Colorado hiking and climbing: A primer on bagging your first 14er

The seasons are all pointing to summer, which is the highest point of the year for hiking and climbing in the high country. I’ve been pretty busy thinking about what I’d like to accomplish in the Rockies this summer, which also turned my thoughts toward others who will do the same.

This is especially true for those who have looked upon Colorado’s highest peaks – the 14ers – and dreamed about one day standing atop one of their summits.

As we close in on summer, I’m going to post some things about how you can go from being a flatlands denizen to a 14er summiteer.

The first of these posts is this one. I actually wrote this for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City’s daily newspaper. This has been updated, and it’s still filled with relevant information that will help you bag that summit.

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Standing at the trailhead in the middle of a pine grove, you look at the path in front of you and the summit towering thousands of feet above.

It’s not Mount Everest, Denali or Rainier, but it’s just daunting enough to give you the challenge you’re looking for — bagging one of Colorado’s famed 14ers, those peaks whose summits rise to more than 14,000 feet.

But before you strap on your pack and dream about all those awesome photos you’re going to take from the top, there’s a few things you need to heed.

“What people really need to know is that the ‘be prepared’ mantra cannot be overemphasized,” said Jessica Evett, executive director of the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District who has managed volunteer efforts for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a Colorado-based conservation group.

“Climbing at 14,000 feet, if you’re from sea level, is really going to do a number on you.”

Nevertheless, the popularity of climbing the 14ers has risen dramatically. The numbers of climbers on Colorado’s peaks are rising 10 percent a year. Longs Peak, a popular Front Range destination, gets more than 30,000 climbers a year, Evett said.

“They (the 14ers) have a lot of name recognition in the state and out of the state,” she said. “People like the inherent sense of challenge. It’s become the hot thing to do.”

Though these mountains are frequently hiked and climbed, they’re not part of an amusement park. Wild places weren’t designed by lawyers and safety engineers, and nature doesn’t much care about your personal well-being.

Take care of yourself

You need to have enough food and water to last the trip, Evett said. Water is especially important, as the dry, thin air and exertion of even the mildest of 14er trails quickly saps the body of moisture. Dehydration can lead to altitude sickness.

A first-aid kit and proper attire is a must. Moisture-wicking clothes, decent rain gear and solid footwear are advised. Pack the sunscreen and sunglasses and leave cotton clothes at home. (See the hiking/backpacking “10 essentials” here.)

And watch the weather. Summer afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence, and late summer/early fall snows aren’t uncommon. No summit experience is worth being hit by lightning or getting caught in a freak high-altitude snowstorm.

Be sure to let people know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Even on the “beginner peaks,” bad things can happen, Evett said.

“Stuff happens on the Front Range peaks all the time,” she said. “It could be rolling an ankle at the summit. How are you going to get down?

“Being prepared is about minimizing risk. If you call out on your cell phone, it’s not like someone is going to be right there to pick you up.”

Take care of the peak

The ecosystems of high country are fragile. The higher you go, the more delicate they become, Evett said.

Pack out any trash. If you don’t need a camp fire, don’t make one. Don’t pick flowers, especially in high altitude areas, where any environmental damage can take decades to repair. And stay on the trail.

Evett also advised caution with dogs. If you bring your dog, keep it on a leash. Dogs love to chase wildlife. But animals living in the mountains use the summer to fatten up for the harsh winter months. The energy needed to escape your playful pup could be the difference between life and death for a marmot or mountain goat in the months that follow.

Do your homework

Doing a little research on the mountain you plan to conquer is a smart thing. If you’ve never climbed, look for one of the many “walk-up” peaks that don’t require climbing skills. There are numerous print, online and smart phone app resources that have trail maps, gear lists and safety tips.

One last word, this one coming from veteran mountaineer Bill Middlebrook via his Web site, 14ers.com:

“Mountaineering in Colorado can be very dangerous,” he says. “Many people have died on the 14ers. Weather, terrain and other people can put you in a situation where your knowledge and experience will be vital.

“Just because a crowd of people can march to the summit of Quandary Peak on a summer Saturday, it doesn’t mean that they are all safe. Altitude sickness, dehydration and fast-building storms are the most common problems. Get in shape and start early for each trip. I can’t tell you how many times I have been half way down a 14er and passed hikers that were determined to get to the summit — even with huge thunderclouds brewing above.”

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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