Colorado fourteeners: seriously everything you need to know before you go

They’re Colorado’s most iconic peaks, and if you haven’t already climbed one, it’s probably on your to-do list — after all, hiking 14,000-foot peaks, or fourteeners, is a rite of passage in this state.

People have skied all 53 (or more) of the fourteeners in winter, climbed stable spring snow to the summits. But for most of us, the peak season comes in summer, when the snow fades in late June, bringing the most straightforward access to our state’s highest summits.

Some fourteeners are tough, technical climbs. Others are walk-ups, but they still require fitness and fortitude to get up before dawn to walk uphill, at altitude, for several hours. If you have yet to tackle an ascent of your first fourteener, it can seem like a daunting challenge — one not just of physical fitness but outdoors knowledge. And if the weather (and good knees) has granted you safe passage to the summit of a handful of fourteeners, you might be wondering what you can do better.

Here’s where to start.

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“Easy” fourteeners

First things first: you have to pick a fourteener. Fortunately for Front Rangers, some of the easiest climbs are nearby.

“I would never say any fourteener is easy,” says—James Dziezynski,—author of “Best Summit Hikes in Colorado,” which includes some fourteeners, plus thirteeners and other notable peaks. He has climbed all of the fourteeners at least once. “I always think that isn’t the right information to send.”

“But Elbert, it’s a walk-up,” he says, referring to Colorado’s highest peak, visible from Leadville. “That’s how it evolves for people.”

“Grays, Torreys, Bierstadt, Evans, Quandary, Lincoln, Democrat and Sherman are close to Denver and easy enough for a first climb,” says Gerry Roach, author of “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs,” which is now in its third edition.

Grays and Torreys are side by side, and many hikers climb both peaks in the same outing; the same is true of Lincoln and Democrat.

The “easiest” fourteeners are likely to be busy on a weekend, but for those early in their fourteeners careers, Dziezynski thinks there’s a benefit to crowds.

“A lot of people who have been doing this a while say they hate the crowds,” Dziezynski says. “But you have this built-in safety net of people you can ask questions to.”

Hikes like Grays and Torreys have “a beaten path to the top,” he says—– which means new hikers are less likely to get off route. “Pay attention to what the weather does, pay attention to your nutrition. Since you don’t have to worry about navigation, take care of these other things — and learn them.”

Sarah Meiser, who has climbed all of Colorado’s foureeners and thirteeners and chronicles her adventures at 13ergirl.com, echoes that sentiment for new high-altitude hikers. “For their first ones, I think it’s good to have people around, because they don’t really know what to expect and they could run into some kind of problem.”

If you want to avoid crowds

“Climb alternate routes, off season and on weekdays, if possible,” Roach says.

“You don’t have to get far off the Front Range,” Dziezynski says.—For those seeking easier fourteeners that offer some solitude, Dziezynski recommends Redcloud, Sunshine, Handies and San Luis peaks. (All are in the San Juan Mountains.)

According to a hiker-use study by Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Saturdays are far and away the most popular day of the week to hike, says—Lloyd F. Athearn, executive director of the initiative, which seeks to protect the “natural integrity” of Colorado’s fourteeners through education and sustainable trail building and maintenance. “Even Sundays were about 30 percent fewer hikers than a Saturday.—Monday through Thursdays, even on the most popular peaks, see significantly lower use.”

Weather and early starts

Weather dictates so many things about how we climb fourteeners: early starts are required because of persistent, daily afternoon storms in the mountains in the summer; lightning demands that hikers descend immediately, regardless of the summit or time of day; and so-called “freak” snowstorms in July or August are only freakish in that if you haven’t encountered one yet, you’re either lucky or haven’t been hiking long enough — either way, they’ll create a hypothermia risk for the unprepared high-altitude hiker.

And that’s just in the summer season.

Roach notes in the preface of his guidebook that “Lightning kills people every year in Colorado’s mountains.” Data compiled by the National Weather Service shows that Colorado ranks third in fatal lightning strikes in the U.S. The risk is clear: high, open places are dangerous in lightning storms, so above treeline — where hikers can be the tallest objects — on a fourteener is not a place you want to be most summer afternoons in Colorado.

What can you do to mitigate the risk? First and foremost, start your hike early so you’ll be below treeline on your return — or better, finished with your hike — when the daily storm pops up.

Dziezynski says he likes to be on the trail by 5 a.m. for most hikes, but if it’s a technical climb, that’s probably too late to be starting up a fourteener.

Later in the hike, he pays attention.

