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BEEP BEEP BEEP! Suddenly my eyes flash open. It’s dark. Darker than it should be for an alarm. Blurry eyed I check my clock – 1:30am. Before I can truly realize what’s happening I’m in the car, oscillating between bites of a breakfast burrito and sips of coffee. Squirrel and I laugh because we know most people on the road at 2am haven’t gone to sleep yet.
Flash. I’m on the mountain. At least I hope I am. I’m pretty much limited to the small beam of light my crappy headlamp from Target puts out. Every now and then I see green eyes up the trail, one of the dogs is looking back at us. But as I walk almost begrudgingly up hill my head slowly clears. As my heart rate rises and the oxygen thins an easy calm comes over me. A focus I only feel on the mountain. The physical exertion almost secondary to the mental peace I have.
I smile despite the struggle. The sun is coming up and I’m 14,000 feet in the air. I can see flatland from here. Out of breath and a little light headed I revel in the moment. This is why I hike. This is why I climb.
Hiking up a 14er is one of those things people claim is quintessential Colorado. It’s no easy feat, even the “easier” mountains. However with a good attitude, good weather, and a little will power you’ll make it to the summit. Below are a few tips and tricks I have in my back pocket for 14ers.
- Don’t go until you know
There are two things you MUST do before attempting to climb one of these bad boys. Number one is know the weather. It is extremely dangerous to be on these peaks when there is a risk of storms. You want to be below tree line well before a storm. Remember: the summit is the bonus, getting down safely is mandatory. Due to all of my outdoor and above tree-line activity I am a huge weather geek. I check multiple sources before making a decision to go above tree line and I ALWAYS will check the National Weather Service.The second thing is know your route. Some routes on mountains are not clearly defined and you wouldn’t want to accidentally end up off the trail or on a trail rated tougher. To get started with 14ers and 14er research my one stop shop is 14ers.com. This website provides a wealth of accurate knowledge regarding routes, lengths, directions to the trailhead and other pertinent info.
- Get there EARLY
I know I’m probably going to make a few people angry by giving away this big secret, but if you want a more pleasant 14er experience get there early. I’m talking early early – for an 8 mile round trip summit I’ll be on the trail before 4am. This means waking up even earlier. But it is always worth it, always. I have been alone on summits for over a half hour before someone else shows up. I’ve seen the sun rise over the mountains and I was above the sun. It’s an incredible experience. If you are at the trailhead by 5am you will be hiking with throngs of your closest friends. If you arrive by 9am there’s a good chance the heat or weather will prohibit you from summiting. Your other option is to go during the week, but let’s face it – who has infinite time off to be able to swing that several times a summer? You can nap when you get home.
- Bring the essentials
I hiked Mt Bierstadt without gloves. Temperatures at the summit were near freezing and the wind was blowing at 40+MPH. It was a miserable experience for my hands. People aren’t normally thinking about cold weather things in the middle of July – I certainly wasn’t. Dress in layers, bring sun protection, snacks, plenty of water, moleskin for blisters, and if you’re following tip number 2 – definitely gloves. Please pack out your trash to keep the place clean for those after you.
- Set goals for yourself and listen to your body
One part of hiking in the dark that I really love is I can’t see how far away my destination is. I love when the sky starts to lighten and I can see what’s around me. If I had seen the approach to Gray’s and Torrey’s Peak the morning I showed up, I probably would have had a tough time hitting both peaks in one day. When it gets extremely tough or I feel like giving up I will find something, maybe a trail marker or a strange looking rock 20-100 feet in front of me and I say to myself “I will walk to that rock.” Suddenly I’m at that rock and I will pick another. Before you know it you’ve made progress. As with anything in life start small and big things happen. If you’re struggling physically slow down. Don’t go for the fastest time. The point is to challenge yourself and enjoy yourself. There have been times on the trail when I’ve been so beat tired and I just tell myself “I can’t.” I’ll stop, catch my breath, get going again and find myself in the same place mentally. To break through those moments I slow my pace down. Everyone has their own way of “tuning in.” I count to five one time for each breath and just repeat. Sometimes my feet are at a mere shuffle but I’m still moving forward.
- Dogs on the trail
My dog is 9 years old. She’s a ridgeback mix and perfectly capable of doing a 14er. In fact, yesterday she summited 2! Another reason I love to go early is because it’s easier to have your pooch off leash. We usually have to leash up on the way down because of crowds (although I try not to – I believe it to be dangerous). I’ve seen dogs of all shapes and sizes on the mountain, including a Scottish Terrier on the summit of Bierstadt. It’s a personal decision to bring an animal. Nina (my dog) seems to do fine at altitude but not in the heat. Protect their feet, keep them well hydrated and really think about what you’re exposing them to. (Stay tuned for an outdoor doggy essentials post in the near future). When Squirrel and I take Nina on an excursion like this we always have an out. We are both prepared to not summit if Nina is not feeling it. I would never recommend anyone take their dog on anything above a Class 2. It is dangerous for the animal as well as other people, even one in peak physical condition.
Those are my five handy tips for 14ers. I hope you found them helpful. Please feel free to add or ask questions on the comments below.