The allure of hiking and climbing Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks
With snow-capped summits, awe-inspiring faces and inherent danger, Colorado’s Fourteeners — peaks that reach 14,000 feet or more above sea level — have enraptured hikers and climbers for years. Every year, Colorado’s Fourteeners are hiked by more than 500,000 people, with locals and international visitors taking on the challenge. Ranging from well-marked hiking trails to exposed climbs, they offer a difficulty range that allows hikers of all abilities to attempt the high peaks.
Although most hikers agree that a Fourteener is just any mountain over the 14,000-foot mark, some controversy remains over the official number in Colorado. Some enthusiasts maintain that only 52 of the often-listed 58 qualify as official. In addition to being over 14,000 feet in elevation, they maintain that a summit must be 200-500 feet taller than the mountain’s next highest feature. That way, false summits do not qualify even if they are above the 14,000-foot limit.
Some climbers also contend that privately-owned Fourteeners, such as Culebra Peak near San Luis, should not be included on the official list. The majority of the Fourteeners fall under the regulation of the U.S. Forest Service, though some fall on private property, and Longs Peak is in the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Fourteener classification is unique to Colorado. No other state in the U.S. places such emphasis on its mountains that climb above 14,000 feet. Internationally, there are other famous groupings of peaks. The Seven Summits include the highest mountain on each continent, and mountaineers from around the world strive to summit all seven, even competing to climb them in a certain time period.
Another famous classification of peaks is the 14 mountains over 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), also known as the “death zone.” Largely in the Himalayas, the 8,000-meter peaks encompass some of the most dangerous mountains in the world, including Nepal’s Annapurna and Pakistan’s K2. By comparison, Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert, is 4,401 meters high.
While Colorado is one of the only U.S. states to embrace the Fourteener classification, other countries have similar regional mountain groupings. In Scotland, the Munros are the 282 peaks above 3,000 feet. Though 3,000 feet might seem nothing compared to the Fourteeners, hikers start their ascent closer to sea level while many of the trailheads for Fourteeners are already above 10,000 feet in elevation.
Historian Sally Kween from the Summit Historical Society explains that the Fourteener categorization became so popular because it is feasible for hikers to summit all 58 peaks in a lifetime.
“Considering that there are 647 thirteeners and over 1,000 12,000-foot mountains, 58 is a nice, round, achievable number,” Kween said. “It can be overwhelming for a person to even consider hiking all those mountains, but 58 offers an achievable challenge.”
While the Fourteeners make up some of Colorado’s most famous peaks, sometimes the celebrated classification can overshadow other beautiful mountains that are just feet shy from making the cut. Colorado’s thirteeners don’t come with the same bragging rights, but they often offer the same challenging terrain, miles of views and fewer crowds.
“I personally like hiking thirteeners more because they are less traveled, providing the additional element of route-finding and solitude,” Keystone Science School Director of Marketing Dave Miller said. “Whether a mountain is a Fourteener or thirteener, it’s a great opportunity to be outside, challenge oneself or share an adventure with a friend.”
Summit County offers a selection of Fourteeners and thirteeners for hikers to attempt. The county’s three Fourteeners include Grays Peak at 14,270 feet, Torreys Peak at 14,267 feet and Quandary Peak at 14,265 feet. Grays and Torreys are part of the Front Range and are easily accessible from Interstate 70. The two summits are connected by a saddle, meaning they can be hiked in one day.
The difficulty level of each Fourteener is ranked by the national Yosemite Decimal System that has been used in the U.S. for 75 years. Class 1 mountains have well-marked hiking trails. Class 2 routes include easy scrambling, where you might need to use your hands occasionally. The route might have some climbing over snow and more exposure. Class 3 is defined as routes with unroped climbing. Hikers will need to use their hands on the rocks and might have to do their own route-finding. Class 4 routes are where hikers are actually climbing and where a rope comes in handy. Without a rope, falls from Class 4 routes can be fatal. Class 5 terrain requires technical rock climbing.
By the popular North Slopes route, Grays Peak is a Class 1 hike. The route to Torreys Peak becomes a Class 2 trail, but both mountains are good hikes for beginners. For those who are experienced in the mountains and are seeking a bigger challenge, Torreys Kelso Ridge route offers a Class 3 climb to the summit with beautiful views and more exposure.
Summit’s other Fourteener, Quandary Peak, is also a popular mountain for first-time hikers. Located south of Breckenridge, the Quandary Peak trailhead is highly accessible.
“Being a short drive to reach the trailhead, it’s a very popular hike and has amazing views of peaks surrounding Summit County,” Miller said.
By its Class 1 East Ridge route, Quandary is a 6.7-mile roundtrip hike. For a Class 3 challenge, climbers can attempt Quandary’s West Ridge. Climbers on that route should have experience on Fourteeners, know the route beforehand and be prepared with adequate equipment.
While peaks such as Grays, Torreys and Quandary are easily accessible and good for beginners, experts encourage people to take all Fourteeners seriously regardless of difficulty rating.
“I don’t think any Fourteener should be considered an easy hike,” Miller said. “The elevation and exposure to the elements make what might be considered an easy hike very difficult. On average, a typical vertical gain is 3,000 feet. That’s a big day, and you can find peaks with more or less vertical gained.”
Beware the weather
Miller explained that the biggest dangers on Fourteeners are a result of changing weather conditions.
“It’s common that it may be warm and sunny in town and bitter cold and windy on top of our surrounding peaks,” Miller said. “We often get afternoon storms, and it’s important to reach the summit and begin descending before 11 a.m.”
To avoid thunderstorms, hikers should check weather conditions the day before and the morning of a hike. If hikers are still on the mountain when bad weather hits, they should aim to get to tree line or a shelter quickly. Hikers should distance themselves from any metal objects, such as hiking poles. If people are still in an exposed position on a ridge when a storm hits, the best protection is to crouch down with weight shifted to the balls of the feet rather than lying flat or standing up.
Thunderstorms on the peaks can be a frightening experience, but they are easily avoidable by leaving a trailhead early and establishing a turn around time.
“At Keystone Science School, we hike a lot of mountains, and we often wake our students up and have them starting our hike at 4 a.m. in the morning,” Miller said. “We make sure to check the weather before hiking and are not afraid of turning around if conditions are threatening.”
To prepare, Miller encourages hikers to make sure they are well-equipped. Plenty of water and fluids, high-protein foods and layers of clothing are important to have for the summit.
“We always make sure that each child has ample water, multiple layers and a rain jacket for rain or wind,” said Miller, who recommends three liters of water or more per hiker.
Whether they are new to Fourteeners or have summited all 58, hikers can gain an immense amount of satisfaction from hiking one. As long as people do their research and are well-prepared, hikers of all abilities can enjoy the Fourteeners.
“There’s so many transferable lessons which can be gained from hiking mountains, and it’s these experiences which shape a person’s approach to life,” Miller said.
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In his bid to complete all 14 of the fourteeners that make up Nolan’s 14, Sean Van Horn climbed 43,225 feet over 92.8 miles in 45 hours, 57 minutes.