Obligatory Warning: The information here is provided as a general guide and should only be considered part of a more comprehensive preparation for climbing a 14er. No guarantee is given as to the accuracy, completeness, or fitness for your particular purpose. Climbing 14ers can be extremely dangerous and many deaths have occurred, even to experienced hikers and climbers. Please be very careful, as all mountain climbing is treacherous and Colorado 14ers are particularly so.
I moved to the Front Range in 2016 and my first introduction to 14ers was my AirBnB host. She was absolutely awesome, as was her basement apartment, and the interaction was really a lot like AirBnB used to be, with real people instead of corporate giants and invitations for dinner instead of lists of mandatory chores before checkout.
On one of our conversations, she told me she wasn’t going to be at her house over the weekend because she was going to be in South-Western Colorado, climbing a 14er. I asked what that was, she said, “a mountain over 14,000 feet, duh.” (She didn’t say, “duh,” because she was super-nice.) She apparently had done them all three times over and was looking forward to the next round.
I though the idea of climbing a mountain over 14,000 feet, I don’t know, silly. Then I did my first ones and fell in love. That’s half because I had the wrong idea of what that was like, and half because it’s much more enjoyable than I had in mind. I thought I was going to be alone on the way up, but it’s actually a really social experience, especially the closer to Denver you are. And aside from requiring endurance, it’s not really physically destructive if you are prepared. If you are not prepared, things can go very wrong - people have died while trying to climb 14ers!
What Are 14ers?
14ers (or Fourteeners, whichever way you like to spell it) are mountains above 14,000 feet. There are also 13ers, 15ers, etc. But Colorado’s highest mountains are in the 14,000 foot plus range, so we like those particularly.
There are lots of 14ers in America, but the highest concentration of them seems to be in Colorado. We have 53 of them, where the exact number is problematic. Mostly because it’s not immediately clear what counts as a peak. Some are obvious: the highest point in the state is Mount Elbert, so clearly that’s a 14er. The second-highest peak is Mount Massive. It’s only 5 miles away, so you might doubt it’s really a stand-alone mountain, but the straight line from one to the other goes down a 4,000 foot valley.
Mount Massive, though, consists of several peaks. By that I mean that to get from one to the other (they are in a line), you have to descend significantly and ascend again. Do they count as separate 14ers? No, there is a rule commonly used in mountaineering circles that says that a mountain is a peak in its own right only if, to get from another peak to it, you have to descend and ascend at least 300 feet.
That rule is slightly arbitrary and not entirely fair. You could have two mountains separated by 100 miles, but because the ridge connecting them never drops more than 300 feet, they are the same peak (the taller of the two would count as the main peak). At the same time, you can have a cluster of crags that are so tight, you can shake the hands of climbers of the next one from yours, and they’d still count as separate peaks because there is a drop of 300 feet between them.
Mostly, the rule is challenged by people that like to claim more 14ers, so the 300 foot requirement is felt as too strict. I am mostly of the opposite logic, that some 14ers should not count as separate because they belong to the same general mountain. But to each their own.
Where Are 14ers?
Colorado’s 14ers are mostly arranged along the mountain ranges of the Rocky Mountains. From the Denver area, you can see the 5 Front Range 14ers. Behind them are those of the Mosquito Range. Behind them, the largest cluster, that of the Sawatch Range, that also holds the 3 tallest mountains in Colorado. Behing the Sawatch Range, the Elk Mountains, which has the most difficult-to-climb 14ers.
Separate from these ranges are two more clusters in the South: the San Juan Mountain in the South-West, famous for their incredible, rugged beauty, and the equally rugged but not as famous Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the South-East.
From Denver, the closest 14er is Mount Blue Sky, visible from much of the city. The Northernmost 14er (and only 14er North of I-70) is Longs Peak. The Easternmost is Pikes Peak (they originally had apostrophes, but the authority on geographic names had nothing to do one day, so they decided to “rename” them, so I heard), famous for being the inspiration to America the Beautiful. The Southern outlier is Culebra Peak (which is also the only one that requres an entry fee at the time of writing). In the West, Mount Wilson just edges out Wilson Peak for most creatively named mountain (I mean for Westernmost).
How Can I Find Out More?
There are many resources touching on 14ers and hiking them, but the probably most famous and extensive is the web site, 14ers.com. It has virtually all the information you need, including the links to external sources.
14ers.com is the brainchild of Bill Middlebrook, who still runs the site. He is personally invested in the site, has written an insane amount of trip reports of his own 14er climbs, and has my and Colorado’s eternal gratitude for putting together so much information.
