An Introduction to Hiking Colorado 14ers

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Over the past few years, I've dragged a number of friends up 14ers with me, answering a lot of questions about what to expect, what to wear, what to bring, etc. I decided it was probably time to finally write down some of my answers - if for no other reason to give some of my friends something to look at as a resource, but also to hopefully help out other people new to hiking 14ers. This information is really just based on my personal experiences hiking, as well as those of some of my regular hiking partners - your mileage may vary.

So you're interested in hiking a Colorado 14er? Where do you start? This guide may help you in preparing for your first 14er ascent and give you some good tips or starting points. As with any guide, take this with a grain of salt - this is based on my personal experiences of hiking in the summer in Colorado, frequently with new hikers. The information described below should be adequate for nearly any Class 2 hike on a Colorado 14er in summer months.

The first question I typically get is, "When can I start climbing 14ers?" It may seem like you can start climbing shortly after the ski season is over, but snow will continue to block the trail (and often the trailhead) until late June. For those interested in just hiking (not snowshoeing or snow climbing), late June/early July is really the soonest I'd recommend attempting a 14er. Of course, this will vary based on the snow conditions and weather of the year, or where the trail is located, but it's a good rule of thumb. Check the forums on 14ers.com to start gauging how the trails are. Hiking season for 14ers is typically July through September, possibly early October on a dry year. There are a lot of great resources online that can help you assess whether a trail is passable yet, based on forum posts and trip reports by other hikers like yourself.


The Resources

There are a number of fantastic resources to help you in your hike, from maps to trip reports and photos. The website 14ers.com provides excellent trail guides, user forums, and resources for any level of hiker. Their forums are frequently filled with recent trip reports, trailhead conditions, and helpful tips for hikers. Another good site dedicated to summits of all kinds is SummitPost.org which contains all user contributed content for a wide array of summits around the world.

A book worth investing in is Colorado's Fourteeners - From Hikes to Climbs by Gerry Roach, a local Coloradoan who has hiked every route described in the book. You'll see this book in nearly every car at a trailhead. I find that combining Roach's trail descriptions with those on 14ers.com provides the best appreciation for the routes complexity and difficulty, as you get multiple perspectives. If you want even more information, post a question to the forums on 14ers.com. Within hours you'll likely receive plenty of responses from other helpful hikers.

Before going on any hike, I read the description in Roach's book, the route guide on 14ers.com, and then skim 14ers.com for recent trip reports to see if there's any detail that I should know about. Frequently, I'll print out the 14ers.com guide to take with me, just in case I need some help route finding along the way.


Preparation

Hiking a 14er is surprisingly much easier than most other backcountry excursion - most likely because the trailheads are well maintained, access is easy, and the trails are frequently very obvious. Couple this with the throngs of people you will likely see on your hike, and there is relatively little need to prepare for a hike. You should, however, ensure that someone in your group is doing at least a little legwork to ensure that they know where they are going. It won't hurt if you spend some time studying the route. Despite well marked and easy to follow trails on the easier peaks, people seem to get lost every year.

Google Earth is a great software tool to examine the terrain of the mountain, and you can even overlay USGS Topo maps over top of the satellite imagery to get an even better feel for the terrain. Things to look out for are forested areas, steep spots, possible exposure, etc. I also use National Geographic TOPO software, which has a full set of Topo Quad maps for the entire state of Colorado where I can trace my route, assess the elevation profile, and download data to/from my GPS.

Being in good shape before the hike will help tremendously, but you'll quickly find out that the thin air will wind nearly anybody. The best way to train for being at altitude is literally to be at altitude. The more high altitude hiking you do in a summer, the better you'll feel. Otherwise, the only thing you really need to reach the top is determination. If you don't want to get there, you probably won't. Hiking with motivating friends is a good way to keep your enthusiasm up!


The Gear

So now that you know where you're going, you probably need to know what to wear and what to bring. What do you really need to get up a 14er, anyway? Really - nothing. I've seen hikers in jeans, t-shirts, and flip-flops make it up successfully. Of course, how comfortable you are on your hike will largely dictate how much fun the hike is. Weather can change really quickly in Colorado, and a clear bluebird day can became rainy and cold in an instant. This simply emphasizes the point: there is no bad weather, only the wrong clothing. So here's my suggested list of what you should have for the hike.

Necessary Items for your Pack

There are a few things that you should definitely carry with you. Here's my list of absolute necessities for the trail. Remember to leave enough room in your pack for your layers as you shed them!

