By Adam Sikorski and Kevin Fixler
"Awww, I have always wanted to do that." Or, "That is definitely on my summer bucket list."
Common replies to the now-popular Colorado pastime of trekking up one of the state’s 54* “14ers,” or – to you non-residents – mountains that eclipse 14,000 feet in elevation. In recent years, more and more daring and intrepid people looking to join the club have tried their hand, to notable success, at besting these local geographical wonders.
Still, upon becoming aware of the hobby, many are utterly dumbfounded, immediately inquiring why ever one would take on such a feat. What could possibly make the endeavor either meaningful or worthwhile?
“Because it’s there,” British mountaineer George Mallory told The New York Times of Mt. Everest in 1924.
Beyond the tough challenge and subsequent sense of accomplishment one feels in heading up the hills, to go along with the otherwise unachievable views, it’s the fundamental spirit of adventure within each and every one of us, even if it is buried to varying depths.
The Colorado 14ers are by no means Everest, the earth’s tallest crag, nor are they (thankfully!) as treacherous. And despite Mallory perishing on his third bid to summit the peak, his point still resonates. So for those interested in giving it a go and attempting this formidable, but attainable, undertaking here’s a beginner’s guide to enjoying and knocking off the state’s gorgeous peaks.
Before saying much of anything here, it should be stated that there is no substitute for an experienced guide. A friend who has previously taken on the peak you are attempting would be best. A close second would be an acquaintance who has at least hiked a 14er before, but not necessarily the one in which you are hiking. This individual can still shed some light on various situations you will encounter and be an indispensable learning tool. And if you find neither of these attainable, which would make sense given that you're reading this, we cannot stress enough what a valuable resource the information provided at 14ers.com can be. There you will find maps, route guides, directions to the trailhead, and even recent condition reports for every peak in the state from hikers within their extremely giving and active community. We do not attempt a new peak without consulting this website prior to our trip.
Now that you have decided you want the glory, the struggle, and the windy peak selfies that come with conquering your first 14er, you'll need to decide which mountain you are actually going to attempt.
The most straightforward 14ers are commonly referred to as “walk-ups” because they require no specific skills besides just handling the altitude gain and strolling up a well-maintained and obvious dirt path. These trails are ranked Class 1 or 2 (of 5) and generally considered “easy.” Take that with a grain of salt though, as every ascent seems to come with its own unique set of quirks and complications, be it self-inflicted (too much firewater or not enough sleep the night prior, forgetting the sunscreen, or ill-fitting gear), or naturally occurring (storms rolling in, too hot/cold, slippery rocks). We’ll get to more on negating these potential hangups in a moment, but first, where to begin.
*There are technically as many as 60 peaks of 14,000 feet or higher in Colorado, but various resources still cite the numbers 53, 54, 55 or 58 for different reasons, the primary one being that some peaks are known as “uncountables” because they do not meet the required 300 vertical feet between the saddle, or the pass connecting two adjacent mountains. For our purposes, we’re operating with the popularly accepted number of 54. (Source: http://www.14erfanclub.com/List-of-Colorado-s-14ers.html)
Though it’s technically considered a Class 2, the peak I always try to hike first each year, up which I also like to take interested newbies, is Mt. Sherman (14,036’), located about a two-hour drive west from Denver on U.S. 285. Although not as accessible or quite as popular as, say, Mt. Bierstadt (14,060’), which is approximately one-and-a-half hours from the state capital, it’s a quality warm-up hike for the more experienced, includes a landscape of old mining ruins along the way, and measures in at only 5.25 miles roundtrip and 2,100 feet of elevation gain following the standard route. Moreover, better to delay attempting Bierstadt until you’re confident and prepared enough to try the combination Class 3 route that includes the Sawtooth and Mt. Evans (14,264’). On top of that, if you set out for Sherman early enough in the summer, bring some snow pants because remnant snow allows for safely glissading, or sliding down portions of the descent, as if tobogganing down a raised hill on your bum. It’s an excellent annual tradition to kick off the warm weather 14er season.
There are several other nearby, entry-level hikes to consider (aside from Bierstadt, which is almost always overcrowded because of its proximity from Denver, especially on the weekend) when mapping out your initial hikes:
-The well-traversed terrain of Grays (Class 1 – 14,270’) and Torreys (Class 2 – 14,267’) Peaks are a good starter. The duo are often completed together in one day at 8.5 miles roundtrip, but that requires a higher clearance vehicle (or hitchhiking from lower parking, which is common) to begin closer to the trailhead and avoid additional distance on foot. Like Bierstadt and Evans, the pair are located in the Front Range and a little more than an hour drive from Denver, and the hike can be made in six hours total up and back to the car.
-The other four peaks (aside from Sherman) that make up the Mosquito Range, Mts. Democrat (14,148’), Cameron (14,238’), Lincoln (14,286’) and Bross (14,172’), are – believe it not – all gettable in a single morning, and also ripe for tenderfoots. The Decalibron Loop, as it’s known, drawing its title from the first couple letters of the names of each peak, is a Class 2, 7.25-mile trip located a mere two hours from Denver. Perhaps more importantly to some, in somewhere around six total hours, it provides the opportunity for quickly jumping from a still wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn to a certified peak-bagging hardass with four 14ers under your belt. The jaunt past and ensuing view from higher ground of Kite Lake (yes, it actually looks like a kite) furthermore makes for lovely scenery. Note: Mt. Cameron, while above 14,000 feet, is not included on the list of 54 peaks because it does not drop far enough down between Democrat and Lincoln. Oh, formalities ...
