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Tips for a Successful Summit

Climbing the majestic 14ers of Colorado can be an exhilarating and rewarding experience. Colorado is home 58 peaks that are located in seven different mountain ranges (Front Range, Tenmile Range, Mosquito Range, Sawatch Range, Elk Mountains, San Juan Mountains, Sangre de Cristo Mountains). Below are ten steps that can help you stay safe and summit successfully.

1. Prepare

Do your research and study your route ahead of time. The website is a fantastic resource where you can see the different routes, hiking times, trail conditions and download maps to your phone. Another great place to ask questions is the 14ers FaceBook page. Choose hikes that are within your skill level. There are five classes of hikes. Although there are no "easy" 14ers, a class one hike has minimal exposure and no technical skills required while a class five requires technical skills, ropes and other gear. Some trailheads require a high clearance vehicle to access, while others have paved parking lots. Although people of all fitness levels can climb 14ers, exercising (especially hiking) ahead of time will make your climb more enjoyable. Looking for an easier 14er?
Check out my blog here.

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hiking a 14er

My friend was fine, but I couldn't help taking a photo. The candid photos-that's why you really hike with a buddy!

2. Plan
The best time to climb is June-August. Outside of that time frame you may encounter lingering snowfields or more inclement weather. The weekdays are usually less crowded than weekends. For really popular 14ers, parking might be limited. I have had to add almost a mile of hiking to my trip because of having to park so far away from the trailhead.

Once you have selected a route and date, tell a friend or family member where you are going and try to stick to that plan. I usually check in at the trailhead, the summit (if possible) and then when I'm back at the trailhead. Although it's always safer to hike with a buddy, I do occasionally hike alone. 

3. Safety Device
Cell service can be non-existent on the climb so I always carry my Garmin InReach. With their Global satellite coverage, I can stay connected via two-way text messaging even when there is no cell service. The TracBack® routing feature enables me to navigate back if I ever get lost. Before I head out, I always mark a waypoint for my vehicle. The unit has a digital compass. You can get detailed weather updates and even request forecasts for your current location or other waypoints or destinations.  You can use the Garmin Explore website on your computer to plan your trips, create preset messages, and manage your device settings. The new InReach Mini 2 has up to 14 days of battery life in 10-minute tracking mode. I also love that I can share my location with loved ones back home using my MapShare™ page or with my coordinates embedded in your messages (this was a huge hit when I was climbing Kilimanjaro). Of course, if you want privacy, you can turn this sharing option off. My favorite feature is the SOS button which can be used to active 911 in the event of an emergency. Yes, its pricey, but I feel that my life is worth the investment.  If you enjoy recreating in remote areas, this device can be a lifesaver.

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Merrell Moab Hiking Boots REI.jpg
Black Diamon Genesis T-shirt REI.jpg
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Garmin inReach

Garmin Mini 2

4. Gear

Be sure that you have all the correct gear ahead of time. To learn more about what to pack, check out the 14er Packing Guide. I recommend doing several shorter hikes to make sure your gear is comfortable and that your boots are well broken in. If you hike in brand new boots, you will likely regret it. I love my Merrell Moab boots, but everyone's foot is different so it's important to try on lots of pairs and find one that fits your unique foot. Hikers usually buy least a half size larger since feet often swell during a long hike. Recently I started using hiking poles and now I can't imagine hiking without them, especially on the decent when my body is tired and sore. The poles provide stability and reduce some of the impact. There are many brands available, but I have been really happy with my Trail Buddy poles. I opted for a bright color so that I won't lose them or mix them up with my friend's poles.  I always wear SmartWool socks because they wick moisture and reduce the chance of a blister. Dress in layers (opt for Merino wool base layers). Trimming toenails prior to hiking can help prevent lost toenails. I've been using an Osprey Sirrus Day 24L day pack and love that it has tons of pockets, a place for my Osprey hydration pack, vented back area, and it is fully adjustable.

5. Give yourself plenty of time
The rule of thumb is to be off the summit by noon.

Lightning storms are very common in Colorado during the peak climbing season, and you do not want to be the tallest thing during an electrical storm. Always check the weather forecast before you start your trip. Start very early
(I usually head out at 5:00 to 6:00 a.m.) and keep an eye on the sky. If clouds start building, you might need to turn around. For planning purposes, a good average is 1 mph, although many people hike much faster. On the website you can see where people have posted their hike times for each trail to give you a sense of the times needed. If you are caught in a storm, descend as quickly as possible towards the tree line. If the lightening is on top of you, have your group spread out at least 15-20 feet apart so that if lightening does strike, not all of you will be harmed. Crouch on the balls of your feet to make yourself small and have minimal contact with the ground. 


