Adventures are everywhere you look. You really can make an adventure out of pretty much any experience, but when you come to Colorado you’re usually looking for an adventure that’s better than all the rest. One you can put down in the record books and have a story to tell when friends come to visit or you go back home. Almost every person I meet who comes to Denver wants to go climb a fourteener.
If you’re new to this terminology a fourteener is any mountain that reaches an elevation of 14,000 feet. There are 53 ranked fourteeners in Colorado ranging from beginner to expert in technicality. To rank a fourteener “a peak must rise at least 300 feet above the saddle that connects it to the nearest 14er peak” (14ers.com). While a peak labeled as a beginner sounds like it would be easy, there is no such thing as an easy fourteener. For that very reason, people are often unprepared for these climbs (or really intense hikes) because they think it will be like every other hike they’ve ever done. I promise you that’s not the case. To help prepare you through your first fourteener I’ve created this guide broken into three categories – Supplies, General Tips, and The Best Starter Mountains.
WHAT YOU NEED FOR YOUR FIRST FOURTEENER
First and foremost the most important things for your adventure are food and water. These trails take anywhere from 4-8 hours to climb depending on past training. Staying hydrated, especially as you increase in altitude is imperative in order to stay strong for the whole hike. Having at least a liter of walk per two hours you hike is a good start. Bringing 3 liters of water per person is necessary and if you have an extra Nalgene it’s not a bad idea to be extra prepared and have it. I use a bladder in my daypack along with a Nalgene I put in the side pocket as a backup. If you start to feel dizzy, fatigue, headaches, cramps or nausea on your hike you are most likely dehydrated and need to start drinking more water immediately.
If the headaches continue to get worst you most likely have altitude sickness and should turn around. Pain in the chest is also a sign of altitude sickness and also means that you need to turn around. If you are coming into Denver be sure to acclimate by staying in Denver for a few days and slowly make your way up to the mountains. A lot of friends will even camp out at the base of the mountain they are going to climb to get used to the higher elevations before going higher (this is the same process used to climb Everest so just know that all the cool kids are doing it.)
Aside from water you want lots of calories in your pack. I often stop by a sandwich shop the day before to get a large sandwich to eat throughout the hike. This is a great source of complex carbs and protein which are the main nutrients you’re looking for in your food. Other great snack options are
Cliff Bar Shot Blocks (made of sugar for quick energy)
Fruit (Especially dried fruit, it weighs less and you can pack more)
When it comes to the actual gear for your trip you don’t need much but there are a few things most people don’t think about. Your hiking boots make all the difference. Having boots that protect your ankles is really helpful as you will be jumping around and climbing on rocks (hence the name Rocky Mountains). They also need to be really comfortable because walking with sore feet is the worst. And having waterproof shoes will make a huge difference. Fourteeners often have snow on the tops of them unless you are going in August, but towards the base, you still might need to cross over streams or walk through the mud so it’s best to be prepared. I tell everyone who hikes in Colorado to bring hiking poles. It helps alleviate the weight on your legs and your knees will be thanking you when you come back down the mountain.
Last but not least be sure to wear non-cotton clothes that are breathable, usually nylon or polyester. If you’re clothing get wet from sweat when you’re hiking cotton is more likely to keep you wet which you’ll regret on the top of the mountain. At 14,000 it’s cold. Sometimes in the middle of the summer, it’s the perfect temperature but more often than not it’s windy and freezing. Because of this, you’ll want to be dry and have plenty of layers. Bringing an extra pair of socks (that are dry) gloves, and a jacket is not unheard of. And with Colorado the weather can change in a second so having everything you could possibly need is better, rain jacket included. (And while it might feel hot at the beginning of your hike making you think you won’t need all those extra clothes, bring them, it won’t stay that warm.)
Whatever skin is still exposed be sure to put sunscreen on. You are much closer to the sun than usual meaning you’ll burn. Having a hat, sunscreen and polarized sunglasses will make a huge difference in your day and make the recovery process tomorrow so much better.
FRIENDLY TIPS FROM A FOURTEENER SURVIVOR
After climbing a couple fourteeners myself I’ve learned a few things, whether through experience or from the wisdom of friends.
Start Early – You want to be off the top of the mountain by 12 and below treeline no later than 2 pm. Colorado most often gets thunderstorms in the afternoon and that means lightning. You want to be as far away from that as possible so start your hike from 4am-6am to give yourself plenty of time to summit and start heading down before the thunderstorms hit.
Bring Advil – I start every hike in the mountains by taking a couple of Advil. It’s a great preventative way to keep headaches at bay. If you start getting worst headaches as you hike you can take more, but usually this prevents them.
First Aid Kit – Always have a first aid kit whenever you go hiking. My go-to – Dark Angel Medical Kit. Things go wrong all the time, you want the supplies that will help get you down the mountain alive. The Dark Angel Medical kit isn’t your average first aid kit but provides you with a tourniquet, medical grade clotting gauze, scissors, a mylar blanket and a nasal airway.
Toilet Paper – There are not port-a-potties along the way. You’ll be doing things the old fashion way by finding a secluded tree and taking a squat. You’ll want to bring a little bit of toilet paper for those situations or to blow your nose along the way. Either way, you’ll be glad you brought it.
THE BEST STARTER FOURTEENERS
There are three go-to fourteeners
Bierstadt – this is my recommended first-time fourteener. While still a strenuous hike it starts up higher and is less difficult than the others. You’ll still get an amazing view every step of the way. Be sure to get there early because parking is limited and it’s a very popular fourteener.
Quandary – My first fourteener and it was a doozy. While it’s one of the “easier” fourteeners, no fourteener is easy. My favorite part of this mountain is that you’ll often see mountain goats along the way. Be aware that there is a false summit that leads to a hike going straight up hill over rocks. If you make it to the top, you really will have something to be proud of.
Grey’s and Torrey’s – these two mountains are right next to each other and often down one after the other. If this is your first fourteener I suggest just tackling one and coming back for the second another time.