Another excellent resource for 14ers, one that is easier to gift, is the book, Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs by Gerry Roach. That’s what 14er climbers mean when they say, “The Roach.” It’s an extensive, well-researched book that was the basis for all 14er climbing before there were online guides.
When Should I Go?
Theoretically, you can climb a 14er any time of the year. But the winters of Colorado are famous for their cold and you might want to try something warmer. The snow will generally have largely melted by mid-July, and the first storms of the season usually start in September. You should know that storms and even snow storms have been reported on 14ers any time of the year, so never feel safe about the weather. But if you need to plan, August is your best bet, with late July and early September potential fallback dates.
Colorado is also famous for having highly variable weather. That means that winters are much colder than summers, but also that the weather changes unpredictably from day to day and from minute to minute. As we like to say here, if you don’t like the weather in Colorado, just wait 20 minutes and you’ll get a different one.
It goes with saying that you absolutely should not try to climb any mountain, let alone a 14er, when the weather is changing for the worse or bad from the start. Try finding out after climbing for 4 hours straight that you are getting into a lightning or ice storm, then realize it takes you just as long to go down and you have absolutely no way to protect yourself.
Which One Should I Pick?
Colorado’s 14ers come in all shades and stripes (not sizes, that’s mostly a given). Some of the trails are really easy (ironically, the tallest 14er is also one of the easiest to climb), some are famously hard (look up videos of Capitol Peak’s Knife Edge). Choosing the right one for the First Timer is a matter of skill level, endurance, and means.
There are four variables that determine the difficulty of a peak:
- Distance: this one is variable and depends on where you are staying
- Access: usually, you try to get to a particular trailhead from a spur on a major road; this access can be easy (highway leads to trailhead, like at Mount Yale) or difficult (a dirt road that requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle)
- Vertical: the amount of feet you’ll have to climb; you usually start around 10,000 feet, so somewhere around 4,000 feet to climb
- Difficulty: the trail itself may be like a well-trodden path, or you may have to clear substantial hurdles like rock walls or exposed ledges
14ers.com has an overview of each 14er, the routes leading to the summit, and all the factors above.
For the absolute beginner, there are a few options. The easiest one by far is Mount Sherman. On a good year, you can just drive up to the 12,000 foot level from the East and take a relatively easy trail (some call it a 4WD road) to the summit. The best time recorded here is just over an hour, with the median around 3:30 hours (round-trip). To get to Mount Sherman, you drive from Fairplay (famous for being the source of the fictional city of South Park in the franchise).
An oft attempted climb is Quandary Peak. That’s probably due to a combination of easy access (the trailhead is just off the highway) and proximity to population centers (Breckenridge is just 15 minutes away). In fact, it’s so popular that they are instituting a permit system to climb it, so check with the relevant authorities before you try.
The most cheated 14ers are without any doubt Mount Blue Sky and Pikes Peak. They are the closest 14ers (and major peaks) to Colorado’s two main cities, Denver and Colorado Springs, so the tourism authorities had highways built to the summit of both of them. That’s right, you can just get into the car and drive all the way to the summit!. In fact, Pikes Peak even has a cog railway getting all the way to the top.
Personally, I find it a little disappointing to climb for hours to get to the top of a mountain, only to have hundreds of people there and a concession stand/restaurant. But it’s also true that it can be very reassuring for the first time hiker to know there is going to be someone around to help, and maybe a way to get back to the base that doesn’t require hiking or a helicopter.
A little farther from the main hotspots, and hence usually less crowded, are the peaks of the Sawatch Range. Of those, only Mount Elbert competes with the Front and Mosquito ranges in busy-ness, because it’s the tallest peak in Colorado (and it’s a relatively easy climb). The other peaks are generally much less crowded. For ease of access, La Plata Peak and Mount Yale stand out, as well as Mount Antero. Of those, only Yale is a reasonable choice for a beginner.
What Equipment Will You Need?
At the very minimum, you will need:
- Well-worn boots with ankle support
- Lots of fluids
- Sun protection as both sunscreen and head covering
- Enough food to sustain you
- Protective gear in case it gets cold
Shoes Absolutely do not try climbing a 14er with new shoes. It’s madness: you might get blisters or the shoes may hurt, and then you are stuck having to hike in them for hours. That’s not just an issue of pain, but also of taking your mind off the trail and into trying to survive the pain.
It’s also super-easy to lose your balance while climbing a 14er and ankle support helps prevent rolled ankles. I’d go (and go myself) for boots that are over ankle height, relatively soft, waterproof for the most part, and with a very grippy, deep sole. You want it to look like a car tire, so that it grips even in snow.
