- 14er Beginner Guide Part 3 -
Once you’ve planned and packed, the time has come to go on your climb! Here are some basic guidelines for climbing a 14er in Colorado safely and successfully.
Acclimate if Needed Before Climbing a 14er in Colorado
If you aren’t from somewhere 5,000 feet or higher, you should make sure you acclimate before your climb. You may also want to camp somewhere near the trailhead the night before, even if you are from a higher location. Just one night at elevation will help give your body time to adjust and improve its efficiency to make your climb easier. If you aren’t a big camper, stay at a hotel or airbnb in a mountain town near your climb. I’ve had nothing but good experiences doing this in the past when climbing a 14er in Colorado.
Do a Final Check of the Weather Forecast
The first thing you should do on the morning of your climb is check your weather. The mountains are tricky, and weather can change at anytime, so you want the most up to date forecast as possible. It’s very possible that the forecast chan change dramatically in just a short time. I recommend the same sources as I mentioned in Part 1.
If things have changed significantly, and they may, you may want to postpone climbing a 14er in Colorado until there is better weather. If you still plan to go, make sure you alter your packing and plans to account for the new forecast. Make sure you read Part 6 so you know when to turn around and what to look for in the clouds while climbing a 14er in Colorado
Get an Early Start Climbing a 14er in Colorado
You should give yourself plenty of margin for error, for your first time climbing a 14er in Colorado. To avoid getting caught in thunderstorms, get a very early start. Aim to hit the trail right around sunrise, which will be a gorgeous thing to witness, while providing lots of time to summit. If you leave later, you’ll exponentially increase your chances of getting caught in a storm, which isn’t fun (trust me!).
When considering how early to get up, there are a few different factors to consider, including elevation gain, mileage, and class difficulty. Read our full article on the topic here to decide on a time for your peak and route of choice. Remember, lightning is the single biggest risk above treeline during summer – start early, and finish early.
While you’re setting a start time, ensure your group has a firm turn-around time around 11am or so that you’re all committed to sticking to. If you’re up front with each other, it will be far easier to avoid risky behavior up on the trail. This helps keep you safe while climbing a 14er in Colorado.
Driving to and Parking at Trailheads
If you are taking major highways, it’s a good idea to check the traffic, especially during ski season (which often extends in June, and on occasion, July). You may be able to save time by taking a less popular route that takes you off major highways. Also keep any eye out for road closures, which can happen anytime of year from accidents, rockslides or storms in the mountain. You can visit the Colorado Dept. of Transportation website here to check for closures in advance.
Trailhead parking is very limited for many peaks when climbing a 14er in Colorado, so getting there early will also help you get a spot close to the trailhead. I once walked past nearly a ½ mile of cars parked along the road to Grays Peak – that extra mileage isn’t fun hiking down when you want to be home. Make sure you follow parking signs if you do need to park along the road, as it is prohibited in many areas where the road goes through private property. If you ignore signs, you may come back to find a hefty ticket (plus, it’s just not respectful). Get there early and you won’t have a problem.
Following Proper Trail Etiquette
Trail etiquette consists of the proper norms of conduct while hiking along trails with other users. It’s not very complicated, but will help ensure you and others have the best hike possible while climbing a 14er in Colorado! Here are some of the key points to follow:
- Say hello, smile, and be kind to others on the trail.
- When the trail is narrow, downhill hikers yield to hikers coming uphill, unless they waive you pass.
- Allow faster hikers behind you to pass you as soon as easily/safely possible.
- Step to the right, pass on the left (like on the road)
- Keep sound to a minimum: Avoid shouting and don’t use speakers
- Keep dogs leashed where required and under control.
Remember that trail etiquette isn’t just about the immediate impact – it’s about creating and maintaining norms of behavior. For example, even if your dogs are well-behaved and follow commands, when others see you ignoring leash requirements, they’re less likely to follow all guidelines and norms in general. Following etiquette and leave-no-trace guidelines is just as much about setting the example for others as it is the impact you’re personally avoiding.
Stick to your plans
On many peaks, you may see other hikers striking off for other routes up the mountain. For example, on the trail to Grays Peak, the path diverges for Kelso Ridge, a Class 3 route. Many groups have run into injury or worse by deviating from their plans to try something “more exciting.” Several years ago, a woman died on the Sawtooth Route on Mount Bierstadt after her group decided on the spot to try it after finishing their first 14er. The list of similar stories of people who have been injured climbing a 14er in Colorado is long.
If you haven’t planned to take a certain route deviation, fight the temptation to do so. You can always return to try another route in the future: indeed, this is part of what makes mountaineering so exciting! Just don’t change your plans on the spot. While you likely aren’t prepared, it has other impacts. It leaves rescuers confused if you get lost or hurt as your plans left with others will be inaccurate.
Enjoy a Summit Tradition or Two!
Be ready not to make it to the summit – in fact, we include a full chapter on knowing when to turn back. However if all goes well, you will be able to make it to the peak! You should always do a 360 degree search for signs of bad weather. If it looks good, you can spend as long as you want on the peak (within reason). Here’s a few ideas for how to celebrate and spend your time on top of the world!
- Summit beers: Exactly what it sounds like: A cold one feels great at 14,000 feet. Just make sure you get something with a low ABV or you may have a hard time getting down.
- Summit signs: Many people choose to bring a cardboard or plastic sign up with them for their summit picture. Just make sure you pack it out with you – many get left behind!
- Summit lunch: It’s a great location to pull out a sandwich or other trail food for an extended break and meal. You can’t beat the view!
- Summit calls: The weird thing about most 14ers is the strong cell signal you get from the summit. It’s often a fun experience to call loved ones and tell them where you’re standing! In some places, the signal is strong enough to video chat.
- Summit reading/writing: When the weather is best, and you have the summit mostly to yourself, it can be a great place for creative work like writing or reading. I bring a John Muir book with me on some climbs to read and reflect on from summits.
Keep in mind most summits are windy and congested – you may not find the solitude or peace that you expected. Try to plan ahead so you can be well off the peak and ridges by noon, or 1pm at the latest, to avoid lightning storms. This is a big hazard when climbing a 14er in Colorado.
Climbing a 14er in Colorado: A Review
Let’s review the most important things to consider when climbing a 14er in Colorado:
- Make sure you’re acclimated properly.
- Do a Final Weather Check & adapt accordingly.
- Get an early-enough start to be off the peak by noon.
- Drive & Park at the trailhead with plenty of time.
- Follow proper trail etiquette
- Stick to your plans and don’t leave the route.
These guidelines will help give you the best chance of success when climbing a 14er in Colorado, while keeping you safe and sound! Now, we’ll look at how to make sure you’re ready for the worst: If you or someone in your group falls ill, gets injured or goes missing.