Climbing Colorado Fourteeners
Colorado Summer Activities: Climb a 14,000 ft. Mountain
One of our family's favorite and most extreme Colorado summer activities is climbing some of Colorado's beautiful mountains. You haven't really breathed Colorado air until you breathe it from the top of a 14,000 foot peak (14ers, as we call them). Fifty-six of them stand waiting; and the ones on the front range are less than an hour's drive west from Denver! Here's how it works...
14ers are best climbed during the summer months of June, July, and August because your chances of hitting a patch of ice you can't cross or a blizzard you aren't prepared for is much less. However, there are many more thunderstorms above tree level than at any other place in Colorado, and summer definitely has the most thunderstorms of all the seasons! The best practice, therefore, is to plan to be off of the summit before noon, but even the safety of that will vary depending on the day. We've encountered stray lightning bolts, blizzards, sleet, and rain at 10am in the middle of July. Other days, we've relaxed on top of a mountain until 2 or 3 pm and the sky was sunny the entire time! Learn to watch the weather, to judge how quickly the clouds are moving, and to be attentive to how dark or threatening they are. Even better is to hike with someone experience, who knows when you should get down from the mountain.
A Famous Colorado 14er: Longs Peak
Prepare for a Mountain Climb
Here are some general guidelines to help in your hike!
- A few days before your hike, visit 14ers.com to research a Colorado mountain, paying attention to trail conditions, to plan a route, and to decide if you can handle the length and class of the hike.
- Get accustomed to Denver altitude for at least a week before you hike. Denver is called the mile-high city, and your lungs will need to get used to finding less oxygen in the air.
- Wake up earlier than you normally do, or camp out at the trailhead the night before.
- Bring at least 2 liters of water per person. Do NOT bring any carbonated drinks or alcohol, as that will dehydrate you and cause altitude sickness.
- Bring plenty of carbs and protein. Sandwiches, trail mix, granola bars, cliff bars, fruit, etc. are staples for us! You'll be burning through your food faster than a day at the beach, so come prepared.
- Bring a windbreaker that doubles as a raincoat and a fleece jacket or sweatshirt. You will need the first for wind and precipitation, and the second for warmth. These coats are essential! Even if it's 90 degrees in Denver, there could be a blizzard on top of these mountains. Pants or shorts? We'll leave that up to you. I have two brothers that always hike in shorts; I rarely do!
- Bring sun protection. Even with sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses, it's rare that I've ever hiked a 14er without getting sunburned somewhere! The air is thinner, you are closer to the sun, and you will burn-- not tan-- before you even feel your skin getting hot.
- Hike with at least another person, and don't get separated! Even experienced hikers occasionally get lightheaded or altitude sickness, and without another person nearby it would be easy to get very sick and very stuck in weather conditions you aren't prepared for. Also, hiking with a companion reduces the risk of mountain lion attack.
- Bring a camera, and have fun! In spite of all these dangers (or perhaps because of them, actually) this will be an adventure your family will never forget!
Photo of Colorado 14er Mt. Evans
Which 14er to Climb?
If you have little experience with high altitude mountain hiking/climbing, then you should probably knock out one of these easier 14ers first as a practice run. Sherman, Bierstadt, Grays, Torreys, and Mt. Evans, have short, Class 2 trials. They are each about 2 to 3 miles to the top, with only a 3,000 foot elevation gain from the trailhead to the summit. Evans even has a road to the top!
If you have a little more experience and don't mind driving deeper into the mountains, the Sawatch range is a beautiful playground easily accessible from the town of Buena Vista. Some of these 14ers are connected by a saddle and if you are starting early enough, you may be able to do two or three in a day! These also include the Collegiant peaks, so you may gain some intelligence as you rise through the levels of Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard.
Long's Peak and Pikes Peak mark the north and south bookends of the front range, but it doesn't mean they're easy. The best starting time for a hike up these mountains is 3am.
Long's Peak attracts some of the least experienced hikers every year, and has a death total of 57, with an average of 2 people dying on the mountain every year—many from falling. It has a long and arduous hike just to get to the face of the mountain itself. Once past the "boulder field" and the "keyhole," a precarious, winding trail notched into the side of the cliff escorts hikers over drop-offs measuring 1000 ft. or more. There are a few hand-over-hand scramble places as well, but climbers won't need any technical gear or advanced skill if they stay on the main route (like climbing up & down a ladder). Once on top, the view is different from every other 14er because of the sharp cliff structures close by on either side of the diamond face, and because of the great views it gives of both the plains to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west.
Pikes Peak is a longer hike, but has many saving graces that Longs Peak lacks. If endurance is your thing, then take the 26 mile hike up Pikes Peak out of Manitou Springs and enjoy a hot cocoa for your efforts at the top in the luxurious gift shop. For the truly intrepid, there's a marathon and a bike race up Pikes Peak every year. Here's a little-known secret, though. There's a sweet six mile trail leading out of Woodland Park that gets you to the top in much less time, and on a much prettier trail as well. The road less travelled is a beautiful thing!
Climbing Long's Peak
View from the Top of a Colorado Mountain
The view from the top cannot be described in human words. I'll try, though. It's an ocean of blue depths and white breakers, and you're on an island, surrounded by this great expanse. In this ocean there are other islands: bare, rugged, made of moon-rock and brownies. Far, far below you, looking deep beneath the surface of the ocean, there are tiny emerald mirrors lying flat on the ocean floor. Gray-blue canyons with fine navy veins channeling in and out of them direct your eyes to gradually take you back up the velvety slope, then up a rocky slope, then up the rugged cliff face, and your eyes are out of the water again, on the summit of a neighboring island. And that's just the view! I'll leave the crisp air and the unadulterated sunlight for you to experience firsthand.
Climbing Long's Peak
My Experience on Long's Peak
The video below is my group and I climbing Long's Peak in 2007. For my brothers and I, this was our second attempt to summit it. The first time was mid July of 2005, when there was too much ice and snow in the narrows. This time was much later in the summer (August), and it had been a much warmer summer so snow was least of our worries. We made it to the top by 8:30 am, though! I'll never forget my half-an-hour nap on a rock up there. I opened my eyes when I awoke and saw, through a thin slit between the rock and the hood of my coat, a vivid green and blue string of peaks, brilliant, like a postcard! I had forgotten where I was.
We were prepared for a hard hike, but were not mentally prepared for how dangerous the trail was! If our legs had been any shakier or our heads any dizzier, it would have been suicide to attempt the pencil-thin trail that carried us along thousand-foot drop-offs. We were well-conditioned, though, having hiked Gray's and Torrey's together the weekend before, and started early enough in the morning so that there was plenty of time for food and water breaks. Descending was scarier, actually, because now we were looking down instead of up, and our legs were less steady than during the hike up. The video, below, shows a bit of what it was like, but due to the safety of the camera-man, the narrows are not in this video.