How to hike your first Colorado 14er

Morgan Tilton

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Descending the North Ridge of Ellingwood Point.Photo by Morgan Tilton

Colorado 14ers are the highest peaks in the nation and reach 14,000 feet above sea level or more.

Across the state, there are 58 officially named 14,000-foot peaks that are clustered together in seven different subranges of the Rocky Mountains.

That number includes five unranked peaks, which do not have a minimum of 300 feet of prominence from a connecting saddle with their higher neighboring 14er.

To learn more, read our recent article, "What are Colorado 14ers? And why are they a big deal?"

Today, I’ve climbed more than 40 of the 58 fourteeners that I aim to ascend on foot including official and unofficial peaks. Whether you choose to follow the list of 54 or 58 fourteeners, here are the steps to get started.

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Ellingwood Point summit.Photo by Morgan Tilton

What is a 14er route?

Each 14er ascent has various route options.

Some routes follow a dirt road or trail for all or a portion of the way. Many routes ascend to boulder fields and eventually ridgelines, often requiring scrambling, orienting yourself, and route-finding skills. The routes are not always straightforward and their difficulty varies.

Fourteener routes are popular and have been completed many times. Previous mountaineers have built cairns, which are piles of stacked rocks that help mark the route.

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Ascending Kelso Ridge on Torreys Peak.Photo by Morgan Tilton

How to choose a 14er route

Don’t hike your first 14er based on how famous the name is. Choose your hike based on the difficulty level.

Several metrics are available to help hikers understand the risk and difficulty involved in a route.

As a basic starting point, look at the round-trip mileage and net (or round-trip) elevation gain/loss of a route.

In your research, you will also notice the total elevation gain, which is the difference between the base of the peak and the peak’s highest point. (The total elevation gain could be less than the net gain.)

Start with a smaller round-trip mileage and elevation then work your way up as you grow your experience and endurance.

Examine the difficulty rating of a route, too. Fourteener route classifications are based on the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which refers to how challenging the hardest move is on the route.

According to Gerry Roach, the author of Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, here’s how each YDS Class is defined, which are progressively more difficult:

  • Class one: Well-maintained, groomed, nontechnical terrain, beginner-level
  • Class two: Steeper ascents including off-trail hiking such as ascending a slope filled with scree or talus or bushwhacking
  • Class three: You use handholds for upward movement, also known as scrambling, or basic climbing in addition to walking
  • Class four: The climbing becomes more technical, so you are searching for and being more selective with handholds including testing each one, and your upper body is more activated compared to hiking
  • Class five: This is technical rock climbing with techniques such as smearing or stemming

All distinctions starting with Class two might include a degree of exposure, which generally increases with the difficulty of a route but is subjective to each hiker.

For Class four and five descents, climbers might prefer to rappel rather than down climb.

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A cairn on the ascent of the northwest ridge of La Plata Peak.Photo by Morgan Tilton

How to safely learn and follow a route

Do your homework before the hike. Read and re-read the route from multiple sources: Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs and 14ers.com both set the standard for detailed, accurate, up-to-date route descriptions.

Visualize each section of the route. Toggle between a topo map, the route description, and images of the hike and think about the orientation of the route relative to the summit.

Read trip reports on 14ers.com for recent updates or current conditions along the route or drive to the trailhead. However, know that each person’s experience on a climb is subjective: What one person finds easy or difficult might be completely different than what you find to be true.

If you’re using an app to navigate, be sure to download the maps that you need the night beforehand, when you have connectivity. At the trailhead, turn your fully-charged phone on airplane mode to preserve the battery.

There are fourteeners, such as Capitol Peak, where deviating from the standard route can lead to a life-ending fall. Unless you are an excellent navigator, plan to return the same way that you came up.

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Views from The Trough on the Keyhole Route of Longs Peak.Photo by Morgan Tilton

Awareness of high altitude

Traveling or hiking to a high altitude without enough time for your body to adjust can lead to altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS), according to the Cleveland Clinic.

High altitude is defined as 8,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level, which could be the trailhead of a 14ers hike. Very high altitude is between 12,000 and 18,000 feet.

Symptoms include a headache, shortness of breath, and nausea, which can range from mild to moderate or severe. If you experience symptoms, retreat to a lower elevation.

Two extreme levels of altitude sickness are not as common but can be life-threatening. High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is when excess fluid is produced on the lungs leading to lack of breath. High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is when there is excess fluid in the brain, which causes the brain to swell leading to confusion.

