Couch to 14K, Part 3: Selecting your first mountain to climb

Mount Evans.

Mount Evans.

OK, in Part 1 of Couch to 14K, we covered fitness, and in Part 2 we covered gear. Now we’re going to get into the thick of things in Part 3: selecting the mountain and the route you plan to take.

There are a ton of factors to consider here, and much of it depends on you. Do you want to try a mountain ascent close to a Front Range city, or do you mind driving a bit? What type of experience do you have on other mountains? Are you a rock climber? An East Coast peak bagger? Or a total newbie?

Whatever the case, there are some things you should know about the 14ers. None of them are “easy,” particularly for those coming from lower elevations. They’re all hard in their own way. It’s just some are easier than others. What makes them a challenge is the length of the routes (expect to hike several miles up steep terrain) and the altitude. So even if you’re pretty good at tagging those Appalachian summits, or if you have a lot of time on the rock, you might consider one of the “easier” 14ers for your first, just so you know what the altitude above treeline feels like.

A few preliminaries: Let’s talk about route classification. A route’s difficulty is ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the easiest and and 5 being the hardest. Here are some descriptions:

Class 1: Well-marked and maintained trail, moderate steepness.

Class 2: More difficult but still established trail; might include some “off-trail” obstacles and steeper, rockier hiking.

Class 3: Scrambling. Will require you to use your hands to ascend, some route-finding. Hiking gives way to climbing with readily available handholds and footholds. Generally unroped.

Class 4: Climbing. You’ll need your hands to ascend, and expect steeper terrain than Class 3, plus fewer obvious handholds and footholds. Generally unroped, but some people use ropes to help ascend and descend.

Class 5: Technical rock climbing. Near vertical, vertical, or overhanging. Use of ropes and climbing safety equipment is required.

OK, so we have that out of the way. If you’re looking for your first 14er ascent, I’d recommend looking at the standard routes on peaks rated Class 1 or Class 2. There are a whole lot of them, some close to Denver or Colorado Springs, some more remote.

CLOSE TO DENVER

The 14ers close to Denver are going to be more popular because of their proximity to the state’s largest city and relative ease of access. If you go on a weekend (or even a weekday in the summer), you can expect to see a lot of people on the trail. Some suggestions:

Mount Evans: Quick drive from Denver with easy access from I-70. The road to Summit Lake will take you to a couple of trailheads. I enjoyed the Spaulding to Evans traverse. Class 2, with some really great views of the Sawtooth Ridge and Mount Bierstadt. About 4 miles round trip.

Mount Bierstadt and the Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Bierstadt and the Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Bierstadt: Another peak that people often get their first 14er experience. Wide-open vistas with killer summit views, and a panorama of the Sawtooth Ridge that is one of Colorado’s signature alpine scenes. Expect crowds, but still a good time. Class 2, about 6.5 miles round trip.

Grays Peak and Torreys Peak: Also popular Front Range peaks, hikers often climb them in tandem. If you hit these peaks early enough in the summer, dramatic snow-filled gullies on Torreys make for an impressive scene. The standard route up Torreys is Class 2, and the connecting ridge and route on Grays is Class 1. Again, expect crowds on weekends. If you do just one of the peaks, your round trip is about 7 miles; add 2 more if you do both peaks in one day.

Quandary Peak: Near Breckenridge, Quandary Peak’s standard route is a scenic 7.5-mile round-trip Class 1 hike along the mountain’s signature east ridge. The summit views of the Tenmile Range, particularly with snow present, are incredible. The crowds? Well, see above. Make it a weekday ascent to maximize solitude, and be on the lookout for mountain goats.

CLOSE TO COLORADO SPRINGS

You’ll have similar issues in terms of crowds, though you’ll need to drive deeper into the mountains to get to most of these. That will help thin the crowds somewhat, but weekday ascents will allow for more solitude.

Pikes Peak: I hesitated putting this down as a first-time 14er, as the standard route up the Barr Trail is very long – 26 miles round trip. But its proximity to Colorado Springs, the quality of the trail and the fact that a lot of people do this as their first made it easier for me to put it on the list. Pikes Peak also has huge elevation gain – about 7,500 feet, which compared to the other peaks I’ve listed is significantly greater (other 14ers mentioned so far have elevation gain of between 2,000 and 3,000 feet). But sweeping summit views, donuts at the summit (there’s a shop up there) and tagging the state’s most famous summit has to count for something. The Barr Trail is Class 1.

