Climbing a Colorado 14er is a rite of passage for state natives and a tough but rewarding adventure for new visitors. For all, there’s an undeniable lure of climbing as high as you can go; to be on top of the world around you. Here’s your quick guide to what you need to know about climbing your first Colorado 14er.
What are 14ers? And why are they such a big deal?
Simply put, a “fourteener” is any mountain that exceeds an elevation of 14,000 feet above sea level. That’s 4,267.2 meters, 2.6 miles, 46.6 football fields, nine and a half Empire State buildings, 2,089 stacked NBA players … okay, okay, you get it, they’re really tall mountains. While Alaska, California and Washington have a few 14ers as well, Colorado is the 14er king with 53 fourteeners. That is significantly more than any other state. (While most of the rest of the world measures in meters, not in feet, “4,267ers” definitely doesn’t have the same ring). This unique geographical feature helps to define Coloradan culture. Ask any local Colorado outdoors enthusiast and they’ll tell you (probably in much more detail than you care to know) about each of the Colorado 14ers they have summited or plan to summit.
When should I “bag a 14er”?
Fourteener season generally starts in late June to early July depending on how much snow fell over the winter. All Colorado 14ers can have patches of snow year round, but the trails generally are clear to hike by midsummer. Cold temperatures, frequent storms and shorter daylight hours generally end the 14er climbing season around early October. Winter summiting is also a popular option with snowshoes or skins, though this usually is more practical in spring.
Before attempting any 14er, do your homework. Every mountain is different with ascents ranging from “a steep hike” to “multi-day expert-only mountaineering.” Know where the trailhead is, what route you will climb, how long it will take and what the weather forecast looks like. Storms can move in fast at high elevations and, above the tree line, thunderstorms can be deadly. Luckily, there are a lot of great resources to help you plan:
14ers.com: This website gives detailed route descriptions of each 14er in Colorado with pictures and a downloadable map you can use offline while you hike.
14ers.org: This site gives great personal accounts of recent climbs to help you get an idea of what current trail conditions might look like.
NOAA.gov is what I believe is your best weather resource. Although it’s not always as user friendly as some other sites, it generally offers the best and most specific forecast that can be pinpointed to the exact location of your climb.
What to wear?
- Good hiking shoes or boots – your feet will thank you.
- Rain Jacket – As mentioned, weather moves fast at high elevations; be prepared.
- Layers – Regardless of what the temperature at the trailhead is, it will be much colder on top. My rule is to “take off layers before you sweat, put on layers before you shiver.”
- Avoid wearing cotton! – As cool as you might think you look in your jeans and t-shirt, cotton clothing is a bad idea. Once you sweat (or it rains) your cotton clothes will get wet and will keep you cold and uncomfortable. Clothing is all personal preference; My 14er ensemble usually includes a dry-fit t-shirt, a warm fleece pull over and a waterproof rain jacket, along with zip off hiking pants. A warm hat and gloves are also a good idea.
What to Pack?
Make sure to bring a good backpack that fits everything you need and is comfortable to carry.
- Water – I would suggest at least 2 liters (I usually pack 3 or 4 to play it safe)
- Food – You will burn a lot of calories climbing a Colorado 14er, make sure you have enough to replenish your body. I generally bring trail mix, energy bars, gold fish, and chocolate or candy to “celebrate with” at the top.
- Sunscreen/sunglasses – The sun can be extra intense at high altitudes.
- Camera/camera phone – How else will you prove you were there? Those Instagram selfies won’t post themselves. (#UnitedByBreck)
- Just in case something goes wrong, it’s also good to have a few essentials — Matches or a fire starter if you need to spend the night, extra layers, a flashlight, extra food and a first aid kit.
- Cell phone service can be inconsistent, but it’s worth bringing.
For your first attempt at a Colorado 14er, I suggest Quandary. Located just south of Breckenridge, Quandary Peak is a great 14er with many different routes to the 14,265-foot summit. Adventurers looking for their first ascent can try the East ridge route, which is a long gradual trail that slowly but surely ascends to the peak. It has incredible views of the dramatic 14ers to the South and the Ten Mile and Gore ranges to the North. More experienced climbers looking for a technical ascent can try the Western ridge route.