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 www.14ers.com 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 class five which 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.
2. Plan The best time to climb is June-August. Outside of that time frame you may encounter lingering snowfields or more inclement weather. 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 occasionally hike alone.
Either way, I always carry my Garmin InReach. With this device I can send text messages even when there is no cell service, family and friends can watch my progress live if I share the unique weblink with them (see below), and it has an SOS feature to active 911 help in the event of an emergency. Yes, its pricey, but I use it for all my outdoor activities. If you enjoy recreating in remote areas, this device can be a lifesaver.
3. Altitude sickness Know the symptoms before you start climbing. Hiking a 14er is arduous and it is much harder to breathe as you gain elevation, 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-threatening emergencies. To reduce the chance of AMS, camp at the trailhead, or another higher altitude location, prior to hiking. Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills the night before. Start drinking water early on and stay hydrated throughout the climb. Hike slowly (or as they say on Kilimanjaro, "Pole, pole") to give your body time to acclimate (and appreciate at the stunning views!). I usually take an Excedrin before I hike which helps with mild headaches.
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 your feet may swell when you hike. Recently I started using hiking poles and now I can't imagine hiking without them, especially on the decent when my body (esp. my knees) are sore. They provide stability and reduce some of the impact. There are so 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. Consider giving them poles a try. I always wear SmartWool socks because I have never had a blister while wearing them. Again, they wick moisture and reduce friction. Trimming toenails prior to hiking can reduce pressure on the descent, lost nails or holes in your socks. 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 (pun intended) climbing season, and you do not want to be the tallest thing during an electrical storm. So, I opt for an early start (usually 5:00 to 6:00 a.m.) Check the weather before heading out and watch the sky routinely (spoiler alert-meteorologists can be wrong). 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 14ers.com website you can see where people have posted their hike times for each trail.
6. Dress in layers
The weather on 14ers can change drastically during the day, fluctuating from 30 to 80 degrees with strong winds at the summit. Therefore, it's important to plan for all scenarios. When heading out in the dark it can be very cold, later in the day a 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. On several occasions it has been bitterly cold and snowing on the summit- even in August- so the layers go back on. Also, having a spare pair of socks helps in case your socks get wet.
6. Drink water & Fuel up Staying hydrated is critical for success. Start drinking early, even if you are not thirsty yet, adn 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. 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).
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. Stay hydrated. Hike slowly (or as they say on Kilimanjaro, "Pole, pole"). Talk to your doctor about Diamox which can help combat AMS symptoms.
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). Hike in boots that fit correctly and break them in prior to a long hike. Wear socks made of SmartWool or merino wool that wick moisture away from the skin. 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.
9. Sun Protection
The sun's rays are very intense at higher elevations, even on a cloudy day. It is important to apply and reapply a high SPF sunscreen and SPF lip balm throughout the day (even if it is overcast).
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 tundra. If you encounter wildlife give them space and do not harass them. Keep dogs leashed and clean up after your pet.