One night last summer, I was at a pub with friends when I got into a conversation about mountains. The fella I was talking to and his wife had recently hiked to the top of Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks known as the 14ers.
As the conversation continued, he told me what he hoped to do. He planned to climb them all.
In another case, I watched with amazement as another friend went on a 14er rampage over the summer while also getting ready to run the Leadville 100. He amassed a couple dozen 14ers during that time, and like guy I mentioned earlier, he expressed interest in tagging all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.
This is a big goal, but a doable one. I don’t say that as someone who has done it. I haven’t. But I know several people who have. Thousands of people have completed the list, and the number grows every year. But it’s not a small accomplishment, and there is a dividing line the confronts anyone trying to do it.
Thirty-nine of the 14ers are what we call “walk-ups.” That means they are ascended via hiking. No matter the mountain, even the walk-ups will be hard work, and some are harder than others. But generally speaking, the walk-ups are nontechnical and don’t have the big drop-offs and fall hazards that you see on steeper peaks. It’s mostly a test of endurance, mentality and keeping an eye on the weather.
But to finish the 14ers, you have to climb the rest of the list, which includes 19 mountains that aren’t walk-ups. Harder routes, the demands of climbing and higher risks of things like rockfall, loose rock and exposure to drop-offs. Some aren’t too bad. Others are objectively dangerous.
So if you’re one of those folks who has a few walk-ups under your belt and think you’d like to polish off the entire 58, what do you need to know?
Like I said, I’m not a finisher. My own list is mostly the walk-ups, sprinkled with a few of the harder mountains and routes. But I know a bunch of the finishers, and figured I’d ask them and pass along their answers to you.
First up is Bill Wood. Bill is a 14er finisher who is working on his second lap. He’s also climbed Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba. His thoughts?
“Give it time – don’t try for quick success because while many people have done it quickly, it’s not as fun a trip along the way. Stay relatively healthy and in shape; read the dotcom (14ers.com) for advice as needed, trip reports as needed and find a couple of mentors who have been there and done that and willing to do it again.”
Solid stuff. I’ve done a few peaks with Bill, and I’d trust him on all of those.
Next up is Annalise Grueter, another finisher, ultramarathoner and overall mountain athlete. She’s had her fair share of alpine successes in Colorado, Latin America and Europe, the type of experience that provides good perspective.
“So, it takes a stubborn person. Whether you spend decades or years working on a goal, it’s something that you’re fixated upon completing eventually.
“Flexibility can be crucial. Having plan Bs and Cs for the class 3 and 4 peaks is super helpful and makes it easier to adjust on short notice when weather is being weird.
(Class 3 and 4 routes are those where you transition from hiking to climbing. Class 1 and 2 routes are hiking. Class 5 is roped, near-vertical to vertical technical climbing.)
“It takes some degree of stupidity, aka reasonably high risk tolerance. You need to be aware of when you’re in a dangerous spot, but also able to mute that part of your brain and proceed calmly and logically (using fear productively as opposed to panicking).
“As others have mentioned, I don’t think physical fitness plays into it quite as much. Yes, you definitely want to be sure you’re somewhat acclimated, but folks of all shapes and sizes and different types of fitness have finished the 14ers. If it’s something you value, endurance training certainly helps, and being at low elevation, intervals can help you as well, but those pieces aren’t mandatory per se.”
Lastly is Michael Weddell. He’s a finisher who is known by his friends as the expert on the Elk Range, home to the hardest and most dangerous 14ers in Colorado. Between that and all the other big mountains he has on his resume, he’s legit.
“When you are planning peaks throughout the middle section of the list (he’s speaking of the mountains where hiking gives way to climbing), be flexible. For example, if you are going for Mount Lindsey, and the forecast is bad, maybe the San Juans are the way to go. Increase your chances for success.”
(In this case, Mount Lindsey is a peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; the San Juans are southwest of that mountain, making a potential alternative destination if weather in the Sangres is looking bad.)
“For myself personally, I have a small window of time for upper class 3s and 4s. I only plan on them from about the third or fourth week in July until the first dusting of snow in September. I don’t like complicating a climb with snow. I’ll leave that for someone above my skill level!”
(He’s being modest here, but the point is worth repeating: give yourself the best opportunity to succeed by picking the right seasons.)
To sum up their advice: Don’t rush it. Be stubborn, but don’t be in a hurry. Be in shape, but don’t think you need Olympic-level fitness to do the job. Test your risk tolerance, and allow it to grow by moving, step by step, from easier peaks to harder ones. Identify and plan for the best times of year to climb so you can increase your chances of success. And always have a Plan B. Or even a Plan C.
Other pieces of advice I’ve heard include taking up rock climbing, and practice those skills in places that can simulate the tougher routes you’re hoping to try.
So there you have it. I’m not one to give out advice on something where I don’t have authority. But listen to these three. They’ve been there and done that. If you’re still game – whether you’re a mountain state resident or a flatlander like me – then give it a shot. The 14ers await.
Some helpful links:
Ascending your first Fourteener
If your want to read more about Annalise’s adventures in the mountains and in running, check out her blog here.
And good people, too!
Great piece, great advice. I hope to make it out there some day. Until then, though, I have the Whites in my backyard.