Clouds starting to build over the peak.

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Torreys Peak in August-sunny and 50s.

6. Dress in layers
The weather on 14ers can change drastically during the day, fluctuating from 30 to 80 degrees with strong winds and snow flurries at the summit (even in August). Therefore, it's important to plan for all scenarios. When heading out in the dark it can be very cold, later in the day t-shirt weather, and then snowing on the summit. I usually start out wearing a comfortable lightweight hiking pants, merino wool t-shirt, long sleeve merino wool base layer, fleece, down jacket, hat, mittens and headlamp. (I'm a huge fan of merino wool because of its ability to wick moisture away from the body, regulate body temperature, and minimize and odors. I strongly advise against wearing cotton.) As the sun rises and I warm up, the layers start coming off. Also, carry an spare pair of socks helps in case your socks get wet.

Handies Peak in August-fog, snow, sleet, rain and freezing temperatures.

6. Drink water & Fuel up
Staying hydrated is critical for success. Start drinking early, even if you are not thirsty yet, and continue throughout the entire hike. A hydration pack is the perfect way to stay hydrated since you can sip while walking.   From personal experience, I tend to drink less if I have to keep stopping to take my water bottle out of my pack. I keep an extra Nalgene bottle of water in my backpack. Adding electrolytes (e.g., Gator Aid, Nuun tablets) encourages drinking and helps with hydration. Although everyone is different, a good rule of thumb is to bring a minimum of 2 liters of water (more for longer hikes). One of the most common mistakes that new hikers make is not bringing enough water. Hiking a 14er requires a lot of fuel, so eat a healthy meal the night before and bring snacks (my favorite is trail mix with M&Ms). When climbing Kilimanjaro, I found that the Bolt Energy gummies helped.

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Nalgene Water Bottle Amazon.jpg
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7. Altitude sickness
Know the symptoms. Hiking a 14er is hard work so being winded and tired is common. However, if you experience a severe headache, nausea, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, dizziness or confusion, you could be dealing with the onset of AMS (acute mountain sickness) and may need to descend. Although HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema) are rare, they are life-threating emergencies. To reduce the chance of AMS, camp at the trailhead, or another higher altitude location, prior to hiking. Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills. Start drinking water early and stay hydrated. I find taking an Excedrin at the start of the hike helps.

8. Blisters

Don't wait! If you have areas that are prone to blisters, apply tape before you start your hike. If a hot spot is developing, treat it immediately, before it gets worse (I usually use moleskin). Its very important to hike in boots that fit correctly and to break them in prior to a long hike. The most common cause of blisters is friction. Wear socks made of SmartWool or merino wool that wick moisture away from the skin and reduce the chance of blisters. Sock liners can help keep feet blister free. Speaking from personal experience, I suggest have an extra pair of socks in case your feet get wet. If your socks do get wet, immediately put on a clean dry pair.


One on many stream crossings on Mt. Democrat


9. Sun Protection

The sun's rays are very intense at higher elevations, even on a cloudy day. The sun's rays intensify 8-10% for every 1000' gain in elevation. This means that UV radiation at elevation can be double that at sea level. Therefore, it is important to apply (and frequently reapply) a high SPF sunscreen throughout the day (even if it is overcast). I usually choose a sunscreen with oxide and/or titanium dioxide as these ingredients provide a physical UV protection. The peaks can also be windy and without face protection you can easily get windburned. The combination of dry air at sun can lead to chapped burned lips, so a quality lip balm is essential. If you wear contacts, bring rewetting drops. And finally, invest in sunglasses that offer UVA and UVB protection.

10. Leave No Trace & Have Fun!
Remember the saying "Take only photographs, leave only footprints". Over 300,000 people climb 14ers each year and surveys show that number is rising, so it is important to minimize the impacts on the landscape and keep the trails as pristine as possible.
  -Always pack out your trash.
  -Stay on designated trails to avoid damage to the delicate
  -If you encounter wildlife give them space and do not
    harass them.
  -Keep dogs leashed and clean up after your pet. (I know,        its stinky. I found that double bagging with scented poop
-Most importantly, have fun!
  I climbed my first 14er at 40 years old and was instantly
  addicted. The challenge, the views, clean air, photography,
  escaping into nature create unforgettable memories.

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