Conquer New Heights in the New Year!
Make 2020 Your Year to Summit One of Colorado’s Famous 14ers
Expert Tips to Make Your New Year’s Resolution a Reality This Year
Summiting one of Colorado’s 14,000 foot or higher mountains (nicknamed the “14ers” by locals) is an iconic rite of passage in the hiking world. Each summer, hundreds of thousands of hikers flock to the Colorado Rockies and set out in the wee hours of the morning looking to conquer one of the 58 high peaks in the state. If you’ve found yourself daydreaming of standing at 14,000 feet above sea level, but don’t know where to start, here are some tips from our expert guides to help you conquer new heights in the new year.
Know Before You Go
One of the biggest mistakes beginners make when attempting to summit a 14er is lack of research and preparation. We may love the mountains, but the mountains don’t love us. Make sure you have a good understanding of what you’re getting into in order to help prevent catastrophes or high risk situations. Websites like 14ers.com are excellent resources that provide route descriptions, route conditions, route difficulty, and even cell reception info. Additionally, user forums on these sites are a great way to get a general idea of how hikers just like you fared on the mountain. In the weeks leading up to your climb, make sure you keep up to date on the weather and route conditions by consulting these resources and adjust your plan accordingly.
Set Realistic Expectations
Choose the right mountain for your first ascent based on round trip hiking distance, difficulty and elevation gain. Make sure to choose one that is feasible for your abilities, not based on bragging rights. You want to be able to enjoy your first 14er and not put yourself in unnecessary risk. Recommended peaks for beginners are Gray’s Peak, Mount Bierstadt, and Quandary Peak. Another important thing to keep in mind is that weather conditions in Colorado are famously unpredictable and may, and often will, change rapidly throughout the course of your hike. Many people get ‘Summit Fever’ and ignore potentially dangerous situations in their mad dash to the top. Accept that conditions may change and force you to turn around early. That Instagram picture from the top is not worth your life.
Get Comfortable at High Altitude
Once you’ve chosen the best mountain and route for your first ascent, the biggest beast standing in the way of the summit isn’t the terrain or the physical difficulty, it’s the altitude. Altitude is the real obstacle because it can affect everyone, regardless of your experience or physical ability. It is recommended to train at higher elevations in order to understand how your body responds to high altitude and increase your tolerance. Start off small, if you’re coming from sea level, it is recommended to add time to your trip in order to first try some more challenging hikes along the Front Range such as Mt. Sanitas in Boulder or Horsetooth Mountain in Fort Collins as you first acclimate to the elevation. From there, increase the starting elevation of your hikes by moving up to Rocky Mountain National Park or Indian Peaks Wilderness. When you’re feeling confident in your fitness and altitude tolerance, try summiting a smaller peak for training. Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park is an excellent training peak. Standing at 12,324 ft with 8.6 miles of 2,000+ ft elevation gain, this climb mimics the terrain and difficulty you’re likely to encounter on a 14er. In addition to elevation training, acquaint yourself with the symptoms of altitude sickness so you can monitor yourself and others on the trail. If you or anyone in your party starts to experience these symptoms, the only cure is descending, and it’s recommended you return to lower elevation immediately.
Typically, the best time of year to summit is late Summer to early Fall, which gives you plenty of time to start training. Even if you’re fairly active, it’s important to be prepared to be hiking for several hours. Start adding cardio, such as running or cycling, to your routine to increase endurance ideally incorporating as much uphill as you can. It is recommended to train at 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate to improve your aerobic energy system. Another great way to increase your heart’s oxygen uptake and increase your endurance is interval training. Getting your heart rate up for short bursts followed by a brief rest period is an excellent way to increase your cardiovascular fitness and get you ready for the long haul ahead of you. For those living at lower altitudes without easy access to nearby mountains for training, it can be beneficial to use a stair stepper machine at the gym or practice ascending flights of stairs in your office building on your lunch break. It’s important to practice both climbing up and coming back down in order to fortify the quads and hamstrings which will help protect your knees and prevent discomfort on your big peak ascent. As you progress through your training, it is helpful to wear a backpack filled with two liters of water while on the stair stepper, climbing stairs, or summiting a local peak. You’ll need to carry the weight of food and water on your back to last you all day when you summit a 14er, so it’s best to practice and get used to moving with the additional weight as preparation.
Be Prepared to Start Early
Because the typical climbing season coincides with Colorado’s afternoon thunderstorm season, plan to start your hike before the sun comes up. Lightning is one of the biggest dangers on peak ascents as the 14ers in Colorado involve hours of hiking up above tree line where you are completely exposed and in danger of being struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. Depending on the trail’s length and your hiking speed, plan on hitting the trail and starting your hike around 3 or 4am to mitigate the risk of exposure during a thunderstorm. You will need a headlamp to light your path when starting in the wee hours of the morning. We recommend getting some pre-sunrise practice hikes in ahead of time so that you are used to how your headlamp works and ensure that it is bright enough for you to see comfortably while hiking.
