I’m no super athlete but I am a strong hiker. I had always wanted to hike one of Colorado’s 58 fourteeners (“14ers”) but felt vaguely intimidated, mostly because I knew little about them, just that they could be challenging. I found myself with a week off in June, I figured I’d finally take the road trip from Salt Lake and attempt one. I was hopeful that I could even hike several. So, I researched what was needed.
Here are some tips for success:
Gather lots of beta. The best place to start is www.14ers.com, the official fourteener website. It has daily self-reported summit logs, current conditions, maps and coordinates, detailed route descriptions, and all the peaks ranked in order of difficulty.
Check the weather frequently. Weather can be fast-changing and severe, so checking the weather for the surrounding area and the specific mountain top you plan to climb is very important. You’ll want to think about the weather sneaking up on you from the opposing side since your view of the sky may be obscured until you’re high up with a time-consuming descent to consider.
Wake up early. It’s recommended that you start out early, maybe with a predawn start, if you want to limit exposure to crowds, afternoon thundershowers, and sun up where the UV rays are stronger.
Buy a good map.I bought National Geographic’s Colorado 14ers North map booklet and it served me quite well. I download GPS area maps to various fitness apps, too, but just in case those falter and can’t relocate me, I keep a hard copy topographical map as a backup.
Plan on not having service. Screenshots, Notes, write things down by hand: do whatever you need to have the trail information accessible without the internet. I would usually read over online trail descriptions a couple of times to familiarize myself, then screenshot photos of important junctions, river crossings, landmarks, etc., that were particular to each hike.
Stretch and hydrate.Stretching between each big hike can play a big part in preventing injury. Make sure to be drinking lots of water, much more than usual since you’re going to be hiking for hours and sweating so much of it away. This will help to avoid cramping and fatigue.
Getting To It!
I wasn’t sure which mountains I wanted to hike, so I wrote down every fourteener in order of ascending difficulty so I could keep their ranked comparison in mind as I chose my next move. For instance, if one mountain really beat me down, I’d maybe aim for the next hike to be the same difficulty level or easier.
I chose to start my adventure with the Decalibron, an eight-mile loop hike that encompasses three official fourteeners (Mt Democrat, Mt Lincoln, and Mt Bross), and one contested (Mt Cameron) in a single push. I figured that even if anything went sideways with altitude sickness or injury, at least I was (hopefully) able to hike three fourteeners before going home.
I camped out a few miles down the canyon from the trailhead, awoke at 3:00 am to pack, and drove to the start. The weather looked clear all day but I wanted to start nice and early, in case something unexpected came up. It was eerie, setting out alone into the still-black morning, the beam of my headlight cutting out a pie slice world ahead of me, but the trail was obvious even over snow-covered sections.
The Decalibron went off without a hitch and took less time than anticipated. I did it! I drove down to Alma, went to a cafe, and plotted my next move. I saw that Mt Sherman and Quandary Peak were nearby and among the easiest to hike so, I went for the next.
I drove down to Fairplay, up the canyon to scout the trailhead for Mt Sherman in the daylight, then back down to make camp off of private land. Another early alarm had me up in the inky black and putting boots to trail by 3:40. I was lucky enough to beat the sunrise and watch it from the summit, that technicolor corona bursting from the horizon. I was back down before 7:00, plenty of time to drive north and find a legal campsite near the next peak.
Quandary Peak was my favorite hike, I loved starting below the treeline for a change and experiencing the first couple miles in the blackened forest. This was also the only summit where I was the first to the top, had it all to myself for fifteen frigid minutes of brittle finger selfie-taking before heading down past a throng of 70-80 people marching upward.
There was a storm moving in so I drove toward Leadville to hike Mt Massive next. I hunkered down in the rain and snow for two nights close to the North Halfmoon Trailhead, a shorter, steeper alternative to the standard route. By the sixth afternoon of my trip, I was up and back again, six fourteeners successfully tackled.
By that time, I’d hiked 30 miles and gained over 13,000 feet of elevation. I was tired and sore but still felt confident I could do one more, just for the novelty of it. I chose Huron Peak because it was easier than Massive, located nearby, and was only 6.5 miles, which I felt I could muster through. Unfortunately, my little SUV was only able to make it to the 2WD parking lot, adding four unexpected miles of road hiking to my trek. Still, standing atop peak seven in a week, the best view of all of them stretched out before me, I didn’t think once about the extra steps.
I was elated about hiking several fourteeners, I completely shocked myself! I felt tired but strong, as though I could’ve hiked another. So, I made a detour down to Aspen where I met up with a friend and took a hike out to Conundrum Hot Springs the next day, an 18-mile out-and-back that perfectly soothed my aching legs and feet. As we all know, there’s no better way to top off a truly epic week than with a hot spring.
Happy hiking, everyone! You are so much more capable than you realize!
Editorial piece and photography submitted by Jack Ledbetter in collaboration with Gregory Mountain Products