As prime hiking season nears, a list of ‘first’ mountain adventures

Great views like this are the things that make people want to go to the mountains. Here's how to get started.

Great views like this are the things that make people want to go to the mountains. Here’s how to get started.

Many people are looking for new challenges these days, and a big chunk of that crowd looks to fill that urge outdoors. For me, that always pointed me toward the mountains. Something about the high country just exudes an energy of adventure that is hard to find elsewhere.

Is this you? Yeah? But where to start?

Well, you’re in luck. It just so happens there are a number of places you can go in Colorado and New Mexico that will fit the bill, even if seeing the world from a mountaintop is something you haven’t done before.

We’ll break it down into categories, based on what your interests are, locations, and a bit more for those of you looking to take the next step in your alpine adventures. So here goes:

FIRST MOUNTAIN, CLOSE TO DENVER

There are several to choose from, as a bunch of high peaks are within 90 minutes of the Denver metro area. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t require a long drive, you can expect a busy trail during the peak hiking season. But you’ll still have a good time.

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Bierstadt and its Sawtooth Ridge.

My choice: Mount Biesrstadt. It’s close to the Interstate 70 town of Georgetown, with easy access to the trailhead and a straightforward route. It’s a hike, and the round-trip route is about 7 miles. Standing at 14,060 feet, you’ll need a good set of legs and lungs to get up there. But you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Bierstadt’s Sawtooth Ridge as well as a host of nearby peaks. There are some boulder-hopping on the final stretch, but nothing too demanding. The trail is also dog-friendly, and you’ll likely meet a lot of other altitude seekers along the way.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, COMFORTABLE OVERNIGHT STAY

I’ve got one in mind here that’s close to Breckenridge. If you’d rather forgo the long drive from Denver and still have a comfortable place to stay before and after your summit, then the Breckenridge-Quandary Peak combo is for you.

Quandary Peak.

Quandary Peak.

Like Biesrstadt, it’s an easy-to-follow trail that goes right up the mountain’s east ridge and to the top. Again, about seven miles round-trip, topping out at 14,265 feet. Quandary Peak has incredible views of the nearby Mosquito Range as well as some of the high summits of the Tenmile Range. Again, this will be a busy peak during the summer, but a memorable one as well.

If you have more time and energy, go ahead and check out the loop that includes Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross, all nearby 14ers in the Mosquito Range. Or just relax and enjoy some time in Breckenridge.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, MORE SOLITUDE

If you can get further away from the bigger cities and find time on a weekday, Huron Peak near Buena Vista, Colorado, is my choice. In fact, of all the first-time peaks on my list, Huron Peak has the most bang for the buck.

Huron Peak.

Huron Peak.

The mountain is deeper in the Sawatch Range, and if you ask anyone who has been there, they’ll tell you it has the some of the best views you can find. At 14,003 feet, it has commanding vistas of the nearby Three Apostles formation, three dramatic 13,000-foot peaks that make for excellent views and stunning photographs. Because it is farther away from any cities of size, it will also be less travelled than Bierstadt or Quandary. The route is just under seven miles from the four-wheel-drive trailhead, and just over 10 from the two-wheel-drive trailhead.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN, BACKPACKING ADVENTURE

There are a lot of choices all throughout the Rockies, but my pick here is in the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. Head into Red River, and then to the Middle Fork Trail parking lot for a trek up Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico at 13,159 feet.

Summit view from Wheeler Peak.

Summit view from Wheeler Peak.

The trail takes you five miles into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. At Lost Lake, there are a number of dispersed, primitive campsites. This is not the most heavily traveled route up the mountain – that is on the other side of the mountain near Taos. What you’ll get are great campsites, alpine scenery and plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing (I had bighorn sheep walking through my campsite when I was last there). Get up the next morning and hike the remaining three miles to Wheeler Peak’s summit.

If you’re going to break into high country backpacking, I can’t think of many other places that will top it.

Route info

FIRST SNOW CLIMB

Late spring still means there’s going to be snow on the mountains, which a lot of hikers seek to avoid. But if you’re looking to try your hand at traversing and ascending snowy slopes, a good starter route is the Angel of Shavano Couloir on Mount Shavano.

Near the top of Mount Shavano.

Near the top of Mount Shavano.

Mount Shavano is near Salida and Poncha Springs, and the southernmost of the massive Sawatch 14ers. It’s a hike all the way, but below the saddle between Shavano and a neighboring peak is a gully that fills with snow during the colder months. That’s the Angel of Shavano Couloir.