It’s wise to plan to summit before noon on your 14er ascent and get back below tree line before you start to hear the first rumbles of thunder. While on the hike, be prepared to keep an eye to the sky and know what to look for. Colorado’s weather changes rapidly and is so hard to predict that a storm can often pop up even on the days when the forecast calls for a 0% chance of rain.
Assemble Your Team
Not only is there safety in numbers, but enlisting a summit buddy can help encourage and motivate you to reach your goal. If you have a friend who’s an avid hiker or has summited a 14er before, awesome! If not, make sure your hiking partner has good judgement and a similar level of risk tolerance to you. You don’t want to hike with someone who takes the sort of risks that make you uncomfortable. While hiking with someone can be a great motivator to keep you climbing to the top, don’t push yourself past your limits trying to keep up with them. If you can’t find someone to hop on the 14er train with you, consider hiring a professional guide. Not only do guides know the route, but they can supply you with the gear and knowledge you need to reach the top. They are familiar with the terrain and local weather conditions and can help mitigate the risk. Professional guides can make the experience more comfortable and enjoyable by choosing the best routes and pointing out local flora and fauna. A guide will also be well versed in wilderness first aid and backcountry safety best practices to help provide an additional safety net.
Even though summiting a 14er is considered a day hike and doesn’t involve hauling overnight gear or camping supplies, it is still a very long day with times of significant exposure and extreme temperature changes between dawn and dusk. Thus, it is vital to be prepared for all conditions and to hike responsibly with the right gear.
Here’s a basic list of gear to get for your ascent:
First Aid Kit– It’s easy to find small, inexpensive kits for day hikes at your local camping and sporting goods store.
Trekking Poles – While you might feel like these are overkill, they are a lifesaver for preventing injury from clumsy, tired legs and ankles on the descent. It’s important to practice using these though during your training hikes.
Headlamp or flashlight – It will be dark for the first portion of your hike and if the day runs long, quite possibly the last portion of your hike as well as you complete the descent. You will need a good light to illuminate rocks, stumps and roots that might cause a spill on the trail under low light conditions.
Route Map/GPS/Trail App – Although most 14ers are pretty well marked, it’s also a good idea to have a GPS/map or an app such as The Hiking Project which allows you to check your position on the trail even without cell reception.
Clothing – Layers are essential for the everchanging Colorado weather. A basic hiking outfit should consist of long pants, a short sleeve top, a warm long sleeve top or fleece, a rain jacket, wool socks, and hat. It is also important to avoid cotton clothing as it doesn’t dry quickly and you WILL be sweating. You can add extra layers or things like gloves depending on the specific forecast for your ascent day. Hiking pants that zip off at the knee are a great option to convert them to shorts should it become quite hot midday.
Hiking Boots – Ideally with some ankle support to prevent sprains. Also make sure you’ve already broken them in and are comfortable walking long distances in them to avoid blisters. Practice climbing and descending in them as some boots will slip if they are slightly too large and cause your toes to push up against the front which can be quite uncomfortable.
Food – Your body will be working hard all day so bring plenty of snacks to replenish calories and keep your energy up. Your fuel and hydration needs will also be greater at high altitude as the body burns more calories and become dehydrated much more quickly. Quick eats like trail mix, energy bars, apples, and PB&J’s are all great options that provide both quick and more sustained energy as well as salt.
Water – Don’t skimp on hydration. Bring at least 2-3 liters per person. A good option to meet this baseline is to bring both a Camelback and a Nalgene. It is recommended to bring electrolyte drink as well as water to help replace the sodium and potassium that is lost when sweating. Colorado has an extremely dry climate and your sweat will evaporate quickly on the skin, causing many people to feel that they aren’t sweating. This is deceptive as your water and electrolyte needs are greater at high altitude.
Camera – Get those sweet summit pics!
Remember you will need to carry everything with you, so it is important to choose your gear wisely and bring enough to keep you safe, comfortable, and protected from the elements, however you want to avoid carrying unnecessary items that cause added weight in your pack. Practice hikes on lower summits ahead of time will help you to get the gear and your nutrition and hydration strategy dialed in. Being prepared means leaving as little to chance as possible. You want to try and eliminate guesswork on the day of your summit attempt. Knowing what works well for you under all conditions will help keep mitigate risk and keep the hike comfortable and enjoyable.
The Day Before
The night before you’re planning on summiting, it’s a good idea to avoid alcohol. Alcohol dehydrates the body and can amplify the effects of altitude and make the hike overall more painful than it needs to be. Save the beer for celebrating afterwards. This is also a great time to assemble your gear to ensure you don’t forget anything with your “it’s 3am why am I awake” brain. Before turning in, revisit your route and check the forecast. Finally, turn in early and get a good night’s sleep so you’re well rested for the big day.
The Big Day
Start your day off right with a hearty breakfast to fuel your hike. Once you start, be safe, be aware, stay hydrated, go at your own pace, and most of all, enjoy the experience! You’ve worked hard to get here, make the most of it. Remember the summit is optional, but getting down safely is mandatory. Use your best judgement to make a safe call while out there. You can always come back to attempt the summit another day. It will be there waiting.