Outside is the best place to be. As a hiking and backpacking fanatic, I am a huge proponent of getting out there and following your outdoor dreams. As a Coloradoan, I love climbing 14ers. There is something inherently satisfying about getting to the top of a mountain and looking down on the world below. If you’re just getting into the activity, I have a few pieces of advice before you hit the trail.
Layers, Layers, Layers
It’s all about layers. That’s a well-known backcountry tidbit, but never underestimate its importance. Even if the weather forecast for your peak is absolutely perfect, there are no guarantees when you’re dealing with a) Colorado and b) high elevation. My first attempt up Long’s Peak is a first attempt and not a summit because I didn’t have enough layers. Well, and my hiking partner got very sick. But that story is for another day. Anyway, I had all my usual 14er layers on the Long’s trip, but didn’t expect the 60mph wind gusts, and went into mild hypothermic shock. The point is, bring more layers than you anticipate needing.
Of course, don’t bring so much extra gear that you’re hauling a bunch of miscellaneous clothing up the mountain. Be smart about what you pack, but be ready for high altitude winds, sudden rainstorms, and even snow flurries in the middle of summer. You’ll also start hiking early in the morning, which means you’ll need more layers at the beginning part of the day. You’ll shed the layers on your way up, but once you pop up around 13,500 feet, chances are you’ll don your layers again to break the wind.
Optimal 14er season is late June through mid-August, at which time you’re less likely to encounter snow and ice on the trail, and thunderstorms generally hold off until around noon. During this time frame, my go-to layers are: hiking pants, a thermal base layer, a raincoat which doubles as a windbreaker, a thick fleece jacket, and a long sleeve running jacket. If I’m expecting an extra windy day, I’ll wear thermal leggings as well and bring an extra base layer top. Always make sure to bring a warm, fuzzy hat, and gloves, too.
Learn to Love Early Mornings
Some people are really good at waking up in the mornings with energy and enthusiasm, ready for adventure no matter what time of day it may be. We call them the exceptions. The rest of us would prefer if we never had to be awake before 10am, or at the very least if no one would speak to us until then, that’d be great. The unfortunate reality of mountaineering is that you have to wake up early. Have to. There’s no “oh hey, I woke up at 8am, I’m just going to go casually climb a mountain now” in the business of climbing 14ers. It’s planned, committed to, and has to be started at the odd hours of the morning that, well, I don’t really consider to be morning at all.
The exact time of departure will depend on what peak you’re climbing and where you’re leaving from. It’ll also depend on how long your route will take, what trail you’re starting from, who you’re hiking with, and all those other factors. So I can’t overgeneralize and say you must start the trail at 4:30am, because that won’t be true in every situation. You do want to plan on summiting well before noon, to avoid those thunderstorms at elevation. Another factor that is arising in the world of Colorado 14ers is crowds. It is becoming quite commonplace to climb—or at least attempt—14ers in Colorado. That’s why a lot of distinguished Colorado mountaineers have shifted to conquering 13ers.
Tourism is rampant in Colorado. It’s great that people are wanting to get outside and climb peaks, but it does create the issue of crowd control on trails. Parking areas fill up extremely early. When I was descending Evans in early July around 9am, I passed by about a hundred hikers on their way up, and returned to the parking area to find even more hikers searching for a place to park. Plan around the route you’re attempting and the crowds, and be sure to get to the trailhead really, really early. I won’t say morning, because getting to the Long’s Peak lot last August at 2:45am did not feel like morning. It felt like nighttime. In any case, at least you’ll have some great bonding with your hiking partner(s) during the wee hours of night/morning. Mostly because you’ll all be super grumpy and trying to keep each other awake. That’s always fun, and usually you forget all about it anyway because no one is retentive at such an hour.
Be Judicious About Snacks and Water
Snacks and water are obviously essential for any hiking trek, so make sure you carefully plan out exactly what you’ll need for the trip. Never bring too much of anything, because carrying around the extra weight will only wear you down. Literally. You should have a pretty good idea of how much fuel your body needs along the trail before tackling your first 14er. If you don’t, it’d be a good idea to go on a little training hike just to assess how much food and fluids you need. Also plan what you will eat before hitting the trail. I know some people who get nauseous if they eat too much in the early morning, so they eat less at the start and more along the trail. I usually opt for a good, solid breakfast before getting to the trailhead, and I eat less along the way. My go-to is a half a bagel with peanut butter and a scrambled egg. Along the trail, I am a huge proponent of Honey Stinger Waffles—gluten free cinnamon and salted caramel specifically—and strawberry Clif Shot Blocks. I usually throw in a Clif bar as well, just in case.
Then comes the issue of water. You want to stay hydrated, but you also don’t want to end up hauling around superfluous water weight. I have only once consumed as much water as I have carried. But, if I am going to take extra weight, I personally would rather it be water than anything else. I have a Camelbak hydration system, and I usually bring anywhere from 3-5L depending on the length of the 14er route. High altitude dehydrates quicker than anything, and you will get altitude sickness if you’re not hydrated. Definitely bring more water than you think you’ll need if it’s your first time up a peak.
Enjoy The View Along The Way
I am a super goal-oriented person, so I am all about getting up and down the mountain—that’s the goal, after all! But the whole idea of being outside is to enjoy nature and experience the riches of the great outdoors. Most people work hard to get to the top, then they take in the view, and head back down. While this is great, and the view at the top is more than worth the climb, be sure to appreciate the views along the journey. Don’t get too caught up in getting to that summit in record time, because you’ll miss out on some amazing things along the way. This is especially true of 14ers: you’ll be ascending the mountain around sunrise, so the light is constantly changing and illuminating different beauties. Often times, you’ll see the fog moving out of the valleys, and sometimes peaks will look like islands above oceans of clouds. It’s incredible. Views going up will be very different from views going back down given the time of day, so don’t miss out on the morning sights. Colorado is a stunning state, and you’ll be blown away by the landscape wherever you are in the backcountry. Don’t miss the views along the trail in haste to catch the one from the top.