By Annie Lindgren, Sunshine Ink

There are 58 mountains in the state of Colorado that are over 14,000ft in elevation. Every year people summit a few or bag them all. Have you considered summiting a 14er? Here is some helpful information as you plan for bagging your first summit.

What to Expect

In Colorado, tree line is around 11,500ft, depending on the side of the mountain you are on. Without the protection of trees, the elements can be brutal; sun-shining, storms-looming, and wind-blasting. Expect to find snow above tree line until July.

Much of 14er summiting is based around the weather and careful planning. As a general rule, you want to be off the summit by noon, when storms typically move in. The last place you want to be during a lightning storm is above tree line. Expect to leave the trailhead before the sun comes up. Most 14er trailheads have areas to camp near them if you want to avoid an extra early departure from home.

The higher up you go in elevation, the less oxygen in the air. You will get out of breath quickly and should expect to travel more slowly. Trails are often steep and challenging rocky terrain. Anticipate hiking about a half-mile, to a mile, an hour at a higher elevation, based on the trail’s difficulty level. Expect to spend the first half of the hike climbing uphill and the second half all being downhill. It is a full-body exercise, and training for it will make it less challenging and more enjoyable.

Water and Calories

Carry plenty of water, and stay hydrated. Not many of the trails have water above tree line, so do your research to know where the water sources are. Bring a way to filter or sanitize water for if you run out. Depending on the length of the trail, I recommend carrying 2-3 liters of water.

Carry snacks and try to eat a little something every hour or two, keeping in mind that you burn a lot of calories during strenuous hikes. Protein bars, trail mix, and a treat for the summit, along with hydration or sport mixes, will help keep you going.

What is in a Class?

There are different classes in 14ers – Class 1 through 5. These classes tell you how challenging the trails are in terrain, skill, and route finding. Class 1 trails are the easiest, with a visible path and no need for climbing with hands. Class 2 trails require route finding through trails marked with cairns and can require a bit of scrambling (using your hands and feet). Class 3 trails require the use of all limbs in climbing, along with difficult route finding. Class 4 and above require climbing skills and helmets.

What to Bring

  • Medium-sized backpack that will carry plenty of water, food, and layers.
  • Emergency gear: First aid kit that includes treatment for wounds and breaks, and medications. An Emergency beacon, especially if traveling alone. Bring provisions in case you need to stay the night, like an emergency tarp that can be used for shelter, and the ability to start a fire for warmth. Always good to carry a knife or multitool, and duck-tape and string for repairs.
  • Foot care: Blisters are common, so bring some moleskin and extra socks.
  • Trekking poles help save your hips on downhills, and your back on hikes up. They can also help you navigate challenging water crossings, and can serve as crutches if something breaks.
  • Snow traction, like ice cleats and grippers, if there is still snow on the trail. A pickaxe, for icy conditions. Glissading down a snowfield is a lot of fun as long as you can stop at the bottom.
  • A headlamp will allow hiking in the dark, and extra batteries will help if the initial ones run out.
  • Clothes: Layers for the elements and protecting your skin from sunburn, windburn, and cold. Gloves, a buff to protect your neck and ears, a stocking cap or headband for warmth, and a hat to protect your head from sun. Sunscreen for the parts you can’t cover.
  • Food and Water: Plenty of it, plus the ability to filter more water if needed.
  • Protection: Many trails go through bear country and mountain lion country. Carrying a container of mace is helpful for both.
  • Maps: Bring paper maps for if devices fail, and use tracking on your devices to help with route finding. See below on resources for route finding.

Everything adds weight to your pack, which you then have to carry. If traveling with a group, you can disperse the load on some of these items by taking stock of what everyone has and leaving behind unnecessary extras.

Can I Bring my Dog?

While dogs can enjoy a Class 1 trail, unless your dog is small enough to carry, or big enough to climb, Class 2 trails are about as challenging as bringing a dog should get. A well-trained dog who is familiar with mountain adventuring can enjoy trails alongside their owners. Any other type of dog might be safer to stay home. Make sure to pack a first aid kit for your dog that includes boots in case they cut their pads on their paws in the rocky terrain. Carry enough food and water for them.

Resources for Planning

14ers.com is an excellent resource for maps and planning. The website, and its accompanying app, has all the information you could possibly need, including recent trip reports, weather, and updates on the accessibility of trailheads. You can find images that clearly show routes, downloadable for use offline, that are good to reference when on the mountain. This app and others have features that use GPS to track where you are along the trail, even when you don’t have service. Gerry Roach’s book ‘Colorado Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs’ is also a wonderful resource for planning and a must-have for those serious about 14ers.

Grays Peak, Mount Elbert, Mt. Bierstadt, Quandary Peak, and Mount Sherman are easier 14er hikes great for first summits. 

Nothing feels like an accomplishment quite like standing atop a 14,000 ft mountain. From there you feel as if you are on top of the world, and you most likely are on at the highest point of anything on the horizon. You can look way down to where you hiked up from, knowing how far you came. The trek down is much easier and offers a different, yet equally magnificent view. With each summit, you gain experience and strength that can be carried on to the next summit.

Sunrise view along the trail up Shavano, taken by Annie Lindgren, August 2019

To date, this author has summited 32 of Colorado’s 14ers, summiting 7 of those solo or in the companionship of her Golden Retriever, Maverick. Check out her travel blog and social media outlets to learn more about what she and her dog are up to: SunshineInkLLC.com or @SunshineInkLLC on Facebook and Instagram.

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