“I definitely become aware of weather around 10 in the morning, because that’s when you start to see those storms building,” Dziezynski says. “And a general rule is, you want to be into treeline around 1:30 in the afternoon” — on your descent.

Though the potential for afternoon storms is fairly predictable, Colorado weather is anything but — storms can pop mid-morning and skies can be clear through the afternoon. “In Colorado, I’ve probably had my hair stand up four times at least on summit, and sometimes it was when I wasn’t even worried,” Meiser said.

Rather than following strict turnaround times, Dziezynski keeps an eye on the weather as he hikes and evaluates as he goes. He even has taken weather classes just to beef up his mountain knowledge.

Roach isn’t a fan of strict turnaround times. “I have turned around as early as 9 a.m., and have often gone into the next night.” Rather, he always starts early and follows a personal commandment: “You cannot outrun a storm; physics wins.”

Here’s one more reason to start early: Going up early can make you a better steward of the wilderness you’re visiting. “So what will happen — and this is not an uncommon occurrence — is people go up, and they might not be familiar with the weather,” Athearn says. “They get high up on the mountain and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m in a lightning storm.’ And they’re cruising down the mountain as fast as they can, and they’re cutting switchbacks and maybe being not as gentle on the terrain.”

One more weather note: On average, for every 1,000 feet you climb up the mountain, the temperature will drop 5 degrees (Fahrenheit). So if you start at 11,000 feet, expect temperatures to be about 15 degrees cooler at the summit. Couple that with the breeze at the top and you’ll definitely be pulling a jacket out of your pack.

What to pack

  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Rain jacket
  • Fleece or other warm layer
  • Winter hat and gloves
  • Map and compass and/or GPS
  • Small first-aid kit
  • Headlamp

Dziezynski notes that it’s hard to know how much water to take for your first fourteener hike. He usually tells friends to pack 64-100 ounces “until they figure out how much they need.” Meiser similarly recommends at least two liters (or 67 ounces).

With time you’ll learn to assess whether you’re packing too much — slowing your ascent — or too little — which puts you in danger if your hike takes than expected — says ultrarunner Joe Grant.

“What I like to do is carry just enough that I’m going to be safe,” says Grant, who set the speed record for climbing all the fourteeners self-supported and human-powered (he biked between them) last year.

He travels light but doesn’t recommend it for everyone. “I’m kind of counting on my ability to go quickly to be safe,” he says. “More time on the mountain is more exposure, more potential for bad weather, more potential for something to happen, so you probably need more stuff. That’s an individual thing.”

What to eat

“For snacks, I tend to like stuff that’s really easy to digest,” Dziezynski says. “Personally I mostly use gels and blocks and those sorts of things now.”

“I know a lot of people will eat peanut butter and jelly or bagels,” he says, but sitting down trailside to eat a sandwich could leave you with that post-lunch zonked feeling that makes you crave either a nap or a latte (and there’s no coffee shop at 14,000 feet).

Roach notes that nutrition is done at home, over time, but “on climb day you can bend this plan.” Go for quick, sustainable energy, he says. Have a cookie.

Fat is tougher for our bodies to digest at altitude. “I found bacon to be an anti-food at 17,000 feet,” Roach says. (He has climbed Mount Everest.)

What to wear (and what not to wear)

“I always wear pants,” Meiser says. I wore shorts once and I got caught in a snowstorm.” It was her second fourteener. “Jeans shorts no less. So that was great.” But it’s never so hot she regrets wearing pants, she says.

You’ll see people wearing just about everything on fourteeners, from shorts and tank tops to puffy jackets and woolly caps. But the shorts-and-a-tank-top hikers are taking a gamble on more than a wicked sunburn.

“Summer storms can appear quickly to drench and freeze you,” Roach says.. “I always carry or wear long pants, a hooded storm jacket, hat and gloves.”

Even Grant, the ultrarunner who tends to carry minimal amounts of gear, doesn’t think he can outrun the threat of hypothermia. “I typically always bring a warm layer and a warm jacket,” Grant says.

Footwear

Meiser said she always wears trail runners. (“Boots are too heavy, and I can move faster.”) Dziezynski also leaves his boots at home. “Nothing wrong with boots, but I like a lighter day hiker,” he says.

Roach says it depends on the peak: “Many people do fine in running shoes on a fourteener with a trail all or most of the way, but be aware of the increased risk of a twisted ankle or cold, wet feet in a storm.”