Huron Peak.

Huron Peak.

Huron Peak: Our first entry from the Sawatch Range, Huron Peak (near Buena Vista) is a relatively short ascent (7 miles round trip), but packs a huge punch in scenery. Many peak baggers say it has the finest views in the Sawatch Range, and summit view of the nearby Three Apostles make that a strong argument. The route is Class 2 with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain; if you do not have 4-wheel drive, the route length is a couple of miles longer. Personally, this is my top recommendation for a first 14er ascent.

Mount Elbert: Why not make your first 14er also the state’s highest? Mount Elbert is Colorado’s high point and the second-highest peak in the lower 48 states. Easy access from Leadville, camping at the trailhead and awesome views of Twin Lakes and another Sawatch giant, Mount Massive. Class 1, with 4,700 feet of elevation gain and 9 miles round trip.

Mount Yale: Another one of those Sawatch monsters, Mount Yale has quick access from Buena Vista with camping close to the trailhead. Of the peaks I’ve listed here, Mount Yale is probably the steepest. It also has a fun boulder-hopping finish along the summit ridge and incredible views of nearby Mount Princeton, Mount Columbia, Mount Antero and Mount Harvard. As is typical of the Sawatch, Yale has a lot of elevation gain – 4,300 feet, with 9.5 miles round trip from the Denney Creek trailhead. It’s rated Class 2.

MORE REMOTE

The deeper in the mountains you go, the fewer people you’ll see. Do one of the more remote peaks on a weekday, and you’ll see even less. There are too many of these to list, but the one I picked is one of my favorites.

Uncompahgre Peak.

Uncompahgre Peak.

Uncompahgre Peak: Deeper in the San Juan Range near Lake City, this dramatic mountain has all the wildness you’d expect from this alpine wilderness. The standard route takes you up a mellow pitch that runs right up the edge of dramatic cliffs and amazing views of neighboring 14ers and 13ers too numerous to mention, but the skyline of Wetterhorn Peak stands out. It’s Class 1 until you get closer to the summit, where some steep Class 2 switchbacks take you to a series of rocky gullies that don’t quite hit Class 3 difficulty. Pass through those and it’s an easier hike to the peak’s expansive summit plateau. Though the route is not exposed, you can get up close and personal with cliffs that drop 700 feet or more.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

As I’ve mentioned before, some of these mountains get a lot of traffic. To minimize that, pick a weekday to do your ascent, and avoid popular holidays. Also, the more remote you go, the more solitude you get. There are a lot of other mountains that are perfect for beginners (all of the Mosquito Range 14ers come to mind, as do some of the more remote Class 1 and 2 San Juans peaks), but this list gives you a range of options depending on the time you have available, the type of vehicle you drive (4-wheel drive helps in many areas) and your fitness level.

Do your research, pick a time to go and immerse yourself in one of these amazing peaks.

In the fourth and last installment of Couch to 14K, we’ll go over the really important stuff – what to do and what to watch for while you’re on the mountain. See you then!

Bob Doucette

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3 thoughts on “Couch to 14K, Part 3: Selecting your first mountain to climb

  1. Great write up, thus far, Bob! I would also mention that the Crags Trail side of Pikes Peak is far shorter – 12 miles RT, and rates as Class II the whole way, and has less gain than The Barr Trail. It’s only detriment is you do mirror the highway above Devil’s Playground, but it’s really not bad at all.

    Like you, and I think you know this – Huron Peak is, and will always be, the epitome of the perfect storm of all beginner 14er trip prerequisites. Scenery, approach, mileage, elevation, route complexity, no scree, access to water, remoteness from the populace – It’s my favorite and, so far, my most often summited 14er with 5 (as of April, 2014.)

    • Great word Bill, and you’d know! Huron is a great peak and an awesome day hike. I like the idea of the Crags Trail as a good alternative to the Barr Trail for the very reason you mentioned — you shorten the route by more than half.

      So many of these have good alternative routes. Even Grays, for cryin out loud. Hopefully we’ll be able to discuss a lot of these in the near future.

  2. Pingback: Couch to 14K, Part 4: Ascending your first 14,000-foot peak | proactiveoutside

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