Climbers prevent altitude sickness through acclimatization, meaning they spend a day or so at high altitude before traveling to an even higher elevation.

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Missouri Mountain seen from Mt. Belford.Photo by Morgan Tilton

Remoteness

A handful of 14ers and standard routes are wildly iconic and popular, especially on weekends, but many more are very remote and offer complete solitude.

Sometimes you’ll see a dozen people and even have cell reception on a summit but it’s no guarantee.

Ultimately, do not plan on other hikers being on route to assist you or that you will have cell reception if you get lost.

Write down the driving directions to/from the trailhead. Have the climbing route downloaded or a printed or laminated map. Have a satellite communicator to reach search and rescue teams in an emergency.

Consider packing a first aid kit and emergency supplies such as a water filter and emergency blanket.

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Views from Mt. AnteroPhoto by Morgan Tilton

Connect with a hiking group

Before hiking a 14er, do day hikes with your climbing partners to establish communication, understanding, and trust through those experiences.

Hone your personal goals and consider how those align with those of your partners. If one person needs to stick to Class one terrain while the other wants to haul a climbing rope to a Class five route, they won’t be very compatible.

One intent to communicate is a willingness and acceptance to turn around before reaching the summit if the conditions change such as if a thunderstorm is moving in or a partner gets altitude sickness.

If you’re searching for hiking partners, use Facebook to look up local hiking groups in your area or join the Colorado 14ers group, which has 53,000 members. You can also share questions and information in public forums including on 14ers.com and in Facebook groups.

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Views from Mt. BierdstadtPhoto by Morgan Tilton

Hiking experience and training

You’ll enjoy a 14er far more if you’ve had hiking experience beforehand!

Head to Rocky Mountain National Park, one of Colorado’s 42 State Parks, or call your local retailer to ask where the best hiking trails are nearby.

Before heading up a 14er, learn more about your footwear, layering, navigation, nutrition and hydration, and pace in addition to building fitness and stamina for what can be considered as the state’s most difficult hikes.

You can even follow a training plan to prep for summitting a 14er.

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Sunrise while ascending the West Slopes route on Mt. ColumbiaPhoto by Morgan Tilton

Check the weather, route, and road conditions

Check the weather using sources such as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Mountain Forecast.

Examine the weather forecast for several days leading up to your day’s ascent and look again before you head out.

When rain showers and thunderstorms are likely, take the forecast seriously, because lightning is extremely dangerous. An average of two outdoor travelers are killed every year and many more are injured due to lightning strikes in Colorado, reports the National Weather Service.

Lightning can strike the ground from 3 to 25 miles from the center of a thunderstorm. Thunder, not rain, is the signal that lightning can strike.

During the late spring and summer months, the majority of thunderstorms develop in the high country by late morning or after 11 a.m. in the mountains.

To lower your risk of lightning exposure, you need to have reached and be off the summit by noon, according to Roach. To do so, you'll need to start hiking very early if not before sunrise.

Below the summit, you'll also need to descend over terrain that is often rocky, steep, and open to the sky. It's not easy, comfortable or safe to run down a boulder field to reach treeline with an electrical charge in the air!

Plan accordingly. If the monsoon season is fierce with thunderstorms at 9 a.m., plan to be back below treeline before the encroaching weather.

Use Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to check the road conditions.

14ers.com has helpful input from climbers regarding changes to road access, road conditions, and route conditions such as the presence of snowfields.

14ers courses and medical training

Consider taking a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder course for basic medical training if an accident occurs in a remote, wild place.

Consider registering for a 14ers-focused course such as the REI class How to Climb a 14er or the Wilderness Trekking School course through the Colorado Mountain Club.

Make and follow a plan

Consider what route you feel most comfortable with then talk with your hiking partners. Decide in advance what route the group will take together, the group’s goal of the day, and a turnaround plan, which is greatly influenced by weather conditions.

Decide the wake-up time, departure time from the trailhead, estimate your summit time, set a turnaround time, and estimate what time you’ll be back at the trailhead.

There is a learning curve for understanding the duration of a route for you and your group. You can record details in a personal trip log to help keep track.

Before you go, share your route plan with someone you know including the name and GPS coordinates of the trailhead, the name of the route, and the name of the mountain. Tell them what time you plan to leave, reach the summit, and return to the trailhead.

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Adventure journalist Morgan Tilton covers the outdoors with a focus on travel, industry news and human endurance. Featured in more than 70 publications, she’s a recipient of more than a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards.

Crested Butte, CO
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