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…