Optional Items for your Pack

My pack holds a lot of extra gear that's more on the side of preparedness.


The Climb

Now that your gear is all squared away, you've got the route plotted out, and you're dressed for the occasion, it's time to talk about the hike itself (remember why you started reading this in the first place?)

I should start by cautioning some readers that a 14er is not the place to "get back to nature." If you're climbing a peak near the front range, you will be on it with 500 of your closest friends - this is not a place to get away from people. 14ers are very popular to hike in Colorado: they're well enumerated (there are only 54 of them), the trails are well marked, and there are a large number close to the populated regions of the Front Range. If you're expecting a solitude, wilderness experience, go hike a 13er instead - they're practically deserted (yet frequently more challenging!). The farther you get from the front range, the more solitude you will likely have on the peak, but it's rare to be on the mountain alone.

But when should you start hiking? Typically, much to the chagrin of my friends, I like to start at 6am, or earlier. The departure time may vary, depending on how much vertical we have to climb, how long the trail is, and the time of year. I'm more lax in May than in August, but then a little more lax in late September. A typical hiking speed is about 1000 vertical feet of climbing an hour. Of course, this will vary greatly depending on the grade or condition of the trail, but it's a reasonable approximation. This matters for two reasons: when should you leave and how much water should you bring. A long hike will dictate more water as well as an earlier departure time.

Why is your departure time so important? One word: lightning. As far as most 14ers are concerned (at least Class 1 and Class 2 hikes), lightning is really the only risk (yes, you could trip and break something, but the odds of that are pretty low). When you're above treeline, you quickly become the best lightning rod around, so the thing you must always be aware of is the lightning risk around you.

As a broad generalization (perhaps a bit too broad), thunderstorms tend to sweep through Colorado in the afternoon, so a good rule of thumb is that you want to be off the summit by noon at the latest. That said, I personally have been caught in storms as early as 10am, so vigilance and caution is always warranted.

As to the weather, when you start in the morning, the temperature is usually around 40 degrees. Once the sun begins to shine in the valley (which may be a while if you're approaching from the west) temperatures will rise quickly. But, even as temperatures rise in the sun, the air temperature typically drops about 5 degrees for every 1000 feet gained, so it will typically stay pretty cool on the climb up. Wind whipping across ridgelines may affect the temperature as well. Plan on your ascent being cool (rest assured - you will be generating enough heat), but things tend to heat up on the descent. The heat of the sun will have really picked up the ambient air temperature, and you're descending (adding 5 degrees each 1000 feet now).

But what about the hike itself? I find that the best approach to climbing is to set a slow and sustainable pace, taking breaks maybe once every hour. A common mistake I see on the trail, particular peaks with lots of beginners, like Grays and Torreys, is people moving 300 feet then stopping and gasping for air. Each time you stop, it's harder to get moving again as your muscles have cooled down a bit. Minimizing these breaks will work wonders for your ascent. Trying to keep your breaks short will help too, for the same reason. This is one of the reasons why I favor CamelBaks for water - you can drink water without taking a break. I also tend to keep a Clif Bar accessible in my pants pocket or in a reachable pouch on my pack so I can snack while still moving.


Trail Etiquette

The number of people on 14ers demands a certain degree of backcountry etiquette. The principal reason is ecological - the number of people on 14ers can impact the environment catastrophically. The other reason is purely social - your climb, and as a result others' climbs, will be better if people are polite and respectful to you on the trail.


Rating a Trail

Most 14er guides (including Roach's book and 14ers.com) use the Yosemite Decimal System to describe trail conditions.

  • Class 1: Well marked and worn trail. No route finding is necessary

    Class 2: This can vary from a semi-worn trail to no trail at all. Trail surface may be steep and slick (loose dirt/scree) and route finding may be necessary. Scrambling (using your hands) may be required.

    Class 3: Scrambling is to be expected - a good rule of thumb is that, for a class 3 hike, downclimbing will require you to face the rock, rather than face outward.

    Class 4: Climbing - usually without a rope, but one may not be a bad idea. A fall may be lethal.

    Class 5: Technical climbing with a rope


  • Good First Hikes

    So you're ready to go for a hike...where do you go? My recommended beginner hikes are as follows:

    In addition to the peaks I listed, there are plenty of other good starter peaks out there. Short (6-8 miles, round trip) Class 1 or Class 2 hikes should offer a good start.

    Good luck - and remember to have fun!






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