Daniel Petty / The Denver Post
Dean Krakel / The Denver Post
Find routes, get info
14ers.com looks old-school, but it’s packed full of info on the many ways to reach the summit of Colorado’s fourteeners.
Climbing fourteeners can get addictive, but fortunately Colorado has an abundance of ways to get a fix.
There are 54 mountains (or more, depending on how you calculate it, and there are definitely sticklers out there) whose peaks rise above 14,000 feet in the Centennial State, on which you can physically and mentally get high. With several of them no further away than your favorite ski resorts, there aren’t many excuses not to drag yourself up a mountain instead of hurling yourself down one — each has its own season, anyway, so you don’t even have to choose.
Experienced hikers will know the drill, but for beginners, there are a lot of things to consider. Here are some tips from someone who climbed her first of five fourteeners just three years ago and learned a couple of the lessons the hard way.
Where to start
Conveniently, a couple of the easiest hikes are nearby. We’re talking closer than Vail. Mount Bierstadt is just shy of two hours from Boulder by car. The 38th highest fourteener reaches 14,060 feet, and the trail ascends mostly by switchbacks, so it’s not too steep. It does get rocky at the top, with some big boulders, but it’s manageable.
Seen last summer: A man carrying a pug up the mountain in a duffle bag. Accomplished last summer: Getting a 53-year-old from sea level up the mountain within 24 hours of arriving in Colorado, and within 12 hours of drinking too much craft beer. Summary: You got this.
Mount Evans — a fourteener you can drive almost to the top of, if you must —is also about two hours away, but difficult to categorize. As the first fourteener my friend and I did, it wasn’t brutal. (We hiked it from Chicago Creek — we think. We kind of had an accidental hike up Evans. Long story.) But 14ers.com, the go-to source on fourteeners, ranks it as moderately difficult. Colorado’s 14th highest gets up to 14,264 feet, with some steep parts and an extensive boulder field. The mountain goats that you will almost definitely see are pretty worth some rough terrain, though.
Surprisingly, Colorado’s tallest fourteener is considered an easy hike. Mount Elbert is about three and a half hours away from Boulder and tops the list at 14,433 feet. A large portion of that hike is above treeline, though, and the exposure can get brutal, quickly. Check the forecast before tackling this one. We did this one in the fall, and I can report that if the wind doesn’t knock you over, the roaring in your ears might drive you mad. This one is also appealing because you can camp at nearby Twin Lakes — Colorado’s largest glacial lake. It is gorgeous.
Quandary Peak, near Breckenridge is a good beginner’s trip, too, as are Grays and Torreys, which are the closest doable fourteeners to the Front Range. If you feel like summitting two mountains in one trip, the latter is your hike — Grays and Torreys are connected by a saddle, so you won’t really be making two trips up a mountain.
What to plan for
So much sun: The sun is so brutal up there. Bring strong sunscreen and apply it more than once.
Changing weather: Check the forecast before you go. Watch for possible storms and strong winds. If and when you do go, dress in layers. Depending on the time of year, the hike can start out quite warm and be very cold by the time you reach the summit. You’ll definitely want layers and a windbreaker if you have one. Be mindful of the fact that storms usually develop in the afternoon, so you should get started early in the morning. It can’t hurt to research cloud patterns to help you understand when a storm is forming.
Snacks and water: Drink a lot of water in advance, but pack a lot as well. With a smaller companion, I’ve been fine with five bottles of water. With a bigger one, that was woefully short of the actual need. It’s easier to get dehydrated up there, so over prepare. Leave some in the car for after the hike as well. Bring snacks that are light on your stomach but high in calories and nutrition. Protein or granola bars are good. I tend to like jerky, too, and maybe even some fruit. Trail mix is always great and you might even want a light sandwich at the top. Know yourself and plan accordingly.
Know your limits
This doesn’t just apply to choosing where to hike in the first place. Remember that getting to the top is not the end. Getting back down is difficult, too. Pace yourself and know if you’re going too far.
If there’s too much snow to safely traverse, and you don’t have the proper gear, you might have to turn back.
If you lose the trail, do not try to make your own. Seriously, this cannot be stressed enough. Not only is it an environmental no-no, it’s dangerous. Do it in lower, wooded areas, and you could get lost. Do it up high (guilty!) and you could end up scrambling through a field of loose rock, risking breaking an ankle, or worse, riding a rock slide.
There will be moments when you don’t want to take another step. You’ll be winded and your legs will be on fire. Move through it, get that exercise high and remember that you’re about to stand on top of one of the highest mountains in the continental United States. Not everyone gets to do that. Not everyone can or will do that. The view and the bragging rights are your reward, and you’re going to feel pretty damn good about yourself. When you get to look at the Rocky Mountains and think to yourself, “I walked up some of those,” it’s both surreal and ego-boosting.
Follow Ashley Dean on Twitter: twitter.com/AshaleyJill.