Something I see posted in outdoor forums and social media sites is a question about the Colorado 14ers, or more specifically, about which peaks are the “easy” 14ers.
A lot of times, the people asking this question are just like I was many years ago when I wanted to follow in my big brother’s footsteps by seeking summits on Colorado’s highest peaks. There was no sense trying to bag the tough ones too early, at least not for someone with no experience in the high country. That was my thinking, anyway.
I’ve got a few under my belt now. Not a ton, but past the noob stage. Here’s the conclusion that I’ve come to: For most people, there is no such thing as an easy 14er.
I’ll explain why in a minute. First, a disclaimer. As of this writing, I have 32 summits of 13,000 feet or more under my belt. Twenty-two of them are 14ers, and throw in a couple of repeats, that’s 24 successful ascents of peaks of 14,000 feet or more. I’ve done some more advanced routes, but plenty of harder ones still await. The hardest peak I’ve done was Mount Eolus, ranked by 14ers.com as the 12th hardest of the 58 Colorado 14ers. So my range of experience is somewhat limited.
That said, I’ve seen a range of difficulty that backs up my claim. My reasoning…
Even if you’re in shape, elevation is the great equalizer. You say you’re a runner? A cyclist? A crossfitter? Well, I’ve got news for you. A well-marked and maintained trail on the gentler slopes of “beginner” peaks will still take you past 12,000 feet above sea level, and that’s when it gets tough. I’ve found myself counting steps and taking a breather on walk-up peaks, confirming that even on the shorter, less-steep and easier routes, it’s still damn hard work, even for the fit. Blame that thin air.
Elevation has other fun surprises, too. You’re going to burn a lot of energy going up that hill, but don’t be surprised if your appetite is nil. You’ll need to force down calories, but your digestive system may want none of it. Thin air will make you breathe harder, and with each exhale, you’ll lose small bits of moisture. You’ll sweat. When added to the dryness of the climate, dehydration settles in fast. The effects of these maladies, plus the general susceptibility some people have to high elevations, can bring on altitude sickness. Elevation doesn’t know you’re on a beginner hike. It’ll throw these obstacles at you regardless.
Beginner peaks have been known to kill. Weather and terrain can be brutally fickle on the 14ers, regardless of season. A gentle summer slope can be a killer in winter or spring if the snowpack is unsettled and avalanche-prone. Lightning strikes are deadly. And being exposed to the elements when the cold comes through and catches you unaware is an easy way to get hypothermia. Seemingly healthy people have keeled over from heart attacks on straightforward walk-up mountains like Quandary Peak.
Remoteness of most of the 14ers provides added challenges. Even the most accessible mountains are, in some ways, remote depending on where you are on the peak. If something goes wrong (injury, illness, getting lost) near the summit, it could be hours or even days before rescuers can reach you. That makes planning an added challenge, and places pressure on you that don’t exist on lower elevation hikes.
One last thing: Don’t let these admonitions lead you to believe that ordinary folks can’t find their way to high summit views. Plenty of Average Janes and Joes not only top out on the easier 14ers, but actually climb them all. And that’s the great allure, that hiking and climbing mountains can transform otherwise ordinary lives into ones that are more adventurous. But it’s wise to respect the peaks – regardless of their perceived difficulty – and remember that a 14er ascent is no walk in the park.
Some helpful links…
This is SO important, thank you for sharing!
Always on my mind, and something I remind myself every time I go up. Even the ‘easy’ ones blast me, and I’ve been turned back on a walkup!
I’ve never heard anybody mention appetite. That was probably my biggest surprise is loss of appetite. I have actually not been able to keep stuff down to put it as delicately as I can. In fact, the whole food intake and digestive system is a logistical nightmare. . .
It’s one of the things that doesn’t get talked about broadly, that’s for sure. And it bites people, including me. I’ve found that it’s a trial end error thing, finding food combinations that are palatable at altitude and give you what you need. It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve found some things that work: quick and slow burn energy during the ascent, protein/fat laden with something carby at the summit.
Similarly, I’ve seen this in long-distance running, too. It seems that savvy race directors have figured out what to put out at aid stations that people need when they’re running trail races that are marathon length or greater.
Great article. Just mentioned in our podcast how we’re planning to climb Belford/Oxford next month while we’re out there, but a follower who lives in Boulder commented about the snowpack this year and now we’re reconsidering. It’s so disappointing because we can’t just run out to CO whenever the weather and conditions are favorable, but I don’t want to be the object of some search and rescue mission.
I’m in the same boat. I want to get out to Colorado this year, but I’m waiting until mid- to late-August because the snowpack is so high. Mid-July will be like mid-June, and in some areas that’s going to still pack a lot of snow. My big worry is that summer hikers are going to try to get Longs or the Sawtooth between Bierstadt and Evans, and those areas are going to be socked in and pretty dicey for everyone but experienced mountaineers. Bad things have happened on Longs and on the Sawtooth when the tourist hikers come around with snow and ice still present.