Climbing Colorado Fourteeners
58 peaks. 464 miles. 205,115 feet. That's roughly* the journey you're in for if you decide to climb all of Colorado's fourteeners. Some people are happy to ever climb a single peak. A few climb them all in one season. One guy did it in less than 10 days. For me, it took 14 years of effort and many hard-learned lessons. Last summer on top of the Crestone Needle, I was thrilled to reach the final summit of this pursuit, and so grateful to experience the spectacular sunrises, remote wilderness, dramatic views, and quality partners that make hiking and climbing so intoxicating.
Knowing what to pack and wear on your outings is essential. So is solid fitness, paying close attention to weather and conditions, practicing good judgement, and understanding your risk tolerance. But there are a lot of other things nobody really tells you about climbing fourteeners. Here are 17 pieces of advice to help you prepare for and succeed on your adventures. Be safe, enjoy your journey, and happy climbing!
Tips for Hiking and Climbing Colorado Fourteeners
1. A combination of resources is a great way to prepare for a climb.
Essential resources are Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs by Gerry Roach, 14ers.com, and a good old-fashioned map. Referencing each of these provides a great mix of routes and route descriptions, up-to-date trip reports, conditions, general knowledge of the area in which you're hiking, and helpful, detailed route-finding information.
2. Get good at organizing your gear.
Many years ago I read a magazine article about the concept of a “Go Box.” As simple as it sounds, this is one of the most useful ideas I’ve come across in regard to gear. Rather than allowing your things to get strewn about your home in an unorganized way, invest in a few plastic bins or crates from Target. It makes packing up for a weekend so much faster and less daunting when you know exactly where everything is. Plus it will help you keep your gear clean and maintained when you have an organized system for putting things away.
3. If you want solitude, steer clear of fourteeners anywhere close to Denver.
On the Front Range you’ll probably never be alone on a fourteener. But once you get farther away, especially if you’re hiking early season (April or May) or late season (September or October) or on a weekday, there’s a good chance you won't see many others, even on standard routes.
4. The standard route is not always the best route.
It’s easy to look at guidebooks and online resources and select the standard, i.e. most common route. This is typically the route that is either the easiest or the most accessible. Sometimes this truly is the best option, but don’t be afraid to explore other routes and dive into the map. As you climb more fourteeners, the non-standard routes will become increasingly appealing for avoiding crowds and checking out something new.
5. A lot of people will say they want to climb with you, and they never will.
Climbing takes planning. You have to schedule when, where, which route, what gear, what food, and who’s going. It’s generally hard to get people to commit to anything, and because climbing requires a lot of commitment, it’s just too much for some people. Don’t let this discourage you! Local groups like Mappy Hour, Outdoor Women's Alliance and Feral Mountain Co. have resources to help you find partners or join group hikes. These folks will likely be just as committed as you are to getting outside. That said...
6. Hiking with a big group is not always fun.
If you’re new to climbing and want to learn, gain experience, and meet partners, hiking in a group is awesome. Just know that it’s not very efficient. More people means more varied paces, more stopping, more pulling over to let other hikers pass, and getting stretched out while parts of your group pass other people. Once you've found great partners, consider keeping trips at a maximum of five people. This is a good number for staying together on the trail, mostly being in the same conversation, and all fitting in a single (albeit tight) vehicle.
7. Map and compass skills are still necessary.
In the age of Google Maps and online resources with detailed images of every move of your hike, it’s tempting to disregard the use of a map. Yes, the trails to many fourteeners are well-established, and often there are enough people around to help you maintain confidence in where you’re headed. But many routes are not this way, nor should you rely on others to give you directions. You should always have an idea of where you’re going. That’s not to say I’ve never been lost because I certainly have. You’ll probably get lost, too. Just know how to orient yourself and get back to recognizable territory when it happens.
