I hiked my first fourteener this weekend and it was nothing short of awe-inspiring! From the early morning start, to the physical and mental challenges along the way, to the moment that you finally crest the summit; the whole experience conjures up a range of emotions that are eventually succeeded by the sense of accomplishment that takes over when you finish the hike.
So, what is a 14er and why are they so special? A 14er is any mountain with a peak elevation of at least 14,000 feet. Fourteeners are found in only four states in the US – Alaska, California, Washington and Colorado cashes in with the most at 53 (or 58 depending on what definition you use).
The tallest peak in Colorado is Mt. Elbert at 14,433′. The tallest peak in the Contiguous US is Mt. Whitney in California at 14,494′. The tallest peak in the Continental US and in North America is Mt. McKinley (Denali) in Alaska at 20,310′.
As altitude increases, the air gets thinner, pressure increases, and the amount of effective oxygen decreases. Between 5,000′-7,000′ is the altitude at which the average person may begin to experience mild altitude sickness including trouble breathing, nausea, headache, etc. Those already acclimated at Denver’s Mile High altitude of 5,280′ are not immune, but will feel the effects at closer to 10,000′. When you climb a 14er the altitude can pose as many challenges as the fundamental difficulty of the terrain.
The best way to approach the challenges of climbing a 14er is to be prepared. Here are a few tips you’ll see everywhere, that I can also validate.
- Make sure that you’re in at least decent shape with no medical conditions that would be aggravated by strenuous activity.
- Pack lots of water. When you think you have enough water, pack more!
- Snacks are your friend! Granola bars, sandwiches, fruit, carrots. I actually used the Jelly Belly Sport Beans (that I have been hesitant to use when I’m running) and they were great.
- Wear a good pair of hiking shoes or boots that have tread and make sure they are broken in.
- Layer up. The temperature can change drastically and quickly.
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat.
- Check the weather. Late morning and afternoon storms are always possible in the mountains and they can be dangerous. We got lucky with a hazy but mostly cloudless sky.
After some debate on which mountain we were going to tackle, it was decided that we would do Gray’s Peak in Arapahoe National Forest. Gray’s Peak at 14,278′ is the 9th tallest peak in Colorado and is connected by a ridge to Torrey’s Peak, the 11th tallest at 14,275′. Thus by crossing the ridge you can summit two 14ers in one day. They are Class 1 and Class 2 mountains respectively. I’ve seen discrepancies in the total out and back mileage ranging between 7-9 miles. We clocked in right around 9 miles round trip for Gray’s Peak and the folks who did the double play and hit Torrey’s were probably closer to 11 miles.
When you have a group of friends together it can be tough say “We are not going to stay out and party on Friday night so that we can get up and hike on Saturday,” but when you live in Colorado you find yourself making that decision quite often. It’s always worth it.
The trails in Colorado are highly trafficked and the 14ers, despite their challenges, are no exception. Early arrival is a must.
With a 3am wake up call, Jim, me and 6 of our friends set into the mountains. Gray’s Peak is about an hour and half drive from Denver on I-70 West. You exit at #220 Bakersville, and you’re *almost* there.
Thankfully our friends did some research so we weren’t surprised when we encountered a 3 mile dirt road that, even on a good day, could give an AWD vehicle a run for its money. We also weren’t surprised to see that there were hundreds of other people there at 4:30am, all vying for parking at the end of that dirt road at the trailhead.
Note, there is a parking lot you can use if you don’t want to traverse the dirt road but it’s a special place reserved for those who opt to trade a few extra hours of sleep for another 6 miles tacked on to their hike.
Driving into the mountains when it’s dark outside gives off an eerie feeling. You know that you’re amidst something spectacular but you can only barely make out the rocks and ledges that you are narrowly driving between. The drive up the dirt road was turbulent, and all along we had our fingers crossed that we were still early enough to get parking space when we cleared it. We did!
It was just before dawn and the darkness was broken up only by the lamps bouncing around on hopeful hikers heads. A couple of our friends had head lamps. I did not. I thought about what it would be like if no one had lamps or cell phone flash lights and we let ourselves adjust naturally to the darkness a la the Pleiades installation at the Mattress Factory; but I was glad to have the light.
The trail starts across a foot bridge under which you can hear a stream lapping at the banks in the chill morning air. Some sparsely placed 2x4s create steps that assist with the adjustment to walking on a grade. It seemed like everyone started out at a quick pace, which slowed as all of the different groups started to disperse along the trail. After a few minutes (or longer) of pushing hard through the darkness, the sky lightened and we could see the magnificent wall of the Continental Divide to the left and vague outlines of the peaks and valleys that surrounded us. It felt like waking up from a deep sleep.
We stopped for a moment to catch our breath and to take in the surroundings. The sun peered up over the wall and yellow, red and purple wildflowers popped in the soft morning light. We were in a rolling meadow which was in stark contrast to the stately gray peaks that stood, what looked like, so far away.
Onward we went. If you think about the distance left to traverse, you’re inevitably going to psych yourself out. You have to stay in the moment. Watching that each step is on a steady stone. Every turn in the trail opens up to more turns. After about an hour of hiking, the landscape changed from green to brown. The rolling meadow was starting to shrink in the rear view.
The sun moved across the sky but the chill never left the air. I layered and un-layered. My decision to bring a beanie proved to be a good move – having my head covered helped to regulate my body temperature. Also, never underestimate the power of a lightweight windbreaker. I’m a baby when it comes to being cold. The temperature in the low 40’s was really quite perfect.
Eventually we were at the foot of the mountain. The point where you look up and see nothing but rocks and switch backs. Little to no vegetation. Up and up.
This hike, as I imagine all 14er hikes are, was a mental game. The terrain was tough and there were very few spots where the grade leveled out to the point where you could relax. It was a grueling leg work out that was accompanied by shortness of breath.
After 4 hours of hiking, we made it to the top of Gray’s. Some of us had stopped a couple of yards from the top to wait for the rest of the group to catch up. Together we scrambled the rest of the way to the summit. Being with loved ones made it even sweeter.
The view behind us was that which we had admired on the way up and a 360 view opened up exposing a mountains beyond mountains that stood lower than we stood at that moment. At the top I felt small yet larger than life at the same time. I’m not going to get all Thoreau on you, but being on the top of a mountain is one of the most incredible things you can experience, and when you work really hard to get there the payoff is even greater.
Summit of Gray’s Peak, 14,278′
A few friends crossed the ridge and hit Torrey’s peak as well. I opted to start the descent from Gray’s. If you’ve ever hiked anything you know that coming down is no cake walk. It took almost as long to get back to the bottom as it took us to get up. We passed familiar sites and twists and turns that again seemed never ending.
All in all it took us 8 hours round trip. We left tired, hungry and satisfied.
As with most things of this nature, I’m hooked and pondering the next one. 🙂
Resting on the way down.