Mountaineering in Colorado is popular and getting even moreso. In 2017, the most recent year we have numbers, climbers spent 334,000 hours hiking the 50+ Colorado Fourteeners, while the CFI shows a consistent 7% year-to-year growth rate on several popular peaks. However as more people enter the mountain ranges of the Centennial State, not everyone understands the risk inherent in summiting a 14,000 foot mountain peak. Injuries, rescue operations, and regrettably even deaths are common on the summits, especially several of the more difficult climbs. For those looking to climb a Fourteener but want to avoid getting rescued, we'll explain how to climb a Colorado 14er, without becoming a news story.
Stick to Class 1 or 2 Peaks.
The deadliest peak in Colorado, Longs Peak, isn't actually the hardest. It's not even rated in the top 10 - as a Class 3 climb of intermediate length, there are many more demanding Class 4 climbs. However, it takes the most lives by drawing inexperienced climbers to attempt it thanks to its proximity to the Front Range and its location in the National Park. You should stick to climbing Class 1 or 2 peaks to start with until you are more experienced before moving on to any Class 3 peaks. This significantly reduces your risk of injury, though it certainly doesn't do away with it completely. I provide my five favorite first 14ers at the bottom of the article.
Check the Forecast in Advance
I usually begin watching the forecast 4-5 days out from a climb. Thanks to mountain unpredictability, the forecast will be of little help before that, and may still change dramatically as your climb date gets closer. Be sure to check what the temperature range is, along with wind speeds (which can significantly chill you even when it isn't freezing). I usually use www.mountain-forecast.com for my forecasting. However always remember that the Rockies are unpredictable. In my experience forecasts are widely off 1 in 3 times, and slightly off another 1 in 3 times. Be ready for anything.
Pack the 10 Essentials
In the outdoors community, the 10 essentials are those key items necessary to survive and avoid disaster in the outdoors. These are mostly common sense: A map & compass, sun protection, extra layers, headlamp, first-aid supplies, water, matches, knife and extra food. A few pointers: Bring 2-3 liters of water, per person. Ideally you should also bring water filtration tablets in case you run out... it happens often. Dehydration is one of the biggest risk of Class 1 & 2 peaks. Also make sure you bring warm layers. The temperature at the trailhead is deceptive, and often anywhere from 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the summit. Finally, make sure your map is a detailed topographical map. A roadmap or something similar isn't going to help you. You can also use a trail app on your phone like Gaia or AllTrails, but always bring a paper backup in case something goes wrong.
Start Early & Finish Early
On the day of your climb, you should aim to summit no later than noon, if not earlier. My goal is to always be below treeline by 1pm. In the Colorado mountains, afternoon thunderstorms are a near-daily occurrence. As the sun warms the rocky mountain tops, they begin to warm the air above them, creating a column of hot rising air. This begins a cycle that ultimately forms thunderheads over the peaks. Starting early will help you avoid these storms, since lightning is a major risk above treeline.
Watch the Skies
Once you are hiking and on your way, the weather can still cause problems. Always take time as you go to stop and evaluate conditions. Make sure you stop to look behind you... sometimes you can continue one direction hours only to find a storm creeping up behind you. If your route includes longer periods above treeline, take extra caution before setting out to look for distant storms. You can also see developing thunderheads - look for puffy cumulus clouds that seem to be growing vertical... this is a warning sign of an impending thunderstorm. However always be ready to act fast: I have seen thunderstorms develop over me, out of nothing, in as little as 30 minutes.
My First Fourteener Top Picks
Now that you know how to climb a Colorado 14er, how should you pick a route? I have a few tried and true recommendations on mountains and routes for first-time 14ers:
Mt. Bierstadt - West Slopes Route
- Class: 2 (hiking & limited scrambling)
- Distance: 7 miles roundtrip
- 2,850 vertical feet
This peak, located close to Denver, is accessible and is mostly a hiking trail up the peak's gentle west slope. It features a slightly more interesting boulder scramble up the final 300 foot crux, with views of Mt. Evans, the Sawtooth Traverse, the Continental Divide, and on a clear day even Denver. However its proximity to Denver and easy access makes it the busiest of all the Fourteeners. For this reason, I only recommend it if you can't make it to one of the other peaks on this list - expect to see dozens of people on the summit on weekends and holidays. If you're looking for the least busy of these first 14er peaks, skip ahead to number 5 on the list, Mt. Massive. Click here for the route info.">Click here for the route info.
Quandary Peak - East Ridge Route
- Class: 1 (hiking)
- Distance: 6.75 miles
- 3,450 vertical feet
Quandary is the most popular first-climb thanks to its short length and lack of any bouldering. From the summit you get grandiose views of numerous ranges in all directions, especially spectacular in June & July while some snow remains. It's a slog but anyone can do it given enough time and preparation. This can also get busy, and I would aim to do it on a weekday. Click here for the route info.
Grays Peak & Torreys Peak - North Slope & Traverse Route
- Class: 2 (hiking & some scrambling)
- Distance: 8 miles
- 3,600 vertical feet
Looking to summit two peaks in one climb? Grays & Torreys, known as the Twin Peaks historically, are your best bet. The climb starts out with a hike up the basin with Class 1 good trail conditions all the way up Grays Peak. Then you tackle a Class 2 scramble across a ridge line down to the saddle and then up to Torreys Peak before descending the way you came. Grays & Torreys are slightly less busy than Mt. Bierstadt, but you should still expect somewhat of a crowd on weekends. Click here for the route info.
Mt. Elbert - Northeast Ridge Route
- Class: 1 (hiking)
- Distance: 9.5 miles
- 4,700 feet
It surprises a lot of people that the state's tallest mountain is on the list for beginners. However Mt. Elbert and the rest of the Sawatch Range are tall but broad mountains with slopes that make climbing relatively easier compared to the more rugged ranges. Climbing Elbert will take longer than some of the other peaks on this list but you'll be able to say you've reached Colorado's highest point. On the downside, its status attracts more climbers than other Sawatch peaks, so while better than the first three peaks on this list, it is still on the busy side. Click here for the route info.
Mt. Massive - Southwest Slopes Route
- Class: 2 (hiking & some scrambling)
- Distance: 7.25 miles
- 3,950 vertical feet
My top recommendation, Mt. Massive has it all. An approach with creek crossings, campsites for overnights and viewpoints. A short crux scramble with an otherwise good trail. And unlike its competitors, Mt. Massive sees less than half as many climbers as Elbert and a third as many as Bierstadt, so it's one of your best chances for a first 14er that doesn't always feel like Disney World. The longer distance should give you pause: don't try this without some acclimation and unless you're in shape. if you want to make it easy, I recommend breaking it into a two-day trip and backpacking into one of the campsites by the creek crossings - it's a free, fantastic place to camp! Click here for the route info.
With these recommendations and pointers, you too can experience the thrill of reaching a Colorado summit! So what are you waiting for? Start planning your first climb today - the mountains are calling!