The gentle summit
August 18, 2012
I probably get asked this question from strangers more than any other, including those about a strange bird in their backyard: What 14er should I do first?
I’m sure that’s partly because I have a reputation for being a mountain climber. I’ve written about it many times (you’re probably sick of hearing about it, actually), and I’ve got the hiking column, and people know by now that I’ve climbed all the 14ers.
But I also think people don’t know which ones are safe for their first one.
So here’s a guide. You can do any one of these peaks on the list with little or no experience, but be forewarned that I’ve listed these in increasing difficulty, at least in my opinion. If you follow it to the letter you could find yourself on top of a popular but tough peak that thousands climb a year. Here’s a hint: You can see it every day from Greeley.
This list, of course, assumes you’re in reasonably good shape, have the right equipment and that it’s still prime climbing season, which tends to last, at the latest, until the end of September. These routes also only cover the standard way, which is the most common, and almost always safest, way up the peak.
1. Mount Bierstadt (14,060 feet) – This gentle peak, near its more famous sister peak, Mount Evans, rests around Idaho Springs and gets more virgin ascents than almost all other 14ers.
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Beta – 7 miles (all distances are round-trip), 2,700 feet elevation gain
Why it’s good for beginners – A trail leads all the way to the summit, and this mountain is short but with a gradual climb. It’s also one of the closest 14ers from Greeley, and there’s a good road all the way to the trailhead.
Highlights – A wide-open basin offers a good picture of the peak. You’ll get good views of Evans from the summit.
Why you may not like it – So many people climb it, it looks like an anthill at a picnic, and it may be too easy, as it’s hard to feel like you’re on any kind of adventure. This peak, literally, can feel like a walk in the park, except Josephine Jones Park in Greeley actually offers more solitude.
2. Mount Sherman (14,036) – You can drive a long way to the trailhead, cutting off a lot of miles, and yet you can still say you’ve climbed a peak without feeling too guilty.
Beta – 5 miles, 2,100 feet elevation gain.
Why it’s good for beginners – Walking the Bolder/Boulder is longer than this.
Highlights – Lots of old mine buildings give you a touch of history.
Why you may not like it – It’s so easy, you may start to wonder why people think this mountain climbing thing is tough. Don’t fall for it.
3. Mount Antero (14,269) – This is a list of the easiest 14ers, not my favorite, and including this one is proof of that.
Beta – 7 miles, 2,400 feet elevation gain if you drive to 12,000 feet up the 4WD road.
Why it’s good for beginners – The reason I didn’t love this peak is the same reason it’s a good one for beginners: You walk up a safe but boring 4WD road for forever until you reach 13,800 feet, and then you walk an interesting but easy path to the summit.
Highlights – The road is boring as heck, but the final 500 feet is nice. The mountain is also known as a place to see Aquamarine. Maybe you’ll find one.
Why you may not like it – Did I mention the road being boring as heck?
4. Handies Peak (14,048) – By far the easiest peak in the majestic San Juan range.
Beta – 5.5 miles, 2,500 elevation gain.
Why it’s good for beginners – It’s short and there’s a good trail all the way to the top.
Highlights – The San Juans are simply awesome, and the scenery gives you more of a return for your effort than any other peak on this list. The American Basin is gorgeous.
Why you may not like it – A nasty 4WD road leads to the trailhead (welcome to the San Juans), though if you can’t drive the road to the end, it still won’t add much to your hike. I remember a really loose scree slope the last 300 feet of the hike, but apparently some trail improvements since I climbed it have fixed it.
5. Mount Democrat (14,148) – This peak is commonly climbed with three others, making it the easiest way to bag four peaks in one day, but it’s also pretty neat on its own.
Beta – 4 miles, 2,100 elevation gain.
Why it’s good for beginners – It’s short with a gentle trail. I realize this is a common theme.
