Say you’re a flatlander. Or a person in a mountain state who has a strong desire, but no experience, in finding the summit of one of the great peaks of the Rockies. How do you get to the point of merely staring at a 14,000-foot peak to standing on top of one?
Well, you’re in luck. I’ve been where you’re at, and not that long ago. High country adventures can be a real blessing, and for a lot of us that first summit got us hooked, eventually leading us to the top of many more.
What I want to do is cover a lot of ground on what you can do to bag your first 14er summit. It’s not like your average day hike, and there are many considerations to keep in mind. So what you’re going to see here over the next several days is a multi-part series that we’ll call “Couch to 14K.” I’ll go over things like fitness, gear, selecting a mountain and, finally, how to tackle that first ascent.
My assumption is that for most people, they are planning to hit the high country during the prime hiking season between late June and mid-September. So everything I’m writing about in the days to come will be based on that sort of plan.
Let’s get to it by addressing one of the more important aspects of getting to that 14er summit: Fitness!
Whether you live in the flatlands like me (not too far above sea level) or you live in a place like Denver, you’re going to find that any time you go into higher altitudes, the air is far thinner, and even small tasks become more difficult and tiring. Acclimatizing – the act of going to and staying at a high altitude to get used to the higher elevation – is one way you can prepare yourself, but this is something we’ll cover later. Even an acclimated person is going to have difficulties if his or her body is not in the proper condition. A strong body, heart and lungs are the keys to having a greater chance of success in finding that summit. For me, 14er fitness is about three things: Cardiovascular capacity, physical strength and, quite simply, hiking.
CARDIOVASCULAR CAPACITY: This one is critical. You heart and lungs will be highly taxed once you get above 10,000 feet or so, even more so at 12,000 feet or more. The air up there has about half the oxygen as it does where most of us flatlanders live, and not much more than that for people who live in cities like Denver.
I like to run, so this one is not too tough for me plan. I usually run four to five times a week, with each run a little different in length, speed and difficulty. What I would do is work up to the point where you can run, at a steady pace, up to 8-10 miles in one workout. Have a short run to begin the week; a medium-length run in the middle of the week; a very hilly run soon after, and on the weekend, plan for that long run. If you can get to the point where you’re running 20-25 miles a week, you’ll be good to go. If you need a more structured plan, take a look at a Hal Higdon beginner’s half marathon training program. That will get you in shape.
Not everyone is a runner, so I get that. So here is where you find alternatives. Cycling is a great way to get in shape. Perhaps mix in some swimming. Anything you can do to get in shape can and will work. Just be sure that at least a couple of your cardio sessions each week are the measured-pace, longer variety that could simulate being hard at work for at least 90 minutes to two hours.
Last note – One thing that might help you if you don’t have hills to train on is a set of stadium steps. Running up and down stadiums is a fantastic way to get in shape. And for your core, take a hard look at yoga. Many hikers and runners I know swear by it.
PHYSICAL STRENGTH: I’m a big proponent of the weight room, but truly, any strength training will do. There are key areas where you will want to get your work done. The three main areas of focus I see are your back, your core and your legs.
The way you do this is up to you. You can gain physical strength by hitting the weights or doing a variety of bootcamp or “body pump” classes. Although I’m not a Crossfitter, some people get a lot out of it. Personally, I’m a lifelong gym rat who enjoys hitting the weights. But let me emphasize a few exercises that will help pound that body of yours into shape.
Squats – This is one of the best leg exercises there is, as it works the entire thigh and your glutes. Whether you’re doing body weight, working with dumbbells or putting a barbell on your back, this should be a part of what you do.
Lunges – A great hamstring and glute exercise. Again, you can do this with or without weights.
Bench step-ups – There are few exercises that simulate steep hiking than these. Just find yourself a bench and step up, focusing on squeezing your quads and glutes. You can do these with or without weights, depending on your ability.
Deadlifts – A simple yet effective exercise where you squat down to pick up a weight and pick it up. Not only does this exercise work your legs and glutes, but it’s also a powerful back exercise. If you haven’t done much of these, start with a light weight and work your way up.
Planks – It’s hard to find a better core exercise than planks, as they work your abs, your sides and your lower back. Start by holding yourself in a plank position for 15 seconds. Over time, work your way up to a minute or more.
Personally, I’d advise making sure your strength training hits your whole body every week. Balance is the key to a strong, healthy and rugged physique, so that means strengthening your upper body as well. Incorporate strength training into your plan three times a week, and pay close attention to hitting your legs and core.
HIKING: This seems like a no-brainer, but when it comes to becoming a strong hiker, you need to get out there and hike. Most 14ers routes are anywhere from 6 to 12 miles roundtrip, and their trails can be uneven, rugged and filled with elevation changes. Working on your cardiovascular and strength training will help, but nothing will get your body used to a long ascent quite like strapping on a day pack and logging some miles.
Start out by hitting some trails where you live. The more hills, the better. Your focus should be less on miles and more on time spent on your feet. So try getting out there for a couple of hours to start, then work your way up. As you get stronger, try to shoot for hiking days that last 8, 10 or even 12 hours. That may seem like a lot of time, but think of it this way – that’s a great way to spend time outside, and it will get you in shape.
Best yet, when you go on your hike, plan on wearing the gear you plan to use on your 14er trip. Load up that backpack, wear the boots and clothes you plan to bring, and get after it. That will break in your gear and get you accustomed to using and lugging all that stuff up and down the hills for several hours.
Speaking of gear, that’s where we’ll go for Part 2 of Couch to 14K. Look for my next installment where we’ll go over the kind of gear you’ll want to have with you as you tackle your first 14,000-foot ascent.