New to Colorado? Considering your first 14er? No need to remake the wheel – here are tips for climbing 14ers that I’ve come across over my career in the mountains. 10 Things you should know that’ll make your hike safe and hopefully successful!
1) Avoid the Front & Mosquito Ranges for Solitude.
Many expect a quiet experience on 14ers far from others. Think Again. Many 14ers near Denver or Colorado Springs see hundreds reach their summit on busy summer weekends. If you want a quiet peak, consider a climb in the Sawatch, San Juan, or Sangre de Christo Ranges – they usually see fewer climbers. Picking a weekday for your ascent will also provide more solitude.
2) Start Early & Get off the Summit by Noon.
Most people start climbing far too late, putting their safety at risk and limiting their chance of a successful summit. During Colorado summers, powerful thunderstorms develop almost daily in the afternoon (sometimes even sooner). To avoid the dangerous lightning that accompanies them, you need to try to get off summit by noon or 1pm at the latest. In many cases, that means starting around 6-7am, and even sooner for difficult climbs. Being above tree-line with lighting striking around you is a terrifying experience – don’t make yourself go through it. Start early and get off the summit by noon.
3) Wear Layers to Adapt to Conditions.
Mountain weather conditions change rapidly. The temperature will drop quickly as you rise in altitude – 3 degrees or so for every 1,000 feet. Storms develop rapidly on a moment’s notice, and snow is possible all year-long. Start with a merino wool base layer to help wick away sweat, with a synthetic pullover and puffy jacket to add as needed. A good rain jacket will round out your layers in most cases. During the winter, you will likely need additional insulation layers to stay warm.
4) Take Time to Properly Acclimate.
Hiking at 14,000 feet puts you at risk of developing Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), also known as altitude sickness. For most people, this presents as a headache, nausea, fatigue, and confusion. Before you climb, spend at least one night at an elevation around 5,000 feet or higher, with a second night ideally above 8,000 feet. This will go a long way in prevent AMS symptoms. If you do experience AMS, be prepared to descend immediately. The higher you go, the worse symptoms become, with the potential for serious escalation to High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or Cerebral Edema, which are life-threatening. Don’t bother with oxygen cans at this altitude – they aren’t worth the cost or extra weight.
5) Break in your Boots Before you Hike.
High-ankle boots provide extra protection in the rocky terrain on most 14ers. However, don’t forget to take the time to break in your boots before you use them. Wear them around the home or take short walks around the block. This helps soften the shoes material to conform to the shape of your feet. Skipping this step usually results in extremely sore feet and a plentitude of blisters – no fun. Take the time to break in your boots.
6) Always Bring the Ten Essentials.
The ten essentials are a list of gear needs that prepare you for emergencies in the mountains. Essentially, the help ensure you’re ready to respond to major problems positively, instead of waiting for rescue assistance. The list is general – you should adapt it to reflect the unique conditions and needs of each route or climb. They include:
- Navigation: Map, compass, [GPS device], [PLB or satellite communicators], [extra batteries or battery pack]. I recommend this map series from National Geographic.
- Headlamp: Plus extra batteries. I use this Black Diamond headlamp.
- Sun protection: Sunglasses, sun-protective clothes, and sunscreen
- First aid: Including foot care and insect repellent (if required). This set is great!
- Knife: Plus repair kit. I use this leatherman with numerous tools.
- Fire: Matches, lighter and tinder, or stove as appropriate
- Shelter: Carried at all times (can be light emergency bivy)
- Extra food: Beyond minimum expectation
- Water: Beyond minimum expectation, or the means to purify
- Extra clothes: Beyond minimum expectation
7) Research the Route & Bring a Map.
Many routes on 14ers can be difficult to follow because of the rocks or terrain. It’s important to research the path ahead of time so you know what to expect. Visit www.14ers.com or www.summitpost.com to review the route guidelines and photos. Also, bring a high-quality topographical map with you in case you need to find your way. Never rely on GPS alone – they’re worthless without a charge or if dropped.
8) Follow Leave No Trace Guidelines.
To ensure you protect the mountain environment, review Leave No Trace guidelines before you head out to climb a 14er. The seven principles of LNT aren’t difficult to learn, but they provide an excellent overview for keeping the Rockies and public land clean for the future. The seven principles of Leave No Trace hiking include:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare for your Hike.
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.
- Dispose of Waste Properly.
- Leave What You Find.
- Minimize Campfire Impacts.
- Respect Wildlife.
- Treat others with Courtesy in the Outdoors.
9) Make sure you can Reach the Trailhead.
Getting to some trailheads can be a challenge, depending on what you drive and what time of the year it is. The majority of trailheads close to all vehicle traffic from approximately November through May due to snow (though this is variable). Visit the Trailhead Reports on 14ers.com to find up-to-date information on trailhead access. Even in the summer, many trailheads require 4WD and high clearance to reach. While they’re still usually climbable, it involves several extra miles of an approach hike. Visit 14ers.com trailhead reports for info on road quality as well.
10) Bring a Buddy if You’re a Novice.
Lastly, if it’s your first or second 14er, strongly consider bringing along a buddy. In most emergency situations, having a partner to back you up makes a considerable difference. If possible, bring a climbing partner if you’re new to 14ers until you get the hang of it. The mountains will be there tomorrow!
Tips for Climbing 14ers: Now You Know!
There you have it – these tips can make a big difference for you in reaching the summit safely. What are your favorite 14er tips or advice? Leave a comment and let us know what you think!
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About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.