If you’re itching to learn skills using an ice axe and crampons, this is one of the better places to start. The Angel melts out fast in the spring, but if you hit it at the right time, the couloir links up to snow fields on Shavano’s summit cone that will take you all the way to the top. Learn how to use these pieces of gear, and if possible, go with someone who has done a snow climb before. Mount Shavano is a good introduction to these types of skills.

Route info

FIRST MOUNTAIN TO KICK IT UP A NOTCH

When you’ve got to the point where you’re ready to graduate from the walk-up peaks and do a little climbing, some interesting options come to mind. My pick means taking a bit of a drive to southwestern Colorado, but it will be worth the trip. Few peaks have the beauty and challenge in combination with accessibility than Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn Peak.

Two-wheel-drive access to the Matterhorn Creek trailhead will get you to great campsites, and the route to the top is a little over seven miles. It’s all hiking until you get just under a formation called the Prow, and that’s where the climbing begins. Also called “scrambling,” a Class 3 route (Classes 1 and 2 are hiking only, with varying degrees of difficulty; Class 4 is more difficult unroped climbing, and Class 5 is technical climbing using ropes) will involve using your hands and feet to ascend. It is unroped climbing, but the rock is solid and getting to the top is fun.

The catch: The top section of Wetterhorn is pretty airy and if you’re intimidated by heights, this could be a challenge. But the best way to overcome those fears and push yourself to new levels is to tackle them head-on. Wetterhorn is a good peak to do just that.

Route info

So there’s a list you can check out and use to make your spring and summer plans. My guess is that after you do one of these peaks, you’ll want to do more.

Bob Doucette

Family time on Quandary Peak

About 13,000 feet on Quandary Peak’s east ridge.

It was a moment I dreamed about for a long time, and at a somewhat unlikely place. But in the end, it all made sense.

I generally don’t do repeat summits unless I do them by a different route. I’ve hiked Wheeler Peak twice, using two different trails. Same for Mount Shavano, with the second ascent being a spring snow climb.

Having done Quandary Peak’s east ridge route three years ago with my brothers Mike and Steve, it was not a route I expected to do again. But I did, and I’m glad for it.

Last week, the whole Doucette clan got together with the Meyer family in Breckenridge, Colo. Many of the younger set, having heard me and Steve talk about hiking the 14ers before, had built up some excitement about doing it, too.

Quandary is just a few miles south of Breckenridge, and its trailhead is readily accessible to anyone who can drive there. It was a natural choice for five of our group who wanted to go but had yet to be any higher than 10,000 feet.

You have to understand, the whole point of this blog is to encourage getting active and getting outside. So when the opportunity to take family members/newbies up their first 14er came up, I said, “Let’s go!”

A friendly tip list at the trailhead.

About the mountain

Quandary Peak, at 14,265 feet, is the king of the Tenmile Range. It’s a long, complicated peak, with a rugged west ridge that has been known to trap and strand unwary climbers. During the winter and spring, the gullies on its north and south slopes fill with snow, allowing for people to attempt snow climbs.

But it’s most commonly ascending via its east ridge, a long, gently rising slope with a great trail and amazing views. It’s rated Class 1 with mild exposure, making it the perfect route for beginners to try their luck at bagging their first 14er. Aside from Grays Peak, Torreys Peak and Mount Bierstadt, it may be the most commonly hiked 14er in the state.

The gang at the trailhead. Can you see the excitement?

About the group

My brother Steve and I would reprise this hike, having done it together with our brother Mike back in 2009. The rest: All noobs. Which was perfect.

Joining us was Steve’s wife, Beth; his three children, Hillary, Hannah and Hunter; and my sister’s daughter, Elisabeth. The group was pretty fired up about trying this.

All had varying athletic and fitness pedigrees. Hillary is a walk-on for the Pitt cross country team. Hunter plays high school basketball. Hannah stays fit for cheerleading, which she will continue at the collegiate level. Liz is a life-time soccer player, eventually playing in college. Beth ran cross country back in the day, and whipped herself into shape via Zumba. Don’t laugh – she’s in shape!

Near treeline, going up the east ridge.

The ascent

After dragging everyone out of bed at 5 a.m. so we could get to the trailhead by 6:30, the bunch was surprisingly pumped about getting started. Liz sprinted a few yards up the trail. Beth found something to laugh about, which got her a little winded at 10,000 feet. It was a chatty bunch as they followed my slow-churn pace up the trail.

