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Climbing 14ers: Getting Started

Planning Climbs

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By the time you get to a point of actually planning a 14er, you'll likely have already spent some time researching peaks, routes, trailheads and may feel a bit overwhelmed. Don't fret, this page provides an overview of how to plan your hike.

Sure, you could navigate to a route description, print it and schedule your hike. Using printed guidebooks, hikers have done this for decades. Thanks to the internet and 20+ years of expanding content on 14ers.com, you have access to way more information than a printed guidebook. We recommend you at least take some time to become familiar with the tools available to you on 14ers.com: Interactive maps, thousands of detailed trip reports, GPS and Google Earth track files, current trailhead and peak condition reports, and much more.

Let's get planning...

My Dashboard

The 14ers.com Dashboard organizes content you contribute to the site ("My Stuff") but if you're just starting out, the Dashboard is most helpful because it is a single point for your peak planning. You can bookmark site content related to the peak(s) you plan to hike and have it all organized in one place. Additionally, the dashboard automatically provides you with related content based on the pages you've bookmarked. For example, let's say you bookmark Quandary Peak's standard, East Ridge route. Your dashboard will give you links to current peak conditions, the appropriate trailhead, weather conditions, and any alerts that might be related to trailhead or peak access.

Selecting a 14er & Route

Selecting your first few 14ers isn't really that difficult - you should start with one of the "easier" 14ers as discussed back on Page 1. It's important to note that some of these peaks have multiple routes and you're looking for the  Standard route route because it's the easiest, most commonly used, and has the best trail. So, here are some starter routes:

Routes Difficulty
Gain
Round-Trip
Distance
Grays Peak: North Slopes Class 1 3,000' 7.5 mi
Torreys Peak: South Slopes Class 1 3,000' 7.75 mi
Quandary Peak: East Ridge Class 1 3,450' 6.75 mi
Combo: Grays and Torreys Class 1 3,600' 8.25 mi
Handies Peak: Southwest Slopes Class 1 2,500' 5.75 mi
Mt. Sherman: Southwest Ridge Class 1 2,100' 5.25 mi
Mt. Bierstadt: West Slopes Class 2 2,850' 7.25 mi
Huron Peak: Northwest Slopes Class 2 3,500' 7 mi
  A bit more difficult/longer:      
Mt. Elbert: Northeast Ridge Class 1 4,500' 9.75 mi
San Luis Peak: Northeast Ridge Class 1 3,600' 13.5 mi

Why do we recommend these peaks/routes for beginners? Because they have trails to or almost to the summit, are fairly short, and the hiking is about as easy as you're going to find on a Colorado 14er. Bierstadt and Sherman are a bit rough near the summit but the Class 1 peaks have a defined trail all the way to the top. Some people start the 14ers with a more difficult peak, like Longs Peak, but we don't recommend that approach. Until you aquire the necessary skills, it's better to start with easier peaks. Also, you need to find out how your body handles a long day at high elevation before you tackle a peak like Longs.

You must consider the Overall Difficulty of the route before choosing one from the list above or another route. There's plenty to consider, so let's go over what makes up the overall difficulty of a 14er route:
  • Difficulty Rating: The most important thing to keep in mind when your starting out is Class 1 and Class 2 are hikes, where you're walking. The terrain might be rough on a Class 2 route but you're still gaining ground using your legs albeit on some steeper or more-rugged terrain, possibly without a trail. This requires more time and effort.
  • Distance: A hike under 8 miles roundtrip is considered relatively short. If you want to hike a longer one, like Mt. Elbert, make sure you've trained well enough to have the required endurance. If you're in very good physical shape and have a few hikes under your belt, you could tackle Pikes Peak's - East Ridge route which is 24 miles roundtrip. Yikes!
  • Elevation Gain: Only after a few hikes will you determine how much elevation gain your body can tolerate. You'll also get an idea of how much gain you climb per hour, allowing you to better estimate the time required on future hikes. A route with less than 3,000 feet of gain means you're parking higher and it should be a relatively short hike. On routes with 4,000+ feet of gain, you need to be in good shape.
  • Risk Factors: Once you progress past a few of the easiest 14ers, there are risk factors that come into play. Pay close attention to these as you get beyond the easiest Class 2 routes. If you get to Class 3 or Class 4 routes, evaluating the risk factors is critical:
    • Exposure: Exposure is the empty space below you which could result in injury or death if you fall. If you're "afraid of heights," the exposure risk might be an important factor when selecting a route. A LOW exposure route would be walking up the standard trail on Quandary peak. HIGH exposure is crossing the knife-edge on Capitol Peak. EXTREME exposure is climbing the final wall after traversing from Crestone Peak to Crestone Needle.
    • Rockfall: Is there a risk of rockfall or instability along the route? Walking up a Class 1 trail would likely have a LOW rockfall risk but climbing Maroon Peak or Little Bear Peak have High->Extreme risk of dangerous rockfall.
    • Route-Finding: How big is the risk of getting off-route due to a lack of trail, confusing terrain, misplaced cairns, etc.?
    • Commitment: How big is the commitment to get to the summit? Are there complex sections high on the mountain that require a lot of time on your ascent AND descent? If so, the risk of getting caught in bad weather or without adequate supplies is higher. For Example, Capitol Peak's standard route has been given an EXTREME commitment rating because once you're past K2 and working you're way closer to the summit, there's no escape from the ridge and you're a long way away from flat terrain and tree line. If weather rolls in when you're climbing high on Capitol, you're in trouble and the only way back is via the same route.

