This weekend I will be on a special climb of a 14,000 foot Colorado mountain, Handies Peak in the San Juan Range.
I have already climbed this one but this time it will be with my good friend and 14er buddy, Robert LeClair. This will mark his completion of climbing all 58 of the 14ers, a goal he set 14 years ago.
So with this occasion I thought it was be a good time to take a look at the hills that serve as my playground, training course and source of immense pleasure.
What is a 14er?
Colorado has 58 mountains over 14,000 feet (4,266 meters) in height but only 53 are noted as ’14ers’. To qualify as a 14er the peak must be 300 feet higher than the saddle of an adjacent peak. A notable exception is North Maroon Peak so 54 has become the ‘official’ number. But there are an additional 4 that are counted on many lists due to historic or proximity reasons so many use the number 58 as the total. I have climbed all of them. You can see my complete list.
There are six distinct ranges that hold these 14ers plus hundreds of lesser peaks. All this makes Colorado one of the best climbing areas in the world. Many are very easy to reach with several within driving distance of Denver and other Front Range cities. A few require overnight backpacking trips and are well worth the effort. Please read my FAQs for some common questions and answers. For a look at what to pack, see this post.
The obvious danger for any mountain is the weather. The standard warning is to be off a summit no later than noon in the Colorado summer or risk being hit by lightening or trapped in a raging thunder (or snow) storm. After that, there is rockfall, heart attacks and simply falling. Each year we see numerous deaths. 2012 has been relatively safe with sadly, around 5 lost lives thus far. I wrote about a particularly difficult year in 2010 with 11 dead on Colorado 14ers. This is a good overview of the 9 deaths on 14ers in 2011.
What is about mountains (and oceans and wind and …) that cause people to set records, break them and then start all over? The 14ers are no different. There are numerous records (mostly self defined and verified) ranging from fastest to slowest to most, to downright strange. But most serve to entertain and inspire followers.
The summer of 2012 saw one that captured the attention of 14er lovers all across the country. John Prater aka “Homie” set out on August 23 to summit 55 14ers in under 10 days 20 hours and 26 minutes – the record set in 2000 by Ted Keizer “Cave Dog” ( what’s with these handles? – sounds like something out of Top Gun).
This particular record and attempt was amazing in that these guys basically ran up and down the Hills, almost never sleeping but had a support team driving them from peak to peak. Well in the end Homie bagged 41 of the mountains in 7 days yielding to severe leg pain.
Another interesting feat was sleeping on the summits. I attended a presentation recently by Jon Kedrowski and Chris Tomer documenting Jon’s successful project to spend the night starting at sunset and ending at sunrise on each 14er summit. Chris joined him on many. Chris, a meteorologist, provided Jon up to the minute weather forecasts but that did not prevent a near miss when a lightning strike almost destroyed his tent, and Jon himself, on Mount Harvard. They have a book.
Classifying a 14er
The common way of describing the difficulty of a mountain climb in the US is by the Yosemite Decimal System. It starts at 1 (a sidewalk) and goes to the obscure 5.XX range where humans mimic goats.
Climbing Class Ratings
(based on the Yosemite Decimal System)
note: route difficulty is determined by the most difficult section so a route can have 50 feet of Class 3 and 6 miles of Class 1 and be classified and be rated as Class 3.
Trail hiking. Mostly groomed trails that are easy to find in the summer and relatively smooth. Walk upright without use of hands for balance. It can be a little steep at times. Mount Elbert, the highest 14er, is Class 1 on the standard route.
Simple off-trail hiking. Some scrambling may be required on the route with an occasional use of the hands for balance. Downclimbing is straightforward. Mt. Massive is a class 2 route with some scrambling required near the summit using hands for balance.
This is actual “climbing” since you scramble a lot frequently using your hands. Handholds are easy to find. You can downclimb facing out from the rock. Longs Peak’s Keyhole route is rated class 3 but like most routes it is easy class 1 most of the time with the upper sections becoming more difficult thus making the route a class 3.
