Thinking about climbing a Colorado 14er? It isn’t easy, but with the right preparation, it’s definitely possible to do. Instead of making the mistakes we’ve all made, check out this list of the top things veteran climbers wish they had known on their first 14er. These nuggets of wisdom will go a long way making your climb safe and successful. Enjoy these 14er tips:
1) Climbing 14ers alone is as fun, if not more fun, than climbing them in a group.
It’s probably a good idea to get your start climbing 14ers with someone experienced. However once you’re ready, you may find that hiking alone provides a whole different experience than group trips! This is especially true for less popular peaks where real solitude can be found, like in the San Juan and Sangre Ranges.
2) Camping near the trail head the night before gives you a head start in the morning.
The experts all camp near the trail head before climbing. Not only does it save an early morning drive. It also provides you extra acclimation before hiking, and gives you an extra hour or two of sleep. Plus, who doesn’t love camping? It makes any adventure better in my opinion.
3) The road in to most 14ers is treacherous and rocky – bring a 4WD vehicle with good clearance!
Take the time to research the trail head you wish to reach. Many popular 14ers, including Grays Peak in the Front Range, feature long, rocky and bumpy access roads. Unless you have a vehicle with four wheel drive and good clearance, consider a more accessible peak like Quandary Peak or Mt. Bierstadt, which any car can reach.
4) Starting before dawn changes the experience entirely (for the better!).
For many, starting a hike in the pre-dawn morning makes the 14er experience special. Watching the day begin and sunrise break out of the clouds from above the trees provides joy nothing can beat. It also helps to ensure you get off the summit by noon to be safe and sound below when thunder starts to clap above.
5) It doesn’t matter if it’s 90F in Denver. Expect it to be cold at the summit and plan ahead.
Of all the 14er tips, this may be the most commonly ignored. Even if it is sunny and summer-like in Denver, it may not be warm in the mountains. Generally speaking you may find snow or ice on the mountains year-round, along with freezing temperatures and strong winds. Leave your sandals and tank top back home and bring a puffy jacket year-round.
6) For easier routes with less rocky terrain, consider trail runners instead of hiking boots.
Hiking boots are great for rocky routes with a lot of tripping hazard. However for Class 1 and easy Class 2 peaks, you may find trail runners to be more comfortable and lightweight than their heavier, more protective cousins. Many prefer them for all peaks, but I still recommend something with ankle protection for major scrambles and above.
7) The wind on 14ers can be treacherous. If you feel like it’s lifting you, head back.
On my first climb up Longs Peak, the winds peaked around 40mph. However that’s nothing – this 14er, famous for its wind gusts, sees speeds exceeding 80mph on some days, more than enough to take you right off the mountain. If you’re questioning if it’s too windy to continue, it probably is. Head down and stay safe, the mountains will be there another day.
8) Use the restroom before you leave, and bring toilet paper, just in case.
Many hikers are shocked to find a lack of Port-a-Potties above treeline. But that’s just the beginning – there’s often no privacy of any kind, making bathroom breaks difficult, especially for women. I always aim to use the facilities at the trailhead or just before stopping – but you should also bring a bit of toilet paper just in case nature calls regardless.
9) Cotton kills! It absorbs sweat, and prevents you from cooling down. Avoid it like the plague.
Of all the materials you could wear on a 14er, none treats you worse than cotton. While wool and synthetic material wicks away sweat from the skin to help keep you cool and dry, cotton absorbs and retains it. You get soaked, and can overheat or freeze fast, depending on weather conditions. Of all the 14er tips, this is most likely to save your life someday.
10) The more snow, the more necessary sunglasses are to protect your eyes.
Snow and sunburn seem unrelated, but the snow is a powerful reflector of the sun’s radiation, directly towards your face. Whenever there is significant snow on the ground (or it’s possible), pack a good pair of sunglasses and some sunscreen to protect yourself. I’m not kidding around – I’ve gotten second degree burns before in January – not a fun time.
11) Packing Advil and Gatorade will leave you thankful at the summit.
14ers are tough – it’s not a failure to admit it. You’re likely to feel sore at the finish, or even halfway point. Packing a few over the counter painkillers and a sugary athletic drink are the perfect aid to help get you through to the end when you start to feel the effects on your body. Pack these along and you will be thankful!
12) Double check where you’re getting your information, along with their skill level.
When someone tells you it’s a walk in the park, you need to consider whether you both define it the same way. If you ask a friend of acquaintance with lots of climbing experience for a good route or peak, make sure they know you’re a beginner. They may get a bit too excited and recommend you something totally out of your league… it’s happened before!
13) Don’t bring a CamelPak on winter 14ers – it will freeze.
Once you start to face sustained temperatures below freezing, leave your tube water systems at home and rely on a good old-fashioned nalgene stored away in your backpack. Don’t bother trying the insulation wraps, they do not work.
14) 14er Tips: Start early and end early to avoid thunderstorms and lightning.
This is the biggest of the 14er tips and one you see broken all the time. Start early to be off the summit and exposed terrain by noon ideally, one at the latest. The summer monsoon in Colorado creates powerful thunderstorms almost every afternoon. There’s no reason to ever start climbing a 14er afternoon as a beginner.
15) Climb the most popular peaks on weekdays, not weekends.
If you want to climb peaks close to Denver, like Beirstadt, Grays and Torreys, consider going on a weekday instead of Saturday or Sunday. These peaks get so busy that their parking lots routinely overfill during busy summer weekends. If you have flexibility, take advantage and do these on a Tuesday or Wednesday.
16) Avoid leaning on boulders. Sometimes they fall over.
This largely speaks for itself. Don’t lean on large rocks. Sometimes they tumble down, potentially towards those below you. Been there, done that…
17) The walk to the car is always longer than you expect, bring a second beer.
The saddest truth of 14er tips: The car is further than you think. You will expect it to be just around the corner, ever corner, sometimes for several hours. It’s a good time for a second beer, just as your summit brew is wearing off. But relax, you’re almost back!
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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.