Remember, you're just getting started, so choose your route wisely, considering everything we've covered in this section and only after feeling comfortable with the overall difficulty.

Study the Route

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Hiking Mt. Bierstadt

Now it's time to do your homework. Once you've selected your 14er route, use your Dashboard to bookmark the route and some trip reports you find helpful. Next, read the route description carefully so you'll know what to expect along the way. By viewing the photos and maps, you'll become more familiar with the route features and milestones you'll encounter when on the peak. Pay close attention to the "milestones" indicated in the description. Most route photos are annotated with line overlays to help you see the direction of the route. On "easy" hikes, you may find the overlays to be a bit obvious but there will be times when you need to make a key route-finding decision on a 14er and these photos will help. This is especially true for a more difficult peak, without a trail.

Print the route description so you can refer to it on the trail if necessary. If you use a smartphone, you can download the 14ers.com mobile app and have your route description (with photos and maps) on your phone.

For an "easy" 14er, you may feel the route description provides all the route information you need but we encourage you to also read through trip reports for the same, summer route. You'll find countless photos and become even more familiar with the route.

Find Partners and Schedule the Hike

Hopefully, by the time you schedule your hike, you've found one or more partners for the hike. Work with your partner to set the date of your hike. In most cases, it will be some days, weeks or months out so you have no idea what the weather forecast will be for the date you set. You'll have to deal with that in the days leading up to your hike. In the time leading up to your hike, make sure your partner also does their homework so you're not the only one familiar with the details of the route, trailhead, etc.

Check Trailhead and Peak Conditions

When hike day is approaching, use your Dashboard to make sure you can get to your trailhead with your vehicle. Read the Trailhead Status Updates contributed by other 14ers.com members to see if there are any obstacles, closures or parking issues. You don't want to show up to the trailhead only to find there was a tree over the road 2 miles below the parking area. It happens. Reviewing the actual trailhead page and status updates will also help you decide when you need to get there - the night before or the morning of the hike.

Next, review Peak Condition Updates for your 14er. For a summer hike, you'll find plenty of recently-contributed reports, with photos. They will give you a good idea of trail conditions so you can bring the right footwear. In summer, 14er trails are still sometimes snow-covered in sections and you'll defintely encounter muddy or slippery sections. On rare occasions, a wind event might cause trees to be blown down over the trail. An event like this would usually be reported in the Peak Conditions section.

Go or No-Go?

Hike day is coming up in a few days so it's time to check the weather forecast and decide if you should go. Using links on your Dashboard or the Weather page, read the National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts carefully and spend some time to become familiar with all of the content provided. On the NWS pages you'll find a very helpful link to an hourly forecast graph which shows forecasted temperatures, precipitation, and wind for each hour of your hike day.

Thunderstorms. On summer hikes, this is the major concern. If your day is forecasted to be clear and no thunderstorms for the day, you are in good shape. If there is any chance of thunderstorms, read the forecast carefully to know the estimated time they may develop high on the peak. Then you'll need to decide if you can safely get to the summit and back to tree line before the dangerous clouds roll in. In Colorado, summer afternoon thunderstorms should be expected on most days but that doesn't mean you can't safely complete a hike. If the forecasted chance of storms is high, especially in the morning, it's best to postpone the hike. Honestly, any chance of thunderstorms in the morning (before noon) should be a good enough reason to postpone.

Temperatures. If you haven't already figured it out, the high 14er environment can be very cold. In summer, it's not uncommon to have temperatures in the 30's when you're above tree line. Review that gear list and make sure you have enough layers and other gear to deal with the forecasted temps.

Wind. If you're from Colorado, you know wind. But winds high on a peak is a whole different animal and can make your day very unpleasant, even dangerous. If your forecast states windy conditions, consider postponing your hike unless you've dealt with it before and know what to expect. "Windy" conditions would be sustained winds of 20+ mph or gusts above 30mph. This doesn't seem like much but at high elevation, it makes for cold and tough hiking.

If it's a go, leave the following information with a friend or loved one:
  • When you are leaving
  • Where you are staying/camping
  • When and where you are hiking
  • When you plan to return

Hike Day

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From the Summit of Mt. Bierstadt

Plan for an early start (possibly before daylight), especially if afternoon thunderstorms are forecasted. Start early enough so you can be below tree line by noon on your descent.

During the hike, stay focused and discuss the route with your partner along the way. It's a good way to strengthen your partnership for future hikes. If one of you is not feeling well or becomes injured, it's time to turn back because your safe return is the number one priority. As you climb higher into the alpine, try to compare what you encounter with the route description. This is a good habit because it will help you when you are on more difficult routes, with challenging route-finding.

Take short breaks, drink plenty of water and make sure to eat. When taking a break, try not to sit down for too long. Keep moving.

Good luck, have fun and don't forget to take photos!
Don't let it get you down if you find out this is one of the hardest things you've ever done. It may very well be.