Couch to 14K, Part 4: Ascending your first 14,000-foot peak

From the summit of Missouri Mountain, looking 3,000 feet into this incredible view of Missouri Gulch Basin.

From the summit of Missouri Mountain, looking 3,000 feet into this incredible view of Missouri Gulch Basin.

In Parts 1, 2 and 3 of Couch to 14K, we went over fitness, gear and selecting a mountain for your first 14er climb. In our last installment, we’re going to go over how you actually go about getting up to the top of that mountain. Hiking and climbing a 14,000-foot mountain is not the same as your typical day hike, as weather, altitude and remoteness all play a factor. So let’s go over some things you’ll want to think about as you’re heading into the high country.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

You need to have enough food and water to last the trip. 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.

Bring about three liters of water, and drink fairly often. Eat periodically, even if you’re not hungry. You’ll need the energy.

And be sure to pace yourself. As you ascend, it’s not unlikely that you’ll be heading up at a 1 mph pace. You read that right. Going down, you’ll be faster, but going up is slow going. Listen to your body, and if your body is seriously telling you to stop and pull the plug, it’s better to obey than push yourself beyond your means. Even if you can will yourself to a summit, your journey is only half done – you still have to get back down safe.

Keep in mind, if you get sick or injured, rescue could be several hours away, and there is a good chance you will not have cellphone reception on the trail. So be sure to tell some where you’re going and when, and when you expect to return.

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.

One way you can mitigate weather issues is to get an early start, preferably before dawn. Give yourself enough time to reach the summit by late morning and be off the summit by noon.

Keep an eye on the skies, as some storms start earlier. Small puffy clouds coalesce to form larger clouds quickly. And any clouds with gray bottoms are the beginning of storms. Lightning can travel for miles, and when you’re above treeline, you might be the highest point on a ridgeline or summit.

If the weather is not cooperating (thunderstorms or driving snow), turn around and head back down. Just because you can beat a storm to the summit does not mean you can beat it entirely. Remember, the mountain will be always be there, and you can come back to try again another day.

For your best chance of success, watch weather forecasts beforehand and plan accordingly.

TAKE CARE OF THE PEAK

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

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.

Also, be careful with your 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 smartphone 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

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