Fluids Electrolytes are great, but water is important. Colorado’s air is in general very dry, and you want to hike on the driest of days (because then the chances of storms are reduced significantly). Lack of water / dehydration at altitude can have catastrophic consequences, so make sure you have lots of water. I usually bring a gallon of water and an assortment of other drinks (coffee for the ascent, fruit juices, electrolyte solutions).
On some mountains, streams will run along the trail. Be careful of what you drink there - if you dip into the stream, use a filtering device!
Sun protection Colorado’s air is thin in addition to dry, and the sun shines much more powerfully than at sea level. To make things worse, there is absolutely no shade getting closer to the summit, as the typical tree line in Colorado is around 11,000 feet and a 14er obviously much taller.
I recommend bringing both sunscreen and a hat. I find wide-brimmed hats better than caps, because they protect face and neck at the same time. Also, generally hats come with strings to hold them in place, and the winds can get pretty crazy up on the mountain.
Food How much you need to eat depends on you. You need fluids for mental acuity, so never skimp on those. You can gauge your personal need for food. Pack what you like, pack things that have high calorie density, and focus your eating on avoiding mind-numbing hunger, not on being satiated. Be careful if you suffer from conditions like diabetes that may require you to react to nutrient deficiency more immediately.
Protective gear I was climbing Mount of the Holy Cross where a sudden rain storm drenched a family of five wearing nothing but shorts and T-shirts. We (I and other more experienced hikers) had to get them situated in a protected area for them to stop shivering. The problem is not just that you’re going to be cold if you don’t have protective gear, but also that you will have to climb while your teeth are chattering. Nobody is going to be able to rescue you if a storm hits.
The general idea is to bring lots of layers to wear. I like convertible pants (the ones that count as fashion catastrophe), wool socks, supportive underwear, compression shirt, shirt, and jacket. The jacket usually dangles from the backpack because I don’t usually climb unless it’s shirt weather, but you get the general idea.
Maybe you can add an emergency mylar blanket or poncho. Those weigh close to nothing and are extremely useful if needed.
What Other Equipment Should You Consider?
Big fan of trekking poles here. They are relatively lightweight and allow you to pin yourself to the ground while climbing. That’s particularly useful when trying to move up or down dirt sections: those tend to be very slippery and any traction device is great help.
Trekking poles also help with hiker’s hands: if you hike for prolonged periods of time with your hands dangling by your side, the blood will pool in them and they will eventually start hurting. You can use anything that keeps the hands at or above heart level to avoid that, and trekking poles are a great tool for that. (You can also use the straps of you backpack.)
Sunglasses tend to be really important, in general with the idea that protection from the sun is very important. That’s particularly the case if there is snow on the ground, because it reflects the sunlight and doesn’t care you are wearing a hat.
Gloves can be great protection from the cold, but also from scraping. They also don’t weigh a lot, so should be a no-brainer.
Smartphones are very useful for taking pictures, listening to podcasts or music, and of course in case of emergency. You need to remember that reception on most 14er hikes is absolutely non-existent, so download info (trail info, pictures, routes, etc.) well before you go because usually reception is worst at the trailhead. (Ironically, I got the best reception ever on most 14er summits, because there is obviously a straight line of sight to the nearby towers in many cases.)
First Aid Kit you can’t imagine how easy it is to scrape yourself up on a rock. If something can withstand thousands of years of rain, wind, ice, or sun, it’s going to turn your skin to shreds without even trying.
Pain medication it is really common for people to get a headache on a 14er climb. There is the exertion, the thin air, the brutal sunshine, and your co-hikers that just won’t shut up…
Necessary medication if you need medication of any kind, make sure you bring enough to cover an emergency. You may think you are going to be done in 4 hours, but nature may have a different plan in store for you.
Light In case you leave early or late, or in case you get lost, you need to have some source of light. By far the best are headlamps, but make sure you adjust the straps so they are not too tight (and cause headaches) or loose (and slip at the worst time). You can make do with torches, and your phone might do in a pinch.
Bags Two words: trash and poop. You don’t want to leave either on the mountain. Add some paper/wipes, too, just in case.
The Day Before
Alright, you packed everything mentioned above, you made sure the boots are comfy. You have your clothes laid out and the gas tank is full. What now?
First, the weather. You need to make sure you understand the conditions and adapt to them. 14ers.com has, on the page for each peak, a link for the current weather forecast for the actual location (look for Weather). Make sure you check the elevation on the page, as it’s usually several thousand feet below the summit and you’ll have to subtract 5 degrees (Fahrenheit) for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
Temperature is an important factor to consider, but there are two just as important ones that are rarely mentioned.
