Climbing a Fourteener: An Insider’s Abridged Guide

Some of your friends have done one or two and a couple are on their way to having ascended their 20-something-eth peak over 14,000 ft. You’ve heard the views are breathtaking, the sense of accomplishment is riveting, and it makes you that much more secure in calling yourself a Coloradan.

Climbing fourteeners has become a popular quest for so many residents and visitors to Colorado, and as I prepare to take on another one myself, I thought I’d share my process of preparation for anyone looking for insight. There are a lot of very practical guides out there, everything from maps to trail descriptions. Hopefully, what I have to tell you is some less-than-obvious, experience-driven advice.

Every fourteener is different. Elevation in itself is a poor indicator of the level of difficulty of any trail. Mt. Evans, at 14,265 ft. (4348 m.), has a paved road all the way up to the top. Mt. Princeton at 14,196 ft. (4327 m.) took me several hours to hike and I was on all-fours to climb any set of stairs the next few days.

Oops …..

Access is everything. I mentioned there are ample resources out there, including regularly updated printed literature as well as online accounts. Take it from me: read them all. Many of these peaks have several approaches, and trails sometimes intersect. The difference may be hours! Some friends and I set out to climb Mt. Harvard (14,423 ft., 4396 m.), in the Collegiate Peaks outside Buena Vista. When we got to the top (after a few hours of hiking), the small cardboard sign tucked under some rocks read “Mt. Columbia 14,078′” (4291 m.)”. Imagine our surprise.

You can’t always rely on your phone, either, so take maps, print out trail descriptions (including any of trails you don’t plan to take), and check them often during your ascent.

Timing. Timing, timing, timing, timing, timing. You may have heard this already, and any Coloradan will tell you that no matter how clear, sunny and calm the first part of the day is, the weather can change in an instant. Even if it remains calm at the base of a 14er, these high peaks will rake in the clouds. Shortly after we summited Mt. Columbia (as in, within five minutes), we noticed some grey clouds in the distance. Then we started to hear the crackling of static all around us. Then lightning. Then we proceeded to run all the way down that rocky mountain questioning every decision we’d ever made. During the 30 or 40 minutes of very dangerous running and leaping back down to the tree-line (an ascent that took us hours), all I could think was, “So this is how it ends. My family won’t even find out for days.” Luckily we made it down, and my companions couldn’t tell I was crying because we were soaking wet from rain and hail.

Start early. Before dawn if possible. I’m not exaggerating.

Anticipate every climate. There is often still snow on Colorado’s highest peaks, even at the height of summer heat. You will be sweating all the way up, but as soon as you stop to rest, the biting wind toward the summit will prompt you to unpack every layer you shoved into your tiny Camel-bak.

Pay attention to distance and elevation gain. Ascending 2000 ft. in 8 miles is a vastly different experience than ascending 2000 ft. in 4 miles. If you can’t imagine what either of these feels like, definitely try some lower summits before attempting a 14er. Peak One, just over Frisco, in the Ten Mile Range summits at 12,933 ft. (3942 m.), but the elevation gain is almost 4000 ft. in less than 5 miles. I’ve done this hike several times, and I always, always find myself debating whether it is totally necessary that I reach the top.

This weekend, I’ll be headed up Mt. Shavano at 14,299 ft. (4337 m.), outside of Salida. It’s a 4600-ft. gain over almost 5 miles, so this tells me I’ll be having that inner dialogue about turning back early at least a couple times on my way to the summit. It’s been 95 degrees (F) at 7000 ft. during the day recently, so that tells me I’ll be in all my layers, including a hooded jacket when we set out on the trailhead before daylight, I’ll strip all the way down to shorts when the sun rises after an hour or two, then put it all back on when we reach the top.

One piece of advice on water and snacks: lots of water, lots of snacks. I very personally prefer to give my body some extra calories the night before we set out on the trail, and I don’t expect to consume a lot of weight on my way up. However, as soon as I’ve reached the top and all I have to worry about is the (often less-intensive) descent, my muscles start craving nutrition and hydration.

Remember, turning around is always an option. If someone in your party is struggling or the weather looks like it will be taking a turn for the worse, don’t wait until it’s too late to head back to safety. These mountains aren’t going anywhere fast. Other than the above-mentioned, maybe lesser-known details, don’t forget the usual: sun protection, sturdy and comfortable shoes, some basic first aid, and a plan to maintain communication with those in your party.

If you’ve had any close calls hiking fourteeners in Colorado or any additional wisdom you’d like to pass on, please do share them in the comments! In the meantime, stay tuned for a follow up on our Mt. Shavano ascent, and Happy Trails!

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Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

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