“Is this the pace you usually hike?” Hunter asked me. I answered in the affirmative. He thought I was being slow so they could keep up, but that was hardly the case. I’m sure most of them could have blazed by me lower on the mountain, but as is always the case in the high country, you have to think with a longer view. Hiking at 11,000 feet is not the same as it is at 13,000 feet. And then there’s still another 1,000 feet to go to the summit, then the long trek back down the hill.

A mountain goat. They’re common on Quandary and are generally pretty peaceful creatures.

Pace, in this case, is often about pacing. Even on a straightforward route like Quandary’s east ridge, you can expect to burn thousands of calories in a place where your appetite wanes. Blow yourself out going up the hill and you might have a pretty lousy time dealing with altitude sickness, fatigue and dehydration.

Cresting the shoulder of the ridge, we reached flatter, more pleasant hiking. We also got a good look at the remainder of the route. There was still another 1,000 feet of gain to go, with the steepest hiking ahead.

Here’s where my deliberate pace paid off. By now, I was down to counting off anywhere from 50 to 125 steps before stopping for a short breather. Everyone told me later that each break came at the perfect time. It was gratifying to hear this. Not so much that I was teaching the younglings a thing or two, but more of the fact that I wasn’t pushing to group too hard. We were making excellent time, and no one was suffering too much.

From left, Hillary, Hunter and Liz make the final march to the summit. Well done!

The last 150 yards or so is pretty level hiking to the true summit. Watching my kin make that final march was pretty rewarding. They’d all done it. Sharing that moment with them was incredible, and by all accounts, I think at least a few of them might be hooked. Hillary told me she would do this every day if she lived here; Liz, who lives in Colorado Springs, is aching to do another one. I think she could be a candidate for being a 14er finisher before she turns 30.

That’s not to say everything went perfect. There were a few blisters. Some queasiness at the top. And headaches. But everyone got something out of those mishaps – lessons on what to do and what not to do in the high country.

Here are some cool summit shots:

From left, Hannah, Hunter, Beth, Steve, Liz and myself, with Hillary in the background.

Looking north from the summit at the Tenmile Range.

Summit style, via Hillary.

The coolest part of this is they all got to experience something that was a big part of a man who was such a huge part of all our lives.

I mentioned earlier my oldest brother Mike. He’s no longer with us, a victim of cancer who passed a little over a year ago. There are good people, there are important people, and then there are great people. Mike was a great man. Among his many accomplishments (and there were sooo many), he had more than three dozen 14er ascents to his credit. One of his first was Quandary Peak, a mountain he’d hiked numerous times, including once with Steve and I.

Sitting with him in his hospital room, I’d asked him what his favorite mountain was. He said it was Quandary, and among the reasons was the fact that it was a great place to take first-timers. You see, he got more out of sharing his love of the peaks with others, teaching them what he knew, than any personal sense of accomplishment. He got a particular kick out of being with me on my first 14er summit back in 2004, and then Steve’s in 2009.

I totally get that, especially now. Mike was dearly missed at our reunion, but in many ways, he was there all along. He would have loved being with the whole gang, playing games, golfing, chowing down and just hanging out. And he would have relished in taking the noobs up the hill for the first time, seeing the joy on their faces at the summit views, wildlife sightings and achievement. The whole week was very much in the spirit of who he was.

On our summit day, all of that made it worth doing a repeat. Here’s hoping the next time comes sooner rather than later.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Colorado hiking and climbing: Quandary Peak

Northeast of Quandary Peak.

Colorado’s Tenmile Range has a claim to fame that most skiers are pretty familiar with. Many of its peaks surround the town of Breckenridge, the one-time mining town that transformed itself into a ski destination and gentrified home to those wealthy enough to build and live here.

Most skiers don’t give much of a thought to the range’s greatest peak, however.

At 14,265 feet, Quandary Peak is the highest mountain in the Tenmile Range, its massive bulk and sweeping east ridge rising above the range like a huge behemoth from the deep.

A look back at the trail going up Quandary Peak’s east ridge. It’s well-defined and easy to follow the entire route.

Quandary Peak is a complicated mountain, offering many routes of varying difficulty to its summit, but for those new to hiking and climbing the 14ers this mountain is a popular destination. Following its east ridge, it’s a straightforward hike leading to a steeper, final summit pitch which gives those who make it to the top some amazing views of the Tenmile as well as the nearby Mosquito Range.

