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- Part 1 -

Preparing For Your 14er Climb

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Colorado’s 53 fourteeners all exceed 14,000 feet. While the altitude, weather, and distances can be daunting, most of the peaks are accessible with a bit of preparation and planning! Here is our best advice for preparing to climb a 14er!. 

Picking a Peak & Route

Your first decision is an obvious one: Which peak to climb, and which route to take? There are fifty-three named, ranked 14ers, with more than 100 routes to climb them. The routes can be broken down and ranked according to:

  • Route Class (Stick to a Class 1, just hiking, or Class 2, with limited scrambling)
  • Distance (Ranges from 4.5 miles to more than 20 miles)
  • Elevation (Usually at least 3,000 feet).

With 53 mountains to choose from, it’s not easy to pick. If you’re struggling, I recommend climbing Mount Belford or Mount Sherman, depending on whether or. not you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. Here’s an overview of both, with links to the 14ers.com route descriptions.

Mount Sherman is in the Mosquito Range, and one of the shortest 14er routes at 5 and a. quarter miles round-trip. During the hike, you’ll pass historic mining structures and relics, which adds to the adventure! Keep in mind that Sherman requires 4WD for this shorter trip – going with a. 2WD car will add 5 miles to your trip. 

Mount Belford is deep in the Sawatch Range, and is a. great opportunity to climb two 14ers if you feel up to it! It’s 8 miles to the summit, but you can add on Mount Oxford for an 11-mile day. The trailhead is accessible to any 2WD vehicle, and you are able to pass several historic cabins and mining towns as you drive and hike in. 

My Beginner 14er Recommendations

Checking the Weather Forecast

Once you’ve picked a peak and set a date for your trip, you can start checking the forecast. Now is a good time for some background on weather patterns in the rocky mountains. 
The Summer is known for rapidly shifting conditions and fast-developing storms. During the so-called “Summer Monsoon” .thunderstorms develop almost daily in the afternoon. While forecasts are not always accurate, they can provide a general idea of what’s coming, and they get more accurate as your climb gets nearer.
 
I check at least two different sources when I’m planning a climb. The first is mountain-forecast.com, which relies on weather models to predict the forecast. However, models don’t always work quite right, so I also check the forecast for a town nearest the 14er I’m climbing using Weather.com or another major source. If the two aren’t similar, I know I may have a problem. 

What do you do if the forecast predicts storms? Generally, don’t go! The mountain will still be there later, and most people won’t enjoy spending hours in the rain. Don’t switch your destination at the last minute, even if tempted. You probably haven’t done the proper preparation to ensure you stay safe. Take the time to do it right!
Lightning over the water.

Get in Shape & Acclimate

You shouldn’t try to climb a 14er if you aren’t in relatively decent shape. You should be capable of hiking 8 miles with more than 3,000 feet of elevation gain. If you have problems breathing you may also want to consider a lower altitude destination. Those with bad knees or hips will have a very difficult time on the descent – if you choose to climb, bring ibuprofen and trekking poles.
 
Those of us living in Colorado have an easy time when it comes to altitude. For everyone else, proper acclimation is key to have a safe, enjoyable trip. Once you get above 7,000 feet, you should spend at least one night, but preferable two, getting used to the altitude. As your body develops more red blood cells, you’ll be able to get more oxygen from the air. Ascending too rapidly can result in acute mountain sickness, including headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. Left untreated, that can become a life-threatening condition like High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema. Take the time to acclimate by working in an extra night or two at high-elevation before you ascend beyond 10,000 feet or so. . 
Young woman running

Study the Route & Read Trip Reports

Too often, people show up at a 14er trailhead expecting a clear route and trail to follow. You should review your route in depth before your climb to ensure you know where you’re going and what you’re looking for. Here’s a good strategy for doing so.

