Hiking 14ers: Tips for Beginners

If you follow the news in Colorado, it comes as no surprise that it has been a rough year for Colorado’s 14ers. In particular, Capitol Peak has seen an unprecedented five deaths this summer.

Capitol Peak aside, I think a lot of the struggles on 14ers come from their popularity. Frequently, a “popular” hike means that it is relatively easy and/or good for first-time hikers. And while 14ers can be tackled by people fairly new to hiking, it’s never a good idea to make a 14,000+ foot mountain your first hiking challenge, yanno?

14ers

I first began climbing Colorado’s 14ers in 2001 with the ambitious goal of summiting all of the state’s 53 {or 58, depending on how you count} towering mountains. For awhile, it looked like I’d accomplish that goal before I graduated college in 2004 {and I even managed to summit 27 in one summer!} But then I found other fun things in life and the peaks took a backseat to a multitude of other outdoor adventures. I try to tick off at least one new 14er every summer, but it can be hard with so many possibilities!

To date, I think I’ve stood on the top of ~40 of those mountains, so I’ve had a lot of time to learn a few tips and tricks that will help anyone power their way upwards. And since I know a lot of people are eager to tackle their first peak, I thought it would be helpful to compile a list of advice.

Best 14ers for Beginners

14ers

One of the first things to consider is which peak you want to hike since not all of them are suitable for beginners. Ideally, you want to find one that is considered a Class I or Class II climb. This means that there is nothing technical and you won’t need to use your hands for anything, even scrambling. In a nutshell, you can literally hike your way to the summit.

Popular options for beginners frequently include Mt. Bierstadt, Grays, Torreys, Sherman, Lincoln, Democrat, or Bross. These are all great choices but they will definitely be crowded since they are accessible from the city and relatively not difficult. If you have the gumption and time to get away from the Denver crowds, I’d recommend Sunshine, Redcloud, or Huron. Mt. Princeton or Antero are good options too with just a few less people.

Start Early

It may sound crazy, but take this seriously: the rule of thumb is that you *must* be off the summit before lunch!

14ers

Colorado’s high altitude is not like the calm and predictably pleasant high altitude weather you’ll find in places like California’s Sierra. In fact, the weather above tree line is predictably nasty and afternoon lightning and thunderstorms are the norm. Every year, there are a few people hit by lightning because they simply don’t take these storms seriously.

When you are above tree line, you are one of the highest points around–not good in a storm! I learned this lesson the hard way when I was scrambling to the summit of Wilson Peak in the San Juans. A storm was rolling in but being young and dumb, we thought we could push it to summit and get down before the legit bad weather rolled in.

Turns out, Mother Nature was willing to give us one warning and one warning only. The ice axe on my backpack started ringing and the hairs on my arms stood up straight. Immediately, I knew it was time to get outta there! I pulled my axe from my pack and literally threw it down the mountain to get the metal away from me. Then, I began the clumsiest downhill sprint ever in an effort to get below tree line and out of danger.

14ers

Fortunately, it worked and I’m still here {and we even found my axe!} But it was a stupid mistake that could’ve led to more serious consequences. Don’t be dumb like me and assume you can outsmart {or out hustle} Planet Earth because that’s a battle you’ll always lose. Start early {sometimes even pre-dawn} and plan a concrete turnaround time. If you hit that time and you are nowhere near the summit, perhaps it’s better saved for another day.

Sun Protection

The sun at 14,000 feet is no joke! It may be chilly and windy but don’t let that trick you into thinking you’re not in danger of burning. Definitely wear sunscreen and a hat, of course. But more importantly, don’t forget these two items: chapstick (with SPF) and a hat!

Not only will the sun parch your lips, but the high altitude will dehydrate you more easily, which will also lead to dry lips. Pack your chapstick in the waist belt pocket on your backpack so you can easily access it while on the move.

14ers

Pack Layers

No joke: it can be a 94-degree day in July when you are in the parking lot at the trailhead but the summit may feel 40 degrees cooler with gusting wind and occasional bouts of hail….and everything in between.

High altitude brings it’s own weather with it and you will more than likely see 17 seasons on your trek to the summit. Even if you are planning on hiking in pants and a t-shirt, always pack an insulating jacket, a hard shell, a beanie, and some liner gloves {or more, if your hands get cold like mine!} I’m willing to bet you will use everything.

14ers

Trekking Poles

To be fair, not everyone is a trekking pole junkie but the more mountains I climb, the more I use my poles {and after three knee surgeries, Will is reliant upon his.}

Trekking poles serve a couple of purposes. First of all, they are helpful while climbing because you can use the poles to carry a bit of your weight on steep climbs. That said, I usually tuck mine away on the climb upwards because I just don’t like them.

However, I LOVE them on the downhills! The older I get, the descent is almost tougher on my body, especially my knees. While hiking Longs last year, I literally felt like my knees were going to explode by the 13th mile and I couldn’t believe we still had two miles left of downhill pounding.

#OldAge

Trekking poles are invaluable for this. If you extend them a bit longer, you can learn how to place them ahead of your body so they take on some of your weight, removing it from your joints. Poles don’t totally remove the pounding from your knees but they sure do help!

Bring Lots of Water

14ers

I know, I know: a million people have told you this. But water is super critical to a successful summit, especially if you aren’t used to high altitude!

The symptoms of altitude sickness are very similar to the symptoms of dehydration, so it’s important to make sure you stay hydrated so that you’ll understand whether or not you are suffering from AMS. Most people can handle elevations of up to 8,000 feet without experiencing any problems.

That said, the air at altitude is significantly drier than the air at lower elevations, so you are going to need to drink more water than usual to account for the lack of humidity. A good rule of thumb is to drink an extra 1-1.5 liters on top of your usually consumption {so you’re likely planning around 3-4 liters.}

Hike Slowly

This is going to be relative, but it’s important to find a steady pace that works for you.

As you climb higher, there is going to be less oxygen in the air. If you are moving quickly, you will be exerting yourself which will lead to quicker, shorter breaths. With the dwindling oxygen, these quick breaths will mean less oxygen for you which is going to lead to problems.

Slow and steady wins the race! If you hike slowly, concentrating on every foot placement, you will avoid overexertion while also allowing yourself to capture deeper breaths. This is going to allow more oxygen into your lungs per breath. This will help keep altitude sickness at bay while allowing more of the good stuff {oxygen} get to your muscles.

********************

4 Comments

  • Reply Tori September 11, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    Great tips! And boy do I feel you on the trekking poles or my knees rather! I’ve hiked several of the mountains in the valley I live but not yet a 14er!

  • Reply Valrie Eisemann September 12, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    Just hiked my first 14er and really appreciated your input 🙂 Thanks for the tips and tricks!!

  • Reply Art September 19, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    I found this very informative. My brother and I are thinking about heading out next year for one!

  • Reply Nathan George November 8, 2017 at 12:32 am

    Traveling is always a good thing in life, it fill your souls.

  • Leave a Reply