Two basics to know before hiking and climbing the 14ers

Summit dreams are powerful, and there’s nothing quite like the views. But being physically ready — or practiced — is key to being successful.

I could probably make a checklist of more than a dozen things to know before you tackle climbing a 14,000-foot peak. I wrote a series about it starting with this post. But the other day, I was thinking about how to boil down the issue into a couple of simple ideas before you get going.

More specifically, what can you do to get ready for the physical tasks of gaining a 14er summit?

On any of the 58 in Colorado, or the numerous 14ers in California, there are two things you’ll likely confront: Steep uphill hiking and “scrambling,” which is a fancy term for basic climbing.

Obviously, operating at high altitude is going to require a high level of cardiovascular fitness and stamina. How you get there – running, cycling, or some other form of exercise – is up to you. But in the midst of all that, there’s this:

You’re going to spend hours hiking uphill, and it is it’s own type of fitness. Solution: Find steeper uphill terrain and hike it. A lot.

You need to spend a good amount of time walking steep uphill inclines. Walking uphill sounds basic enough, but it is different than other forms of exercise, especially if the trail you’re hiking is steep. I heard a presentation from some professional mountain guides, and when asked if running or cycling would be sufficient, they said “no.” Instead, they advised loading up a backpack, finding local mountains or hills, and spending time hiking up those slopes. Don’t have hills? Find some staircases. Many gyms have stairmills, which will do in a pinch. Even if you’re hiking a mild route, expect to spend hours walking uphill in thin air, and possibly up steep grades. Work your way up to multi-hour hikes with increasing miles and plenty of vert. May as well get used to it now rather than gas out a mile into your ascent.

Not every mountain is something of which you can walk to the top. Some involve scrambles and climbs, and that’s a whole other physical skill set. If you feel comfortable climbing, more challenging mountain routes won’t seem as daunting.

If you’re going to tackle peaks with Class 3 or 4 routes, take up rock climbing. Routes are ranked 1-5, with Classes 1 and 2 still firmly in the realm of hiking. Once you hit Class 3 and higher, you’ll need to use your hands to help you ascend. On Class 4, the climbing becomes more challenging, the routes steeper and the moves more committing. Class 5 involves roped climbing, and there aren’t any standard routes on the Colorado 14ers that are Class 5 (though many alternative routes with this classification exist). Rock climbing, whether it’s in a gym or outside on natural crags, will get your mind and body used to the movement required and will help you become accustomed to heights. Both are hugely helpful when you’re on a mountain with big air around. Climbing with friends will add input and encouragement. When you get to the point of regularly completing 5.7-5.9 climbing routes, you’ll be ready to roll on just about any Class 3 or 4 route on a mountain.

In both cases, practice makes perfect. There are a ton of other considerations when climbing mountains, but these two are the foundation. You need to have your body and mind ready for the task, and the best way to do that is spend time doing the things you’ll be doing when you’re on the mountain.

Bob Doucette

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