camping or staying in a hotel nearby. Ensure that you reach the summit by late morning, so you’ll be well on your way back to the trailhead when the afternoon storms gather steam. And if you see a storm brewing, turn back immediately. Summit fever is understandable, but it’s not worth getting hurt.
Trail Etiquette: Dos and Don’ts
- Practice Leave No Trace ethics.
- Stay on the trails and/or follow the cairns. Above-timberline vegetation is extremely fragile; hikers blazing their own path compact the thin soil and crush the delicate root systems, and this land takes a very long time to heal.
- Respect property owners. For example, while hikers are welcome to summit Mt. Democrat and Mt. Lincoln and descend the flank of Mt. Bross via a trail from Kite Lake, Mt. Bross’s true summit is closed to the public. If hikers do not use the approved trail, or if they summit Mt. Bross illegally, the property owners may choose to close all access to these mountains.
- Keep a safe distance from other hikers, and if you’re climbing a steep slope, take care not to dislodge debris on climbers below you.
- Hike quietly so you don’t disturb others. Some trails are quite busy during the summer months, and not everyone wants a loud, boisterous experience.
Best Choices for Beginners
Easily accessible, and a reasonable day trip from Denver:
- Grays Peak: Class 1
- Torreys Peak, Class 2
(You can summit Grays and Torreys in a single, classic hike.)
- Mt. Bierstadt, Class 2
If you’re based in Denver, you’ll want to plan an overnight stay in South Park or Breckenridge:
- Quandary Peak: Class 1
- Mt. Democrat: Class 2
(You can summit Democrat and Lincoln in the same hike from Kite Lake.)
- Mt. Lincoln: Class 1 or 2
- Mt. Bross: Class 1
(Remember: The true summit is closed to hikers, so you’ll pass just shy of the summit and then start your descent to Kite Lake.)
- Mt. Sherman: Class 2
Again, you’ll want to plan an overnight stay if you’re coming from Denver:
- Mt. Elbert: Class 1
(This is Colorado’s highest peak, at 14,439 feet.)
If you’d like to learn more about climbing 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, check out this 2013 article by Denver-based 5280 Magazine. And then start planning your trip!
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