14ers for Dummies

View from Mt. Cameron

When I moved to Boulder from sea level last year, I was overwhelmed to say the least.

Boulder, Colorado: home to world famous triathletes, cyclists, climbers, and skiers, and plenty of people rolling in from the Midwest looking to get their slice of the mountains.

As a newbie, I had plenty of new words to add to my vocabulary, “14er” being one of the most daunting.

“I will never be able to hiking a 14er so don’t ask,” was my response anytime the task of scaling one of the 53, 14,000+ft summits.

A year later, I reevaluated my standing: I was a LOT more in shape, slightly less pale, and a whole lot more used to the altitude. So when the prospect of my best friends and I hiking many of our first 14er arose, I wasn’t going to be left out of the experience.

We decided to summit the four peaks known as Presidential Pass, ticking Mt. Cameron, Mt. Democrat, Mt. Bross (lots of debate about whether this actually counts or not, but hey, let’s count it), and Mt. Lincoln off the list.

Weekend Warriors, we left for the Kite Lake Trailhead around 6:30pm, sitting on I-70 with the rest of the Eastern Slop until arriving at our destination just outside Alma, CO around midnight. We set up camp among the 30 some other tents and set our alarms to sound four hours later.

Ripping myself from my 16-degree Kelty happened only after five snoozes of the alarm. After slamming a few Clif Bars, we set off in our base layers and headlamps. By sunrise we had made it over half way to our first summit and my asthmatic lungs had found their rhythm.

Sunrise on the way to Mt. Democrat

Sunrise on the way to Mt. Democrat

Since this is Colorado, after all, we passed plenty of groups who had summited in the night and were on their way back down and, of course, the occasional hyper-athlete running the thousands of vertical feet to the top.

We reached the top of Mt. Democrat first, encountering the first bit of snow despite it being mid-July. It being our first, we hadn’t brought a cardboard sign that had a statement of “14,148 feet” etched in Sharpie that was apparently a part of everyone else’s gear list. Lucky for us, we borrowed one and celebrated our victory with the oh-so-fashionable 14er-cardboard-sign photo.

It wasn’t until Cameron—our second mission—that I began to notice the altitude. My swagger was something straight out of the drunk tank and I could feel my body burning through its morning fuel. I stopped as frequently as I could, first passing it off as stopping to pet one of the countless dogs and then getting real with myself. Was I going to have to be airlifted off this thing? Would my ACC membership cover that?

I made it, though, to Cameron, Lincoln, and finally to Bross, narrowly missing the early afternoon storms. The camaraderie on the trail and especially on the frosty summits made the struggle seem less my own and more of a team effort among strangers. It’s an amazing experience to share with those you love but also with complete strangers you feel a tie to because maybe, just maybe, these people were also gasping for air and waiting for their legs to to turn into strawberry Jell-O.

All in all:

If I can do it, the other self-doubters out their certainly can. The Presidential Pass is a great way to overcome your 14er fear and proudly join the ranks of summiters. As a first-timer, here are some things to consider:

  1. Comfortable shoes/hiking boots.  Ones that will grip boulders on the way up and grasp footing on the way down, where minute pebbles make descending like walking on marbles. If you have any doubt about your footwear, bring some band aids in case of blisters.
  2. Wool socks. Piggy-backing off of the footwear warning, the approach to Mt. Democrat starts with a swamp. Basically, if you get your cotton socks wet during the first 5 minutes of your hike, you’re screwed. Invest in wool or fast-drying socks and practice your balance!
  3. Cash.  Some of the campsites near the approach cost a few bucks. Deposit the cash in a marked envelope to help maintain the wildlands and avoid a ticket.
  4. Fuel. This should go without saying but you’ll definitely notice if you’re not eating enough calories during this climb. At around 7 miles, it’s one of the shorter 14er journeys, but one should be prepared to burn through trail mix, energy bars, PB&J, and PLENTY of water.
  5. Headlamp. You’ll need to set out by about 5am to avoid being stuck on the mountain during an afternoon storm (that being said, pack a rain jacket, just in case).
  6. Layers. “Down jacket on, down jacket off” became the rhythm as we gained and lost elevation. Wear a t-shirt baselayer with a few layers on top of it (fleece, down jacket, rain jacket), you’ll be happy to have options.
  7. Ibuprofen. To help with altitude sickness.

*At times, Mt. Bross is closed since it’s privately owned. Pay attention to 14ers.com for closures.

Journey to our final summit on Mt. Bross

Journey to our final summit on Mt. Bross

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