Humidity is crucial, as it indicates the likelihood a storm will form. There are lots of factors that go into storm formation, but humidity has been a reliable indicator for me. I will not climb a 14er if humidity is above 50% under any circumstances, and ideally wait until it’s below 20%. The lower, the better.
Humidity does’t just indicate whether a storm is likely to form, but also when. In the mountains, clouds tend to gather in the afternoon and summer storms seem to generally center around 2p. The more humidity, the earlier the storm might form. That’s the reason a lot of 14er hikers prefer going really early in the morning, even when it’s still dark outside.
Wind Speed and Direction are also highly important. A gusty day can easily push you off-balance or blow things into your eyes. It can also make stuff fly away and make you do really stupid things trying to retrieve said stuff. I am quite wind-resistant and everything is tied tight, but winds above 40 mph are really unpleasant to climb in, and 20 mph is already uncomfortable.
Colorado gets a lot of road damage in the winter that needs to be repaired in the summer months. CDoT, Colorado’s Department of Transportation, tries to be as visitor friendly as possible, but it’s always good to check road conditions to your trailhead. Do that the day before you leave, to make sure you have an idea of how long it will take to reach the base, and what the best route might be.
I have had to change plans from one peak to another based on road work. It’s not a big problem if you are ready for the possibility, but scrambling to find a different peak, and find all needed information on the fly is a bit of a chore.
Download the 14ers.com app to your phone, find the peak and route you are planning to take, bookmark it, and download the pictures/maps/route. (Also say thank you to Bill Middlebrook, whom I don’t know but for whom I have the utmost respect.) Even if you think you know where you are going and how to complete your climb, if you haven’t actually tried that particular peak it’s good to have backup information.
Also add material you want for distraction, like music or podcasts, so you can listen without reception.
Check your app store for interesting apps. PeakBagger and similar allow you to figure out the names of the peaks you are looking at. There are apps that allow you to track your path and match it up with a GPX route, as provided by 14ers.com.
And of course make sure you have enough juice to get you through the day. If your phone can’t quite make it all the way, get a charging bank and don’t forget the charging cable.
14ers.com has a section on trip reports on the page for every peak. Right now, they are under a tab near the top of the page. Check out the first few (most recent ones) to get an idea of the conditions. People will usually comment on the road to the trailhead, the status of the trail, and other interesting tidbits.
This can be absolutely important. One year, I was planning to do the triple crown of Mounts Missouri, Belford, and Oxford and read the night before that there had been a major landslide and that the trail was completely gone. Hikers had to figure out a way around or over the slide, with the possibility that it was only a partial and the rest of the event was still to come. I went to La Plata Peak instead, which ended up being my favorite 14er to date (also: the one from the picture on top of the article.)
Make sure you get to bed early and relatively empty: no heavy consumption of food or alcohol if possible. Also, bring driving shoes that are super-comfortable with you - slippers, loafers, sneakers. You can’t imagine how thankful you’ll be for them after a whole day of hiking boots.
The Morning Of
You wake up and get ready. Pile into the car and drive off. Make sure you have GPS directions turned on so you are informed about last minute traffic jams and reroutes: this is Colorado’s mountains and the roads are under constant threat.
Also, try to get out as early as you can in the morning. Kick stragglers out of bed or leave them behind. Roads are less crowded early on, parking lots at trailheads fill up early, and people tend to do stupid thing like getting stuck on the road, so better to be there before they are.
It’s best to go in a small group. More than one, ideally four, not more than eight. I would say, the more the merrier, but really the more people in a group, the more someone is not going to be able to make it all the way.
You’ll probably have picked your first 14er at below the two hour drive mark. You’ll get to the trailhead and park. Make sure nothing worth stealing is visible in the car: I have never had any issues with theft or break-ins, but it must be tempting to do-no-goods, considering they can count on several hours of solitude.
Start the GPS trackers, smartwatches and get going. Also, don’t forget to take a selfie when you leave. You can compare the faces you make to the tired old things that will be back in eight hours!
No two 14ers are identical, but there is a certain consistency in the climbs. The first thing is that you’ll usually start in a forest with no phone reception and no views. That part is usually dull. You are protected from the winds, but you will be in the shade. So it’s likely to be the coldest part of the climb. The terrain is also usually solid, compacted, and more like a regular hiking trail. There will be roots, rocks, leaves, and critters, but otherwise it’s a stroll.
Eventually, sooner or later, the climb will get steeper. There will often be a set of sweeping switchbacks that make the climb easier. Most of the time, the trail is easy to follow and well-marked. Familiarize yourself with trails forking, merging, or crossing, because those can make you lose the straight path and hours of time.