Start with the Official Route Description on 14ers.com. They provide a written description of each trail, along with pictures and numerous maps. I review the route at least twice before I climb, and usually save any critical pictures of difficult spots on my phone so I can review them on the trip if needed. Of course you should bring a paper map to use on your trip (I recommend this 14er map series). I also download a GPS version of the map and route – I use AllTrails, but you can also use Gaia or other programs.

Lastly, if you have more questions about the route, dig into Trip Reports to see first hand-descriptions and photos of the route. 14ers.com has a page for Trip Reports here. You can also visit summitpost.com which has a lot of great reports for most 14ers. These are extremely helpful to get more details about Class 3 terrain, weather conditions, and gear requirements for a route. Just remember to factor in the time of year – a Report from June will show very different conditions compared to August. 

Plan for Getting There: 2WD or 4WD?

Before you leave, make sure you can actually make it to the Trailhead. Many 14ers lack easily accessible trails – there’s a good chance you’ll need a four-wheel drive vehicle with good clearance to make it to the trailhead. Usually there are 2WD trailheads so you will still have a place to park, but it could add from 2-6 miles to your trip, which is never fun. 

You can double-check on trailhead accessibility using Trailhead Reports from the 14ers.com website. If you don’t have access to a 4WD vehicle, you’ll probably want to look for one of the more 2WD-friendly 14ers. 

If you’re determined to climb a 14er with a 4WD trailhead but don’t have a vehicle, you have options. If you’re in a large city, consider a car-share program like Zipcar, which lets you rent Jeeps and other SUVs for around $100 a day, including gas and insurance. You can also try to carpool with other hikers and climbers. I recommend visiting the 14ers.com forum here, or facebook page here. 

Lastly, don’t forget to check road conditions if you are climbing in the spring of fall. While the forecast for the peak you’re climbing may be sunny and warm, you could easily pass through a snowstorm on your way there in a different Range. Weather is extremely localized in the mountains, and you want to be sure you have the right traction and enough time to travel safely through inclement weather. This is easy to overlook, but can throw a major wrench in your plans if you get delayed.

Leave your plans with someone dependable.

Lastly, but most important of all, you need to leave your specific plans with someone back home, along with a time you expect to return. This ensures that if something goes wrong, someone calls Search & Rescue to come find you. 

Don’t rely on them to remember everything: Write down all the information on paper or send it to them in an email, text or instant message. Make sure you include the following information:

  • The peak you’re climbing, trailhead you’re parking at, and route you are taking.
  • When you plan to start, and when you plan to be back by.
  • A general description of what you’re wearing and your gear.
  • Your vehicle make, model and license plate number.
  • The County you’re climbing in, and the phone # for the appropriate Sheriff’s Department.

Leave your plans with a roommate, significant other, or other trusted friend who will follow up. Make sure they understand exactly what to do if you don’t contact them by your planned return time. Typically, I tell my contact to try to get in touch with me (try calling/texting) first, just in case I’ve forgotten or got delayed. However, if they cannot get ahold of me within 30 minutes, I tell them to play it safe and call the Sheriff’s Department in the County I’m climbing in. Whenever in doubt, call it in. Search and Rescue can help you figure out the severity of the situation – they’re experts. If you aren’t sure, call it in. 

Before we move on to gear preparations, this is a good reminder that in Colorado, Search and Rescue operations are largely government-funded. You should never worry about rescue fees – however, you should consider buying a COSAR Card for $5. This helps to support the work of our SAR teams, most of whom are volunteers! This is a great way to stay prepared, and feel better about calling them in if and when the time comes.

Preparing for your Climb: A Review

Let’s review the most important things to consider when preparing to climb a 14er:

  • Pick a peak and route appropriate for beginners. 
  • Check the weather forecast thoroughly before your climb.
  • Get in shape first, and take time to acclimate.
  • Study and research the route in detail.
  • Plan on how to get to the trailhead.
  • Leave detailed plans with someone dependable. 

These guidelines will help give you the best chance of success for your 14er climb, while keeping you safe and sound! Now, we’ll look at how to Pack for a Climb, including clothing, food, water, gear and emergency supplies. 

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