-Quandary Peak (14,265’), the lone 14,000-foot member of the Tenmile Range is set about an hour-and-a-half from Denver, not far from the favored ski town of Breckenridge in Summit County. While there is a bit of a sharp incline toward the final ascent coupled with a noticeable total elevation gain of 3,450 feet, it’s a short Class 1, 6.75-mile roundtrip with a very clearcut trail on the standard East Ridge route. For the most part, it’s a casual, satisfying day trip where running into some friendly mountain goats who are used to seeing people is a frequent and fun experience.
Now, before you get stretching and lacing up your hikers, it’s time to plan appropriately. As mentioned, a quick visit over to 14ers.com is about as good as you can do for researching information about each hike, but here are some other helpful tips to take into mind. Hiking 14ers, like skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, is an early bird-type activity. If you plan to summit, rather than just hike up to treeline (ordinarily around 12,000 feet), it is essential that you beat the all-too-common afternoon thunderstorms, which with them comes the danger of lightning and the very real risk of being struck by said lightning. There are certainly days where storms do not materialize and spending time near the top of the hill well past 2 or3 p.m. is possible, but it’s best to prepare for the worst, planning to instead have summited by 11 a.m.-ish and back below treeline – where there are objects taller than you in case of lightning – by the noon hour. Hiking 14ers is fun, but it’s not worth your life. Be smart, friends. So how the heck are you going to know the way? Good question. Aside from doing your research and bringing a printout of the route before arriving to the trailhead, the path will be fairly distinguishable. Rock piles, known as cairns, otherwise act as markers to keep you on trail. They’re usually pretty frequent, well maintained and easy to spot. Should you still get lost, there will no doubt be other hikers out and giving a friendly hello as well as asking for directions (or following behind) is totally acceptable. Of course, when in doubt, you can always retrace your steps to the most recent cairn or point of reference and try to relocate the path. Note: It is never a good idea to "just hike up" or "just straight down," as this often does not lead to a peak's summit or trailhead, nor does it help avoid additional human impact with off-trail erosion and protecting nearby wildlife habitat.
As for items to pack while you are on your voyage, at least a small backpack is quite helpful. Now before you begin, you’ll want to lather up with sunblock, wear sturdy, comfortable shoes (hiking boots are not necessarily mandatory), and have plenty of water to avoid dehydration. People much smarter than me suggest between 2.2 and 3 liters, or approximately 75 to 100 ounces, of water per day depending on amount of exertion and your physical size. A CamelBak and products like it usually store between 50 and 100 ounces, so that’s a convenient way to get your daily intake. A water filter and/or iodine tablets are also a choice item to have for procuring nearby water in case of an emergency. A hat, gloves and sunglasses are nice additions, and bring plenty of layers of clothing because you’ll likely end up adding and shedding clothes throughout the day. Unforeseen changes in weather are customary, even potential snow in July, so a thermal as a base is comfy and an outer, water-resistant shell can be fairly crucial.
Next, definitely gotta stay charged, so don’t forget the snacks, if not a full lunch for when you reach the apex. A little toilet paper isn’t a bad idea because you never know when nature might call, and some survival odds and ends like a pocket knife, matches and a first-aid kit are also generally recommended. Completely optional, but favored by many, a flask of your spirit of choice or a coupla cold ones enjoyed in celebratory splendor at the top of the hill is a practice worth getting in on. Nothing quite like sipping an adult beverage at altitude. Last, bring a friend. Hiking is pleasurable regardless, but better to play it safe with a hiking buddy, plus introducing another human to the fulfillment of the outdoors should be an objective anyway.
Following the crowning achievement of reaching the summit, you will almost undoubtedly, short of your private helicopter showing up, be faced with the task of climbing down the mountain. Though it may in fact be "all downhill from here" in the spot you find yourself, the descent does not come without its challenges. First, don't get lost. Things tend to look quite different on the way down than they did going up and exhaustion can allow confusion and doubt to take hold. Following the trail and the same directional cues that were mentioned earlier should ensure one does not lose the way. For whatever reason, we find that rocks tend to be a bit more slippery on the downslope. Keep bent knees and consider your steps when encountering scree (areas of loose, small rocks) and boulder fields. A good hiking pole or poles can help prevent a spill or twisted ankle. The way back always seems to be a little bit longer than expected, so plan out your water, food, and energy levels accordingly.
Getting back to your car, you will be even more self-satisfied if you have left yourself an extra pair of shoes or sandals, clean socks (we'd say not to combine these with the sandals, but hey, live free), and some additional water and snacks.
Great! You've done it. Once you’ve checked off your first 14er – a mental hurdle as much as a physical one – you’ll be well on your way to planning future excursions and unable to prevent the habit-forming experience from becoming a total addiction. With each peak accomplished on your list, you’ll come to more fully perceive and appreciate the words of the late, great Kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary, who of course was the first confirmed climber to stand atop Everest, when he postulated, “It is not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves."
-Easier peaks, weather, TOD, pack list, trailhead info (14ers.com/CFI)
Easiest Routes: http://www.14ers.com/recolist.php