Highlights – Kite Lake is a beautiful spot, and the chance to climb four peaks with the elevation gain and effort you’d normally spend to climb one is pretty cool.
Why you may not like it – The scree slope that leads back to the car off Mount Bross is a little tricky. Sometimes the pressure to climb all four can take away from the fun experience of just enjoying one.
6. Huron Peak (14,003) – This fun peak counts some pretty tough mountains as its sisters, including Ice Mountain.
Beta – 7 miles, 3,500 elevation gain.
Why it’s good for beginners – A good trail leads all the way to the top, and switchbacks help take the edge off the climb.
Highlights – The view from Huron’s summit of the Three Apostles, which includes Ice, is one of the most awe-inspiring of all the 14ers.
Why you may not like it – Huron is steep, even with the switchbacks and its short distance.
7. Quandary Peak (14,265) – A popular peak because it’s short yet high and near Breckenridge.
Beta – 7 miles, 3,500 elevation gain.
Why it’s good for beginners – Another trail to the top, and it’s close to a popular ski town.
Highlights – This is probably one of the five most popular 14ers, probably because it seems to beckon you to climb it from Interstate 70.
Why you may not like it – Quandary, like Huron, is short but really steep and makes for an unpleasant descent. Bring hiking poles on this one.
8. Mount Elbert (14,433) – Colorado’s tallest peak, and the second-highest in the lower 48. This peak’s in Leadville, a cool Colorado city dripping with history.
Beta – 9 miles, 4,700 elevation gain.
Why it’s good for beginners – A nice, wide trail all the way to the top. It’s impossible to get lost on this one if you stay on the trail.
Highlights – If Elbert and its sister peak, Massive, don’t make your mouth drop open as you drive through Leadville, you probably just shouldn’t climb any mountain at all because nothing will impress you. Elbert is also the tallest peak in Colorado. That’s pretty cool. You can see dozens of 14ers from the summit. Elbert, in fact, may offer the best view from the summit out of all of them.
Why you may not like it – Elbert is a walk, but it’s a long, steep walk. This will challenge you physically. Think about this: When you’re at 13,500, you still have almost 1,000 feet to go.
9. Grays (14,270) and Torreys peaks (14,267) – Easily one of the most popular peak hikes in Colorado, and for good reason: Despite the crowds, it’s a beautiful area, featuring tall peaks you can see from I-70.
Beta – 8 miles, 3,600 elevation gain.
Why it’s good for beginners – Again, a trail leads up both peaks, but this day will feel like an adventure.
Highlights – Pretty, and it’s fun to climb two at once. Plus the climb from Grays over to Torreys feels like a bit of a scramble, even if there’s really a good path to the top of Torreys. It’s also a loop hike in a sense when you take the saddle back to the trailhead.
Why you may not like it – It seems to me to be more crowded than many of the popular 14ers, and if you don’t get there early, you may find yourself parking down the road. That road, by the way, is a little rough for passenger cars.
10. Longs Peak (14,259) – The king of Rocky Mountain National Park, this peak features one of the most awesome walls in the world (yes, the world).
Beta – 14 miles, 5,100 feet elevation gain. This peak features some exposure and Class 3 climbing.
Why it’s good for beginners – It’s not. This is a pretty big jump from the other peaks listed above to this one, isn’t it? Yes, but if you climb all the other peaks listed here, and you don’t let yourself get all fat and happy as a result, you can do Longs. Longs is also a good first “tough” mountain to climb as there are some handicaps, including a well-marked route (rangers paint “targets” to guide you on the right route), some help on the toughest parts and a small shelter and bathroom before the real climbing begins.
Highlights – Tons. How about the billions of stars in the early morning, your views of the cities as you crest treeline, sunrise at the Boulderfield turning that awesome wall a rich red, the scramble beyond the keyhole and the huge summit as big as a football field.
Why you may not like it – Exposure, big crowds, tough climbing, a long, long way and starting up the trail at 2:30 a.m.
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