Mountaineering in Colorado can be very dangerous and many people have died on the 14ers. Weather, terrain and other people can put you in a situation where your knowledge and experience will be vital. If you are new to these peaks, I urge you to pick up a book on mountaineering safety and make sure your basic navigation skills (map+compass, not only GPS) are up-to-par and you can rely on them in a tough situation.
Just because a crowd of people can march to the summit of Quandary Peak on a summer Saturday, it doesn’t mean that they are all safe. Altitude sickness, dehydration, and fast-building storms are the most common problems. Get in shape and start early for each trip. I can’t tell you how many times I have been half way down a 14er and passed hikers that were determined to get to the summit, even with huge thunderclouds brewing above.
Here are some basic points on mountaineering preparation and safety:
Preparing for the Trip
- Consider taking a mountaineering class. If you don’t want to take a class, travel with experienced hikers. General mountaineering classes are offered throughout the country and at the Colorado Mountain Club - http://www.cmc.org.
- Make sure you are in the proper physical conditioning to make the trip.
- Travel with experienced people.
- Acquire the appropriate maps.
- Plan for an early start - especially in thunderstorm season. I usually plan for a start early enough to get me below tree line by noon (on the descent). For a day hike that requires 10 - 15 miles roundtrip, consider hitting the trail a couple of hours before sunrise.
- Check with the local U.S. Forest Service for road closures and trailhead information.
- Bring a compass and/or GPS and know how to use them.
- Tell someone the following:
- When you are leaving
- Where you are staying/camping
- When and where you are hiking
- When you plan to return
- Check the weather forecast and change the day of the trip if the weather is not going to cooperate.
- Research the route (maps and other descriptions) thoroughly so you know a lot about the terrain and landmarks before you even get there. Studying topo maps can really help.
- For winter travel, check with local resources on the current avalanche danger. Pack the necessary gear for avalanche safety.
- Buy a book on mountaineering that covers altitude sickness. It is a common problem on 14ers - especially for people that come from much lower elevations.
- Know when to spot the symptoms (in you and your partners).
- Turn back if necessary. The best remedy is to get to lower elevation ASAP.
Bring the Proper Gear and Supplies
Unless you are planning a roped, technical climb, the following list includes most of the gear you'll need:
- Water (plenty of water)
- Synthetic shirts
- Synthetic long underwear
- Fleece or Wind-Block jacket
- Waterproof shell/jacket
- Nylon shorts
- Hiking pants
- Hiking boots / scrambling shoes
- Hiking socks
- Pack (that fits the hike/climb)
- Knife or multi-tool
- Water bladder or bottles
- 30spf+ sunscreen
- TP (in ziploc bag)
- Trash Bag
- Cell phone
- Extra batteries
- Emergency supplies, including a first aid kit
- SPOT or other personal locator device
- Climbing helmet
- Optional: Trekking poles
- Optional: Water filter
- Optional: Satellite Phone (expensive but extremely valuable in an emergency)
Colder Weather and Snow Climbing:
- Waterproof shell
- Waterproof pants
- Mountaineering boots
- Mountain axe
- Gaiters (ankle or knee-high)
- Winter hat
- Ski goggles
- Balaclava or fleece face mask
- Avalanche beacons
- Avalanche probe
Gear for Overnight Summer Trips:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Pack cover
- Waterproof bag/sack to hang food in tree
- Small rope to hang food
- Water filter
- Paper towels
Backcountry Ski Gear:
- AT/Tele skis / bindings
- AT/Tele boots
- Ski poles
- Climbing skins
- Climbing skin wax
Know Your Limitations
- Get in shape in the off-season. Even the easiest 14er routes require proper conditioning.
- Not everyone is fit enough for every hike. Understand when your body is telling you to turn back.
- Make sure you have the proper skills to tackle the route. Many 14er routes can turn from easy hiking to technical climbing in a hurry.
- Make sure all of the people in your group have the proper skills for the route.
- Turn back if necessary.
- Skiing/boarding a 14er is much different than visiting the ski area. It takes a certain set of skills to climb and ski in the backcountry and terrain can be steep, dangerous, and difficult to ski. On many routes, a fall could be fatal.
- Start early.
- If you are going to travel in winter, learn about avalanche safety. In winter, avalanche danger is always present. Click Here for the Colorado Avalanche Info Center
- Pay attention at all times. The altitude may impair your judgment, so it is very important to stay alert.
- Keep a safe distance from other hikers.
- Travel quietly.
- If you are climbing a steep slope or gully, be careful not to send debris down on other climbers.
- Watch for animals - cougars, bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots, deer, elk, and more...
- Don’t wander off into the wilderness. If you get hurt, you may never be found.
- Frozen lakes are not always safe.
- Bring a cell phone or satellite phone.
- Drink plenty of water.
Watch the Weather
Safety is always more important than peak bagging!
- Pick up a book on weather so you know how to "read" the sky and predict weather as best as possible.
- Check the weather forecast the night before your trip.
- Dark, brewing clouds are bad.
- During summer, lightning is your main problem on a 14er. Start early and turn back if a thunderstorm is brewing.
- A barometer is very helpful. Many new GPS units or hand-held weather stations will give you barometric information. Rapidly dropping barometric pressure is usually a sign of adverse weather to come.