Simple climbing, with exposure. You must look for handholds and test them that they will hold you before using. You use your upper body muscles. A rope is often used for downclimbing (rappelling). Falls may well be fatal. The North Maroon Peak is class 4 with the traverse from South to North rated low class 5 on the upclimb on the North Bell.
True technical climbing normally using ropes, carabineers, anchors (protection), harness, etc. Climbers often belay one another. In the winter you use an ice axe and crampons. Long’s Keyhole route is rated “technical” in the winter beyond the keyhole since an axe and crampons are used. There are sub-ratings for class 5 ranging from 5.0 for “easy” climbs with frequent hand and foot holds to 5.13 that is has smooth and vertical rock on an overhang. There are an almost unlimited number of class 5 routes on Colorado 14ers plus other non-14er climbs such as the Flatirons and Monastery near Estes Park.
The Easy Ones
OK, so let’s go climb! The easiest ones are simple walk-ups, altitude not withstanding. Many of the 14ers require almost no experience, climbing skills or anything special other than good fitness and a good attitude. Oh and good judgment to keep yourself out of trouble. From the excellent website, 14ers.com where thousands document their experiences, this is how the top 10 breaks down, all class 1 by the standard route:
What makes these “easy” is the standard route is mostly on somewhat groomed trails (think of a green runs in skiing) and the absence of big moves, meaning you have to use your hands to pull yourself up or scramble of large rock walls or boulders.
The Hard Ones
Similarly, the 14er gang thinks these are the hardest, these are all class 4 climbs:
What makes these difficult is mostly exposure and the need to use your hands and feet to keep yourself from falling. Also the route is fairly obvious, but most are marked with piles of rocks aka cairns.
My top 14er is Capital Peak, without a doubt. It is secluded in the Colorado back country yet has an easy to reach trailhead just outside of the Aspen area. I have climbed it three times with two summits, backpacking in each time. This is real climbing with a narrow section aptly named the Knife Edge where many people straddle the rock ridge to avoid falling to their death several thousand feet down the steep angled rock walls. Once you get by this feature, the climb to the summit is pure Colorado mountain fun with a few route finding challenges, loose rock and steep angles. And the summit, well you almost have to do it to understand it.
Another favorite is Longs Peak, the closest 14er to me. I have climbed on Longs over 100 times in almost every month of the year the past decade and stood on the summit 28 times, the most recent being last week. I have climbed it via several routes but the North Face aka Cables route and the Loft Route (via Clarks Arrow) are my favorites. Longs is special because it is a physical challenge for almost everyone, a mental challenge with a few narrow spots coupled with exposure and offers a true alpine experience in the depths of winter.
Another favorite is a tie between Grays/Torries and Quandary Peak. These are “easy” 14ers but I love the trails, easy access and even the crowds. Yes, the crowds. It is fun seeing so many people, many with families and dogs, enjoying these peaks on a fine summer day. That is what it is all about.
My final favorite is for the entire Chicago basin with the four peaks of Eolus, North Eolus, Windom and Sunlight. You take the Silverton/Durango steam train deep into the wilderness, hop off and backpack a few hours deeper into the pine forest. Once there, you establish a base camp and start climbing.
Sunlight Peak will always be special as it was my “finisher”, the final 14er of my quest and the one where I took this picture of myself holding a picture of my mom. It was soon after this I started my project to climb the 7 Summits in 2011, including a summit of Mt. Everest on May 21, 2011. This was to raise awareness and research fund for Alzheimer’s nonprofits.
First, the weather looks great for Robert and his final 14er. Also, I hope this article has encourage you to get out there! If you don’t have a 14er nearby, take walk around the block. As I recently posted, exercise is one of the best ways to stay young and ward off age related issues.
As for me, I will continue to enjoy my local Hills. Call me crazy but now I’m thinking about a new project next summer to climb all 58 in 58 days! … yeah I know
Memories are Everything