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(Part I) Guide to Hiking Colorado 14ers for Beginners: Preparation

Updated: Aug 18, 2019

Several summers ago, my brother and I, both in our mid-20s, were a couple years removed from college and each about a year away from getting married. We have always been close and enjoyed similar interests, so my brother suggested that we embark on one final “bro” excursion to check an item off our bucket lists before we began our married lives. We devised a quest to hike as many Colorado 14ers (mountains with summits above 14,000 ft) as possible over the course of a week in mid-July—a daunting task (especially for Midwesterners unaccustomed to high altitude) but one we were eager to undertake. We hiked seven 14ers in seven days, starting on a Saturday and finishing on a Friday. Here is a list of 14ers we hiked and the order in which we hiked them:


Saturday, July 22: Mt. Evans (14,264 ft)

Sunday, July 23: Grays Peak (14,270 ft) and Torreys Peak (14,267 ft)

Monday, July 24: Quandary Peak (14,265 ft')

Tuesday, July 25: Mt. Elbert (14,433 ft)

Wednesday, July 26: La Plata Peak (14,336 ft)

Friday, July 28: Longs Peak (14,259 ft)


Although most people recommend you hike only one to two 14ers per week, we were able to average one per day by preparing ahead of time. Although we made several mistakes, we quickly made adjustments to optimize our chance for success. Since we were prepared, we ended up staying safe and having a great time. So if you’re eager for adventure, check out the tips below!


View from Longs Peak trail at sunrise

1. Do extensive research ahead of time to know what to expect. We prepared a detailed itinerary and took careful note of the two main dangers we could encounter: altitude sickness and lightning, neither of which should be taken lightly. We also did extensive research about the hiking routes we planned to take. We found a great online resource at 14ers.com, which details all of the 14er trails and provides previews with pictures of what you can expect so you won’t be caught off guard. Our research proved extremely helpful in hiking the more difficult 14ers, such as Longs Peaks, so that the difficult portions of the trail wouldn’t catch us unprepared.


2. Make plans to combat altitude sickness should it arise. Altitude sickness can often be avoided by staying hydrated and allowing adequate time for your body to adjust to the reduced oxygen at high altitudes, but can be deadly if action isn’t taken immediately should you succumb to it. We were prepared to turn back immediately and head to lower altitudes should one of us start feeling ill due to altitude sickness. We packed at least 1.5 gallons of water and energy drinks per person for every hike to ensure we stayed hydrated, and we made it a point to sleep at high elevations to acclimate our bodies to less oxygen. Ibuprofen helps treat altitude sickness by reducing swelling, as altitude sickness is in part caused by swelling of the brain, so we proactively took a dose of ibuprofen as the start of each hike and every 4 hours until we made it back down to treeline to ward off altitude sickness symptoms.


3. Be constantly aware of the weather. Lightning was an ever-present danger, as thunderstorms can develop suddenly in Colorado during the summer months. To ensure safety, it is recommended that hikers be off the summit and below treeline by noon each day. We started most hikes by 4am with some as early as 2am based on the hike duration to ensure our safety. With these early starts, a good flashlight or headlamp is needed to prevent twisting an ankle on the rocky trails. As a meteorologist, I was extremely vigilant of lightning, because I’m fully aware how quickly storms can develop and how dangerous lightning is. Lightning can strike anywhere within 20 miles of a thunderstorm, so it doesn’t even need to be raining where you are in order to be in danger. A good rule of thumb is that if you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning. Since you will be at higher altitudes and in the open, you are more exposed to lightning than normal.


4. Be physically fit. My brother and I both run half marathons, and I compete in Olympic-length triathlons. Being physically active and accustomed to aerobic exercise such as running, biking, or swimming is extremely useful in preparing your body for hiking 14ers. So training is a must, especially so that you know your physical limits ahead of time. I’m not saying you have to be able to run a marathon before you can hike a 14er, but it’s a good idea to condition your body ahead of time instead of jumping in cold turkey.


5. Plan meals ahead of time. For meals, we focused on packing foods that were easy to make over a single burner camp stove and packed with calories, protein, and carbohydrates—beans, instant mashed potatoes, ramen style pasta, and canned meat were our forte. We also packed similar food with us on our hikes - energy bars, peanut butter, beef jerky, and tuna packs (all light weight and packed with protein and calories).

6. Plan where you will sleep each night. For sleeping accommodations, we decided to sleep as often as possible at the trailheads to save both money and travel time in the morning. For this, we rented an SUV which comfortably slept two grown men over 6 ft tall and easily made it up the rugged, pothole-filled dirt roads that often led to the trailheads (even though it was not a 4x4). We also brought along a 3-person backpacking tent, which we erected when we planned to stay in one area for more than one night and desired more comfortable sleeping quarters. We slept in the car at the trailhead as often as possible, but unfortunately were unaware that car-camping was forbidden at the trailhead of Quandary Peak (14,265 ft) since it abuts private property. We spend some frantic hours in nearby Breckenridge trying to figure out where to sleep for the night. We eventually ended up driving to Blue Lakes a couple miles away where we found a decent place we could park the car and sleep for the night undisturbed.


View from the summit of Quandary Peak

7. Hike 14ers that excite you! Many of these peaks have several false peaks, which make it appear that you are closer to the summit than you actually are. When the hike feels like it will never end, it’s helpful to have another reason for why you’re hiking it. We chose to hike 14ers that excited us, such as Mt. Elbert (the tallest peak in Colorado), La Plata Peak (a hike well known for it’s beautiful and stunning views) and Longs Peak (a popular and treacherous hike), to make the tougher moments of the excursion more bearable.


View from the La Plata Peak trail

Now that your trip is planned, here are some tips for when you arrive at basecamp!




 

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