Steps to Summit Your First 14er
When you look out over the mountain peaks that make Colorado one of the most beautiful places to live in the country, you may see certain summits that tower over the others, snowcapped even late into the summer. Many of these are known as 14ers, and their height reaches over 14,000 feet above sea level. There are 58 of these massive peaks in Colorado, the most of any state in the country, and conquering them is a rite of passage for any outdoor enthusiast. But don’t think you can just hop on a trail and summit a 14er—these monsters take more preparation than you might think. Here’s a handy list of what to do to prep yourself for this feat.
1. Get in Shape
Many of the lower-grade 14ers are doable for your average Coloradoan—we’re the healthiest state in the union, after all. But many of these mighty peaks take a bit more preparation to summit, and getting in shape for climbing a 14er is a great motivator for sticking to a fitness routine! Veterans of the peaks suggest doing cardio workouts three times a week to make your lungs stronger and increase your endurance. Do this for as long as you can in preparation for your climb, and you’ll be in decent enough shape to enjoy the views without wanting to throw yourself off a cliff.
2. Prepare to Get High
Even if you’ve lived in Colorado your whole life, there’s a big difference between a mile high and 14,000 feet up—almost two miles! You can prepare yourself for the thinner air and hopefully ward off altitude sickness with some easy steps. Bring a lot of water. No, even more than that. You’re exerting yourself in thinner air, which means you’ll need those replenishing fluids to keep your body stabilized. Plus, many of these treks will take significantly longer than you think, so over-pack your water if anything. Pace yourself. It’s not a race, and taking occasional breaks will help your body acclimate as you ascend. Plan your nutrition intake. While it may be tempting—especially if you’re camping on the mountain—to break open a cold one with your hiking mates, drinking alcohol and smoking can seriously increase your chances of getting altitude sickness. Bring snacks for refueling mid-hike and try to consume a high-carbohydrate diet at high altitudes to give your muscles something to burn.
3. Bring the Right Gear
While running shoes and jeans may be perfectly good attire for a stroll up Chautauqua, you’ll want hardier gear if you’re attempting a 14er. Above tree-line the air is thin and often cold, so a light windbreaker is never a bad thing to bring just in case. You’ll also be almost two miles closer to the sun, so sunscreen is an absolute must. Bug spray (we recommend organic brands that don’t contain Deet or other pesticides that kill bees!), Band-Aids, and other first aid materials are also going to help keep you prepared and make your trip more enjoyable. You can technically climb in running shoes, but many 14ers will have loose scree, boulders, mud, and snow, and you may not be comfortable in anything other than sturdy hiking boots. Always break your boots in on inclines before you attempt a 14er! Wear them to work and on a shorter hike first to make sure they won’t leave you bloody. Moisture wicking socks and a base layer (a thermal long-sleeve tee or tee shirt) will keep the sweat from soaking you through and keep your feet comfortable. Bring a ballcap or sunglasses to block out the sun, especially if there is snow or ice on the trail—don’t go snowblind!
4. Watch Out for Lightning
Lightning is the natural disaster that kills the most hikers in Colorado every year. Storms come on fast, especially on summer afternoons, and lightning can strike from a storm that’s miles off. I actually have a friend who was struck by lightning while hiking Bierstadt, and it’s more common than you think. Be prepared to keep yourself safe. Don’t wear ballcaps with metal buttons in the caps, don’t bring umbrellas or other metal hiking gear if you can help it. Check storm conditions before you go, and try to start as early in the day as you can: plan to be off the mountain or at least on your way down by noon at the latest to avoid those afternoon surprise thunderstorms. If you see clouds gathering, get off the mountain, even if you haven’t summited. You’ll have another chance to reach the top, but not if you’re dead from a lightning strike! If you do get caught by a storm, try to get lower in elevation, preferably below tree-line, but don’t take shelter underneath a tree. If you’re the tallest thing around (or if you’re standing under the tallest thing around), you’re more likely to be struck. If you feel a tingling sensation, or if your hair stands on end, quickly drop to a crouching position on the balls of your feet. This will decrease your chances of being struck and increase the likelihood of the strike passing through you into the ground via your feet. Be safe out there!
5. Choose the Right Peak in the Right Conditions
There are easier 14ers and there are harder 14ers, and you’re more likely to have a bad time if you hit a super challenging peak as your first attempt. Check out 14ers.com’s list of routes by difficulty to get an idea of which peaks may be right for your experience level. As a hiker who tried a class 2 hike on her first try without properly getting in shape first, I definitely recommend aiming for realistic goals to make sure you have a successful and enjoyable time. Also keep weather and trail conditions in mind. 14ers.com also has a handy trail conditions page, but there are lots of resources online that are often updated live with weather and trail conditions reports. Storms, snow, flooding, fires, and other natural conditions can completely derail a good hike, so make sure you know what you’re getting into before you start!
Featured Image: Mount Sneffels, 14erart.com