Quandary was not my first 14er, but it was a great place for me and my brothers to go for some family time in the alpine countryside. For oldest brother Mike, it was a repeat of a hike he’d done many times before. For middle brother Steve, it was his first. I was somewhere in the middle.

Looking west toward Quandary Peak’s summit pitch.

There’s a lot to like about this mountain, especially for the 14er newbie. The path is straightforward, relatively short and absent of any danger from falls. No one is going to go hurtling off the east ridge into some airy void below.

Instead, you’re offered nonstop scenery the entire way.

Breaking through treeline, a sharp, long neighboring ridge follows you as you head west. The summit pitch comes into view fairly soon after you leave the trees, looking like a massive pyramid that is often graced with snow well into the summer.

Mountain goats. They’re not afraid of people at all.

What we found interesting was how accustomed the wildlife was to people. Anyone who has spent time hiking in the Rockies is used to the smaller creatures – pikas and marmots come to mind – who follow you around looking for handouts.

But usually the larger animals keep their distance.

Not so with the mountain goats. When we ran into them, they seemed unconcerned with our presence, looking for things to nibble on as we passed within 20 feet of them.

Now a warning: If you’re looking for solitude on Quandary, you’ll have to pick a time when casual mountain enthusiasts aren’t there. Expect crowds in the summer and early fall, and even late spring.

My brothers making the final march to the summit.

If you can get beyond seeing other hikers, Quandary’s reward comes at the end.

The topography surround Quandary is dramatic and complex. To the north, a bowl rimmed by sharp, lower peaks often holds the snow well into summer and is an impressive backdrop.

Another thing I like about the mountain is its accessibility. It’s just a few miles from Breckenridge, with its east ridge trailhead just off the state highway.

Mike, me and Steve at Quandary Peak’s summit.

That makes it perfect for the beginners looking for a challenge – and like any 14er, Quandary’s elevation will test even the fit. Proximity to town means that a group outing can end with a victory dinner and a cold one.

For the three of us, it was a great bonding time. Steve proved to be more than up to the task, hiking strong all the way to the top. He led the way for the three of us at the summit, reveling in his hard-won victory.

It ended up being a huge day. The weather was spectacular, the ascent beautiful, and at the end of it, all of us had that blessed fatigue from a good day outside.

Tenmile Range awesomeness north of Quandary Peak, as seen from the summit.

Camaraderie is something that can be developed on lots of mountains, certainly on peaks tougher than Quandary (mountaineers call it “the brotherhood of the rope” for a reason). But a small group outing on a peak like Quandary is what feeds that 14er addiction, lights a fire for the outdoors and helps people learn to appreciate the high country beyond the resorts.

ROUTE INFORMATION: Quandary’s east ridge trail is well-marked and easy to follow. The trail is also well-maintained and has, in recent years, added a small wooden bridge crossing a gully higher up toward treeline. Start hiking from the parking lot at the trailhead as it goes up through the trees. This the second-steepest part of the ascent, but it very manageable. Once breaking through the trees, the trail levels out as you follow Quandary’s long east slope toward the summit pitch. The trail gets a little rockier, but is still a good path and is unexposed. Reaching the summit pitch, follow the rocky path up the ridge’s south edge. The route then levels out for a couple hundred yards as you approach the summit. It’s rated Class 1 hiking and is 6.75 miles round-trip.

Looking south of Quandary Peak as seen from near the summit.

GETTING THERE: From Breckenridge, drive 8 miles south on Colorado 9. Turn west on the Blue Lakes 850 Road. Drive a few hundred yards and turn right on the McCullough Gulch 851 Road. Drive 0.1 mile to the trailhead and parking area.

EXTRA CREDIT: When there’s snowpack on the mountain, Quandary’s Cristo Couloir and Quandary Couloir are able to be used to reach the summit. Both are considered difficult class 2 snow climbs with moderate exposure. Quandary’s west ridge presents a larger challenge year round; it’s rated class 3 with higher exposure and is well known to be problematic in terms of route-finding for the uninitiated. For more on these routes, see this link.

FUN FACT: Many mountains can be associated with personalities. In recent years, the personality for Quandary Peak was a golden lab named Horton. Horton the Quandary Dog was owned by a family who lived near the mountain and had a lifelong habit of taking off from home, hitting the east ridge trail and summiting the peak with hikers. It’s thought that Horton summited Quandary Peak hundreds of times. Horton passed away last year. You can read more about him here. Then watch him in the short video below.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088