Know Before You Go: Climbing Colorado 14ers
Climbing a 14er has become a right of passage for many intermediate and experienced Colorado hikers. The feeling of accomplishment when you’ve reached the summit after hiking uphill for many miles is an incredible reward. With that reward comes plenty of risks that should be considered before embarking on a 14er adventure.
What is a 14er?
Colorado is home to more than 50 “fourteeners” or “14ers”, the nickname for mountains over 14,000′ in elevation. Climbing these mountains has become a popular activity for thousands of outdoor enthusiasts each year. Hikers, climbers and mountaineers have made it a goal to summit a collection of 14ers, an effort commonly referred to as peak bagging. Mount Elbert (14,433′) and Mount Massive (14,421′), are the two tallest mountain peaks in Colorado—and they happen to both be in Leadville’s backyard!
As with any hike, some mountains are more difficult than others and there are many online resources available to help hikers evaluate 14er options. 14ers.com is an online resource that provides free access to peak information, climbing routes and an active forum for peak-baggers to connect with each other. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is a non-profit organization working to preserve and protect the natural integrity of Colorado’s fourteeners through active stewardship and public education.
Know Before You Go
July is peak 14er season in Colorado. With the growing popularity of hiking 14ers, it is more important than ever for climbers to do their research, consider risks and always practice Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.
“With the ever-growing popularity of climbing the state’s tallest peaks, 14er trails (and trailheads) are becoming overcrowded,” says Cooper Mallozzi, Professor of Outdoor Recreation Leadership and Program Director of Wellness & Outdoor Studies at Colorado Mountain College Leadville, “It is essential that visitors practice LNT to maintain the remote, wilderness aesthetic for future generations. One easy LNT practice is to plan your hike for a weekday, affording you a more peaceful experience while keeping one less group off the mountain on weekends.”
Skyler Winter, a student in the Elementary Education program at Colorado Mountain College Leadville, has bagged 19 Colorado 14ers since moving to the Centennial State in 2020. His suggestions? Pack layers, bring plenty of food and water, and stay humble.
“You never want to stuck with clothes that are too warm or too cold,” says Skyler, “Even if the forecast looks good, be prepared for the worst. Getting caught up in a storm with out the right attire is NOT fun.”
Weather can change in a moment at higher elevations. Packing synthetic layers will help you adjust to changing conditions and temperatures. Though a storm cloud can appear at anytime in the high alpine, it’s common for summer storms to take over the sky in the afternoons. It’s recommended to summit before noon to reduce the risk of bad weather, and most fourteener hikes require a pre-dawn start.
“Pack plenty of food and water,” recommends Skyler, “Many people often underestimate how long they’ll be out there, myself included. I always pack extra snacks and hydration. You might not always need it but if you do that could be the difference in summiting or not.”
Experienced climbers also recommend bringing sunblock, a headlamp, an emergency blanket, gloves, knife, a hat, first-aid kit, compass, and other essential items. 14ers.com has a helpful gear list for planning a successful hike. Always unpack and repack your bag before departure to make sure you have everything you need.
Evaluate Changing Conditions
“Don’t be hyper focused on summiting,” says Skyler, “Even on the best days sometimes you don’t summit and that’s ok. When you are so focused on reaching the top that nothing will stop you, that’s how accidents happen. These mountains are no joke and knowing when to call it off could save your life.”
Summit fever is extremely dangerous. Climbers should always be ready to change their plans and turn around for a number of factors. Constantly evaluate the changing weather and terrain, as well as the physical and mental condition of yourself and your hiking partners. Be prepared to accept that you may have to turn around before reaching the summit.
“My favorite and most challenging was Crestone Peak,” says Skyler, “Crestone Peak is part of the Sangre De Cristo Range. The hike is a grueling 14 mile hike with 6,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s absolutely gorgeous: the high alpine, pikas, and other worldly rock formations. It’s untouched by humans but there’s a reason for that. There are many dangers that go along with this climb on top of the demanding physical toll. There are tons of loose rock, and steep cliffs as well as storms could roll in any second. Any combination of these factors could be potentially fatal.”
Peak-bagging is a physically demanding activity. It is recommended that beginner climbers start with easier hikes and gradually increase the amount of mileage and vertical gain to work up to a fourteener. Before heading into the Colorado backcountry at any time of year, it’s critical to plan your route and prepare. There are many online planning tools, so be sure to do your research before heading to the trailhead.
“It is thrilling to see so many people venturing into the mountains, yet it also means we all need to do our part with Leave No Trace to maintain their wilderness feel,” says Cooper Mallozzi, “Be sure to plan ahead and prepare for all contingencies. Stay on the trail and just step aside to let other pass – the alpine ecosystem is incredibly fragile. Keep close watch on your food wrapper bits (micro-trash) in a zippered pocket and even pick up those that aren’t yours. Above all, smile and say hi to your fellow adventurers – this is supposed to fun!”