A huge thank you to the volunteer group that created and maintains these trails, the Fourteener Initiative. Imagine not only climbing a 14er, but bringing material for repair, or spend hours moving boulders to make a trail that people can follow without getting lost. Say thank you to all the humble souls that have made this happen.
Eventually, the trees will get thinner and you get into a landscape generally dominated on one side by the mountain you are climbing and on the other by nearby peaks. You’ll start noticing the mountain paradox: when you are in the mountains, you are usually in valleys, which means your visibility goes only as far as the next wall of rock. The result is that, in most settings, you see less than you would in the flatlands.
At this point, the climb should start feeling heavy. I like to take a quick breather every 30 minutes and a longer rest every hour and a half to two hours. I also find it better not to let my heart rate drop too much on the shorter rests, so I keep them to just a couple of minutes of picture taking or snacking.
Eventually, all vegetation is gone and there is only rock around you. The views at this point expand and eventually you can see in all direction except the mountain you are climbing. Here conditions become highly variable and depend from peak to peak: some (like Elbert or Grays) are 14,000 foot tall piles of dirt, others are made of loose rock (talus) that is prone to toppling over and make you fall, others still are solid rock that needs to be climbed.
The last part of the climb is often the hardest. All of Colorado’s Rockies was once above 14,000 feet, but erosion has taken everything but the hardest parts. These are frequently tough to climb, too. When I go with beginners, I usually count steps and rest: I will count 25 steps out loud and then we wait for a few seconds, say 30, before we continue. With some people, I count 50 or 100 steps, depends on fitness levels and acclimatization to high altitude.
Finally you made it to the summit. Enjoy the views, rest and chat with other hikers that made it, and have a jolly good time. You absolutely must not forget to take your summit selfie, as nobody will ever believe you made it to the top if you didn’t take one. Also, since reception is frequently good, brag about your conquest by sending the summit selfie from the summit itself. (If safe.)
When you are finally ready, or when the weather kindly suggest that you are, it’s going to be less fun than you think. The descent is certainly not as exhausting as the ascent, but it comes with its own tricks.
First, it’s much easier to ascend a steep trail than to descend it. That’s where trekking poles really shine, as they anchor you when you are jumping down, or when you have to slide along a dirt slope.
Second, your knees will not be happy about the constant thumping. They are already tired just as your entire body will be, but they might eventually also start to hurt. Be mindful of your knees, as injury to them is frequently long-lasting in consequences.
Third, the descent doesn’t generate the same amount of heat that the ascent does, so you might feel colder. You might also be wet from sweating the ascent, which will make for clammy clothes. Remember that the air is likely to be dry (because that’s how you picked the day!), so things will dry fast if they are brought to the surface. If you feel you are sweaty, take off layers blocking the underlayers from drying. (But make sure you don’t get cold in the process, maybe putting on the overlayers while the underlayers dry.)
At The Car
Mandatory selfie, everybody piles back in, and off you go. You probably scoped out some nice restaurant/brewery nearby so you can celebrate there. I love to go to an ice cream place and stuff myself with chocolate ice cream and espresso. But to each their own. Check out nearby spas/hot springs: a lot of 14ers have something nearby, and soaking in the hot water is amazing for your limbs and overall welfare.
What Didn’t Work For Me
Last but not least, some things I tried that didn’t work for me. The most important one is the ubiquitous oxygen bottle. I found it didn’t help me at all and was just more weight added.
I always pack way too much food and come back home with half of it. Not a tragedy, but I keep forgetting every time I pack again.
I switched from a Forester (high-ish clearance) to an Impreza. Definitely an overall improvement in stability and fuel economy, but it’s really no good for 14er driving and has hampered my ability to get to trailheads several times. If you have a low clearance car, try to hitch a ride with someone with something more suited.
The GPX routes on 14ers.com are slightly outdated and low-resolution. That means that my talking GPS router constantly thinks I am off the route, especially on switchbacks. I hope the site updates the routes or allows users to add their own, since a lot of people now track GPS.
People coming down the mountain are generally going to be tired and grumpy. Don’t take it personally if they are less friendly than you feel. And maybe try being extra super friendly when you come down, because that’s probably just going to sound normal.
After the first few 14ers, I was in real muscle pain the next day or two. Plan for that: maybe don’t try climbing two 14ers on subsequent days, and definitely don’t try the Colfax Marathon after one. It gets better, by the way, and I know plenty people that do rows of 14ers.
People that didn’t acclimate to the high altitude usually get winded faster, which is to be expected. They also tend to get massive migraines or headaches, especially if they (a) don’t have proper sun protection, and/or (b) don’t drink enough fluids.