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(Part III) Guide to Hiking Colorado 14ers for Beginners: On the Trails

Updated: Aug 19, 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!

1. Take breaks to refuel, rehydrate, and shed layers whenever you need the rest. Hiking up 14ers is not a race. As long as you leave yourself plenty of time to get down before afternoon thunderstorms, take breaks whenever you need to. With each stop, we made sure to refuel and rehydrate with energy bars, energy drinks, and water. We also shed or added clothing layers as needed, which brings us to the next tip.



2. Carry a lightweight flashlight or headlamp, and bring a backup. A flashlight is essential with these early starts, as we often had at least three hours of night hiking before the sun provided enough light to dodge large rocks along the trail. A headlamp is even better, as it leaves both hands free for scrambling over boulders. I was also extremely happy to have a backup when my main flashlight unexpected died at 4am during our hike up Longs Peak.


3. Dress in layers. Pack and dress in layers, to accommodate the chilly mornings and hot afternoons while hiking. Starting out at 3am, temperatures often hovered in the 40s. By the time we returned to the trailhead, temperatures were in the upper 80s. No single piece of clothing will allow you to be comfortable in this wide range of temperatures, so dress in layers. I typically started a hike wearing a moisture-wicking t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a hoodie, hiking pants, gloves, and a hat. The hat and gloves often came off within an hour on the trail, and the hoodie and long-sleeved shirt came off on the descent. This obviously requires that you leave some extra space in your pack for layers you remove during your hike, otherwise you’ll be forced to carry them in your hands.


View from the summit of a cloudy Mt. Elbert

4. Carry extra socks with you, and change them regularly. After hiking Grays and Torreys Peaks on one pair of socks, I regretted not changing socks earlier in the hike, as my feet had become pruned and blistered from hiking downhill in socks dampened by sweat. Moisture-wicking athletic socks help with this, but nothing can beat a fresh pair of socks. I quickly learned that packing a couple of extra pairs of socks for each hike and changing them regularly helped keep me and my feet happy and feeling good.


5. Don’t forget to carry other essentials. I always carried toilet paper, a first aid kit, these sunglasses, and ibuprofen with me. With most hikes taking 8-12 hours with no restrooms in sight, there will be occasions when you’re rushing to make it back to the treeline for some privacy, and toilet paper will come in handy. The first aid kit hopefully ends up going unused, but you’ll be wishing you had one should something go wrong. Sunglasses help protect your eyes against blowing dust and the sun, which is more intense at higher altitudes. Finally, like I mentioned above, ibuprofen helps treat altitude sickness by reducing swelling.


6. Store valuables in your pack, not in your pocket. My brother lost his wallet on the way down Longs Peak, because he had it in his back pocket as we slid down the steep Homestretch. Thankfully, he recovered it thanks to some fellow hikers, but it served as a good reminder to us both to store our valuables in our backpacks rather than in our pockets.


7. Pay attention to trail markings. Once you get above treeline, many routes are not easily identifiable, especially in boulder fields and along less popular 14er routes. Trail markers are there for a reason, and following them can be a matter of life or death. For the Keyhole route on Longs Peak, the trail is denoted by yellow and red bullseyes painted onto boulders. If you fail to follow these markers, you risk putting yourself in a precarious situation where you can fall or slide off the mountain or require an emergency rescue.


8. Take your time to ensure safe footing. There were several hikes in which we had to carefully choose where we stepped, most especially for Longs Peak. Longs Peak has several section that are tricky, most notably a constricted, slot-like section in the Ledges portion of the hike where two pieces of rebar are drilled into the sheer face of the mountain to enable hikers to get over a large, slick boulder. Additionally, the descent down Longs Peak was more difficult and time-consuming than the hike up, because every step had to be considered carefully in order to avoid an uncontrolled slide down the steep mountainside. We were actually sliding down the Homestretch section on our bottoms in order to stay in control of our bodies.


View from the summit of Longs Peak

If you follow these tips, you’ll be able to conquer your first 14er and hopefully many 14ers to follow. Summiting a 14er is truly an exciting accomplishment, and I highly recommend hiking 14ers for any outdoor enthusiasts seeking an adventure. And should you be a Midwesterner who happens to find themselves in Colorado, having a couple 14ers under your belt will help you gain the respect of the locals. If you haven't already, check out these tips for preparing to hike 14ers and what to do once you are at basecamp.

 

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