Altitude

Doctors say anyone, regardless of age, fitness or previous experience, can have trouble with altitude above 7,500 to 8,000 feet. Acute mountain sickness, or AMS, resembles a hangover: headache, nausea, fatigue, the desire to curl up next to a rock with your rain jacket pulled over your head to block the sun. Staying hydrated helps fight AMS, as does ibuprofen. Descending, of course, is the only real cure.

Maybe your stomach’s just off? Maybe you’re tired from the early start? “The one real easy indicator is your pace,” Dziezynski says. Especially if you’re still having trouble when you head downhill.

That said, he notes that “You’re always going to slow down once you get to around 12,500 feet.” It’s just tough hiking that high. “That’s OK, that’s normal.”

Another way to avoid altitude problems is to spend the night at or near the trailhead, Roach says. “Even a few hours of altitude prep time can help.”

Ultimately, Roach says, “People’s ability to adjust to altitude varies greatly. With experience, you will learn how your body behaves at altitude and what prep is best for you.”

Research before you go

Know your route and know yourself before you go.

“What might be trivial for one person might be really difficult for another, so it’s important to do an honest assessment beforehand,” says ultrarunner Grant.

The notoriously airy Knife Edge northeast ridge on Capitol Peak provides a good example of why research helps, but knowing your abilities as you research is best, he says. “If you read online, people’s experiences are vastly different.”

Roach’s book is known as a fourteeners bible of sorts. It includes detailed route information and maps, but it also notes which USGS maps climbers will want to take with them on summit day.

14ers.com is the ultimate online guide to the 53 official fourteneeners — and their sub peaks, some of which rise above 14,000 feet but don’t have enough separation from the main peak to be considered fourteeners in their own right. (If you want to argue over what, exactly, constitutes a fourteener, 14ers.com is a good place to engage in that battle.)

Not only does the site have extensive descriptions and photos of every peak, but users are constantly submitting trip reports and conditions reports in all seasons. Want to know if the snow has cleared off Quandary Peak? Someone has probably posted a conditions report at 14ers.com in the past week.

Leaving No Trace

“Number one, stay on the trail,” says Athearn of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. “Don’t cut switchbacks.”

Trails up fourteeners “convey people through very fragile alpine and tundra ecosystems,” he says. When you’re up there, you might think, these tiny plants survive amid rocks and snow, they must be robust. However, “They’re well adapted to all of that stuff — they’re not well adapted to people stepping on them,” he says.—”Experts say it takes a thousand years to create an inch of soil.”

Cutting trail creates serious erosion problems on the trail, Athearn says. “If you cut that switchback, you’re going to have a fall-line section of trail. So what you have is, instead of water sheeting off the trail, it’s going to course down the trail that’s been cut and scour it out.”

The Fourteeners Initiative’s goal, Atherarn says, is to have a sustainable route on each fourteener. “We opened our 31st route, so we still have some more to go.”

Other pointers:

Stay on rock. When you pull over for lunch, or to let other hikers pass, “it’s best to look for the most durable surface you can be on,” he says. “For example, if you can walk off trail only stepping on rocks, that’s going to be the least impact.”

Don’t pick flowers. Picking a flower means it can’t propagate. And some alpine flowers take as much as seven years to bloom.

Keep dogs on leash. Small alpine animals like pikas are already stressed by climate change, he says.

Pack it out; leave it as you found it.—”Sithin the last year or two, there seem to be more people going up on mountains and taking a Sharpie pen and writing the peak name on rocks,” Athearn says. “That was a thing we started to see on social media last year and tried to let people know not to do it.” Hikers also pack elevation signs to use in photos at the summits, which is fine as long as people pack them out.

Training for fourteeners

Go for a hike! Dziezynski says the Front Range is the perfect place to live if you want to train for fourteeners. “We have so many great mountains.”

“They’re a little lower than the mileage on most fourteeners, but they’re a great place to figure out your body, figure out your pace,” he says.

If he hasn’t been up high lately, he likes to do a 10 or 11,000-foot peak, “see how I’m feeling, then go after the bigger ones.” (Dziezynski’s latest guidebook, “Best Summit Hikes in Colorado,” which is in its second edition, is a good place to find training hikes.)

Roach also says, “Practice on easier peaks.” Also: “Always leave a margin. If you want to do a 12-hour climb, you should be in shape for a 14-hour climb.”


Colorado 14ers

The map shows all peaks higher than 14,000 feet in elevation in Colorado. Click a map marker for details; use the dropdown menu to zoom to a peak; click the icon in the top right corner of the map to switch between topographical, terrain and satellite views.

 

Sources: Colorado Geological Survey (elevations), Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (usage estimates). Details links will open in 14ers.com.

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