“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” – Sir Edmund Hillary
Experienced hikers regularly rely on trails to quench their thirst for the sensation that only true isolation in nature can provide. The rush of pushing one’s body to its physical and mental limits, and then further, is what keeps hikers, mountaineers, and climbers on the rocks. Most mountain sports offer something for all skill levels, and in a quintessential public landscape like Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, anyone can find appreciation for the elements and their place within them. Those familiar with The Centennial State know its magnum opus is the 53 peaks climbing above 14,000 feet, also known as “Fourteeners.” Home to the most fourteeners in any U.S. state, Colorado’s summit hikes range from walk-ups to strenuous technical climbs, and while some are considered “easy” compared to others, most require hitting the trail before sunrise with headlamps and a strong will in hand. For those of average fitness, hikes can take anywhere from 6 to 15 or more hours. Reaching the summit is rewarded with striking views in the company of like-minded, motivated peers, their heads literally in the clouds.
For first time fourteener hikers, most experts suggest mid-summer walk-ups like Mount Bierstadt, Lincoln, Democrat, and Grays peak. If you’re feeling strong, bagging more than one peak in a day, using interconnecting craggy saddles, is a great way to check some of these bucket listers off in a short period of time. Altitude environments are a wildlife photographer’s fantasy – rare mountain species such as marmots, pikas, and quails are quite common. The tundra up high is precious and fragile, so staying on trail and minimizing footprints is crucial. When planning your first fourteener, there are a number of safety and fitness goals to reach first.
Here are some invaluable tips and resources to get you rock-ready with a healthy respect for high altitude hikes and the otherworldly atmosphere it fosters.
What to bring
For summer hiking plans, the gear list is substantially shorter than autumn and winter excursions, so always keep in mind the season and weather. Primary gear includes a reliable hiking daypack, several liters of water (more than you think you’ll need), high protein and fatty foods, such as energy bars, chews, and salty snacks for replenishment. I’d suggest brands such as Gu and Powerbar. Jerky, trail mix, and avocados also taste sensational at the summit. Other staples are warm weather clothes for the blistery summit, as temperatures will drop drastically above treeline around 11,000 feet. A synthetic shirt, waterproof jacket, hiking pants, boots, socks, and ponchos are also necessary to keep dry and warm on all day outings, as afternoon thunderstorms happen often. Other non-negotiable gear includes a headlamp, multi-tool, map, whistle, lighter, sunscreen, toilet paper, small shovel, first aid kit, and trekking poles. Those living at low altitudes or who haven’t acclimatized should consider taking a small can of supplemental oxygen to protect against altitude sickness.
Altitude does strange and unpredictable things to the weather, and checking multiple forecasts, including the weather channel’s summit predictions, can help you avoid a disorienting white out above treeline. Just this year, nearly a dozen people have died on Colorado’s peaks, and many more have been injured as a result of poor timing, inexperience, and/or freak accidents. Knowing what you’re in for, and never biting off more than you can chew is key to a successful and safe hike. Test your gear beforehand, hit the gym religiously to make sure your cardio and upper body strength is in “peak” shape, and watch the sky as you ascend. Dark, anvil-shaped clouds should mean an immediate turnaround. Lightning risk increases drastically on mountain hikes. Starting early, sometimes even 1 a.m., and camping at or near the trailhead will guarantee you’re down before thunderstorms usually arrive. The Rockies are bear country, and knowing what to do in the event of a bear encounter can save your life.
Learn the jargon
When reading trail specs, understanding the terminology can assist in deciding whether or not a hike is right for your skill and athletic level. A hike’s class signals its difficulty and technicality. For beginners, Class 1 means a clearly marked trail and little-to-no scrambling, or using your hands and feet to climb up or over rough or steep ground. Anything higher than a Class 2 may require special climbing gear. Talus and scree indicates small, loose rock that is difficult to navigate. Elevation gain is the sum of all the uphill segments along the trail, or how much you’ll rise in total. Treeline is where vegetation and trees stop growing, usually between 11,000 and 12,000 feet in Colorado.
Colorado hikes to try first
Easing yourself into fourteeners is the best way to prevent burnout and ensure you can finish your first few attempts. Many strenuous hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park can assist with this, but any long hike with a lot of vertical gain will do. Options include Chasm Lake, Hallett Peak, Estes Cone, Bear Peak and dozens of 13ers.