8. Eat something besides bars.
No offense to Clif Bar, but I can never eat one again. I’ve simply had too many. Bars are nice for a quick breakfast or snack on the trail, but part of the fun of outdoor exploration is eating something tasty and satisfying while you’re working so hard. There are entire blogs and books dedicated to nutrition for endurance activities, but in general, don’t overthink it. Just carry things that are simple and tasty. A few things I like are Almond Thins, olives, Babybel cheese, dried bananas, homemade trail mix, ramen, or a homemade sandwich.
9. Don’t plan on using your phone.
By all means, take photos with your phone along your hike. I’ve saved handy route-finding tidbits on my phone many times. But don’t expect to have service. Your phone likely won’t work for most of your outing, and even if it does, it’s considered bad form to Snap from the summit. Real emergencies are an obvious exception to phone use.
10. When you transition from tolerance to excitement, you’re probably ready to climb something harder.
There was a distinct point when I became nervously aware of climbs rather than afraid to approach them. As you gain more experience with different types of mountain travel (regular hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, snow climbing) you’ll learn your preferences, and you will look forward to finding more challenging routes. Some good peaks to test this approach are Mount Sneffels, Wetterhorn Peak, and Mount Eolus.
11. Choose your partners wisely.
Are you just out for a fun day of hiking? Are you climbing something difficult? Are you set on getting to the summit? If you want to keep peace among friends and accomplish your goals, knowing your intentions for any given climb are essential for choosing a partner. Communicate your goals with your partner, and make sure you understand his or hers.
12. Everyone in your party should know the plan.
Whether you’re planning the trip or you’re along for the ride, everyone on the outing should know what you’re in for. This includes understanding the route and exactly where you’re going, the difficulty, and your estimated time to complete the climb. Review the map and route with your group before you start hiking. Even if one person has committed to leading the trip, it’s not wise to leave it up to a single group member to navigate. When everyone understands the route, it will be easier to handle route-finding and decision-making rather than blindly being a follower.
13. People outside of your party should also know the plan.
You don’t have to make this overkill, but always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. It only makes a bad situation worse if something goes wrong on your trip and nobody knows where you are or even that you’re overdue.
14. Learn to estimate climbing time and mind your pace.
I personally like an approach of “medium and steady.” Moving too fast requires frequent breaks, and breaks are a big time suck. If you can maintain a pace that’s challenging but won’t have you stopping every 15 minutes, this is what you should aim for. Pace is highly variable depending on the type of terrain you’re crossing, the elevation at which you’re climbing, and the total elevation gain. This means that one mile does not equal 30 minutes. It might on the lower, flatter stretches of a climb, but probably not while you’re navigating an exposed ridge at 13,000 feet. Wear a watch and take note of your speed over various types of terrain. An accurate time reference will come in handy for future climbs when you’re tempted to take a late start because you’re only covering what seems like a short distance. A realistic idea of your pace is essential for avoiding a rushed summit bid.
15. Learn your strengths.
When you read trip reports or talk with other hikers and climbers, there is a ton of subjectivity in how routes are described. What is easy for you may be very difficult for someone else. You might have a fear of exposure while others might not have great endurance. “Easy” or “hard” are poor descriptions for climbs because they are relative to individual strengths. Learn what yours are so you can make the most of information from others, and share information in a more objective way.
16. Find your reasons for wanting to be out there.
Resist the checkmark-fueled culture that can exist around climbing fourteeners. Stay connected to what motivates you to be in the outdoors, and don’t climb for any purpose that does not bring you joy and freedom.
17. Give to or volunteer with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
All those nice steps in the trail made from huge, heavy rocks? That’s the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. Building and maintaining trails is expensive, and the CFI does the hard work of keeping fourteeners accessible, protecting sensitive landscapes, and restoring damaged wilderness. As Colorado’s fourteeners see more and more hikers each year, this work is essential for preservation and continued access to these wild places. Visit 14ers.org to learn how you can support CFI.
*Numbers are based on my chosen routes for each peak. Many people consider several of Colorado's fourteeners to be "unofficial" putting the total number at 53 rather than 58. However, many also consider these five peaks to be part of the total. I chose to climb them, but not everyone does. The unofficial classification is based on the amount of elevation gain from adjacent peaks that also reach more than 14,000 feet.