At the peak of a 14er you are on top of the continental United States. You can see countless miles into the distance. You get this feeling of being tiny in a crazy big world, nestled up next to giant mountains, like fat blue whales floating in the sea. It is humbling to see, feel, and know that these mountains are there. They continue through the eons of time, while people climb them over and over again- little ants on a path. Whatever problem you have is small compared to these mountains. Your problem will pass and all the while these mountains will have endured almost no time; the Rocky Mountains are considered young in terms of geologic time, though they are millions of years old.
However at the same time, you feel big while on top of these mountains. Bigger than your coworkers toiling away at their desks; bigger than your landlord who won’t fix your door; bigger than your third grade teacher who never bothered to pronounce your name correctly- you are thousands of feet higher in the air than they are and you are literally looking down on them. You almost become a part of that mountain- standing there on the bare rock, the wind pushes you this way and that, just as it does to the mountain. Like the high peak, you sit firmly planted, and just as strong as the metamorphic schist beneath your feet. Life is larger and our problems are smaller at 14,000 feet. I recommend visiting this rock covered alien landscape, it might be the closest you get to the moon and its just about that different from city life.
In Colorado there are 58 mountains that exceed 14,000 feet. We call these 14ers and while that is really high up in the air, consider that the lowest point in all of Colorado is around 4,000 ft. Many of these 14er hikes begin at trailheads that are around 11,000 ft high or so. So you will likely have a climb of around 3,000 feet, which is similar to climbing high peaks in the eastern United States (like in the Adirondacks, the 46ers are 4,600 feet or higher and usually their trails begin around 2,000 feet elevation).
There are some differences between these Rocky Mountains and the mountain ranges of the eastern United States. In Colorado, treeline (the elevation point at which trees do not grow) is typically around 11,000 feet. That means that during the entire climb up a 14er you will be very exposed. In fact most of the way up will probably be such a harsh environment that very little besides lichen will grow among the rocks. You will find snow atop these mountains for most of the year and there will be spots where it never melts. The wind and sun are harsh even on the fairest of summer days; expect a bit of a wind burn on whatever skin you leave exposed, bring lip balm for this reason alone.
The environment is also difficult for many people due to the low level of oxygen in the air. At 14,000 feet the air is very thin and those not acclimated to elevation can easily become physically sick. Even people who live in Colorado may have difficulty walking and find themselves more readily short of breath. If you are visiting from elevations much closer to sea level, give yourself time to adjust to the altitude (for as long as you can) before you make your way up a mountain, no matter how physically fit you are. I have heard MANY personal accounts from those who tried to climb 14ers on their vacations only to have to turn around mid way up the mountain because they couldn’t breathe, felt extremely dizzy, and occasionally even vomited. If you have asthma, make sure you bring your rescue inhaler.
Be aware of these things, but don’t let that stop you from getting out there and climbing one! Here is a step-by-step guide of how to hike a 14er (while being safe, having fun, and of course successfully summiting).
Unlike some hikes or trips where you can just wing-it, a little planning needs to happen. Here are some important things to consider when planning:
How to get there?
Not only do you need to know the driving directions to the trailhead, you also need to know the route your group plans to take. The roads to 14er trailheads are often in rough shape, if you were thinking of taking your 2WD low clearance car then make sure it will be able to handle the road. If you have the option of taking a friend’s car that is 4WD and high clearance, do so. Print out a map of the route you are taking, or at least take a picture of it at the trailhead; the trail can be less than obvious at times with nothing but rocks in all directions. Be sure to keep an eye out for some flagging or Cairns to keep you on trail.
Who is coming with me?
Bringing a friend is not necessary, but then who would take your picture at the top? Make sure they have an idea of what they are in for.
How do I know what to expect?
It would be good to check out the weather forecast to make sure you will be safe up there. It is also smart to look at some past accounts of the trail and mountain conditions. A website like 14ers.com has a lot of previous accounts so you can see what people thought of the trail last weekend.
What is my timeline like?
You will be able to estimate how long the hike will take you. In order to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms that happen all summer long on these monster peaks, plan to finish your hike well before noon. I would aim to finish by 11 a.m. as there have been some dangerous incidents recently where thunderstorms began early. In order to finish early most people have to start around 5-6 a.m. (bring your headlamp!)
You don’t have to camp… but why not? You can make a nice trip out of it, as there is usually dispersed camping around trailheads. There is also normally a pit toilet for your comfort. If it is difficult to wake up at 5, then consider how difficult it would be to wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. in order to drive up to the trailhead in time to hike. Camping is easier. There is also usually camping in the nearby area if you do not wish to pitch your tent right by the trailhead. I would advise cleaning up your campsite before your hike, because you aren’t going to want to do it after when your legs feel like noodles and all you want is a big meal.
3. Bring The Right Gear
Life on a 14er is harsh. There’s a few things that make it easier, on top of what you would bring for any hike in the mountains. Consider the following:
Water: you will need a lot of it and there will likely be no clean water source for miles. You could also bring a filter device, as many 14ers have snow melt streams trickling away from them
Wind Protection: Its windy. Wear a windbreaker or rain coat to stop the wind from eating away at your core. Chapstick and sunscreen also help greatly.
Layers: Wear or bring a bunch of light layers, the temperature changes drastically when you are in the sun, you can get sweaty while climbing up to on top of the windy peak, but then get pretty chilly while sitting still or in the shade. A beanie, good thick socks, thermal layer, and zip-off pants are all great ideas.
Hiking Boots: I have seen many people climb up in running shoes. However if you are like me, I enjoy some ankle support so I don’t roll my ankle every other step.
Gloves: Not something you immediately think about, but even in summer it is chilly up on the mountain. There is also likely snow in spots and you may even have to pull yourself up some snow covered rocks. That is way more fun to do when your hands don’t feel numb from the cold.
Trekking poles: If you are familiar with hiking poles, now is really the time to use them.
Winter Gear: If you’re hiking these in winter, your gear is different. Think snowshoes and ice axes.
4. Leave No Trace
Without much vegetation in a place where everything is snow-covered for 8 months or more out of the year, nature takes a long time to repair itself. Your impacts are felt strongly. Leave No Trace is a philosophy about how to treat our wild places so they stay wild and don’t end up trashed. Check out the principles that explain how best to leave no trace when we’re in nature.
For your 14er climb I would simply emphasize not to leave trash (that includes banana peels and other bio-degradable materials), and pack-it-in, pack-it-out. This includes both your poop as well as your dog’s poop. If you really mess up and don’t have anything to carry your waste down in, bury it to the best of your ability and wipe with rocks (that you also bury). This is another reason why you should plan ahead.
I’ll say it again. Thunderstorms are dangerous. Seriously you do not want to be the one on top of the mountain when a crazy storm forms overhead. You won’t be able to see any amazing views and you will be pelted by hail, at the very least. Be safe and get off the mountain well before noon.
Take pictures, say hi to pikas, scan the horizon, and feel infinite. Embrace the challenge, sweat your ass off, and celebrate! Good luck and have an amazing time 🙂
Now get out there!