How to prepare for your first fourteener climb of the season in Colorado

Spencer McKee on top of Mount Yale. Photo Credit: Kimberly Saavedra.

It’s that time of the year again – when the high elevation snow finally starts to melt enough to let the fair weather peak baggers reach coveted summits across the state. Many of Colorado’s outdoor recreationists will set their sights on dozens of mountains that reach more than 14,000 feet above sea-level. Here are a few tips and tricks that will help you get back into the fourteener game after a long winter off.

Author’s Note: I’m no pro, but I have summited 20-something of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks. This is simply a collection of tips and tricks I learned along the way.

1. Unload and repack your bag

Realistically, you should do this every time before setting out on an adventure to make sure you’ve got everything you need and to be conscious of replenishing spent supplies.

If you’re packing for a fourteener, a few things to bring include:

  • Headlamp (with new batteries) – If something goes wrong and you end up on the trail after dark, you’ll really wish you had this.
  • An emergency blanket – Though it might seem like you’ve got a sunny day ahead (I turn to Mountain Forecast for my weather reports), the weather in Colorado is notorious for changing rapidly and this can seem amplified at a higher elevation. Buy a mylar blanket – they’re cheap and take up practically no space. This can also keep you warm in the event of an injury that forces you to stop moving, thus results in your body cooling.
  • Plenty of water – With any hike, you should always make sure you’ve got adequate water supplies. You should also consider bringing some sort of simple purification system or purifying tablets for the worst case scenario. I’ll typically start a fourteener hike with around 5 liters of water for me and my dog. It’s always been more than enough and it makes the climb a better workout. However, what constitutes “adequate” water will obviously vary by person and by hike. Use your hiking experience to make a smart decision that’s right for you.
  • Gloves – Even if the sun is out, the wind can get dangerously cold. Always have a pair of warm gloves in your bag.
  • Compass (that you know how to use) – No, not the one on your phone. This is for when your phone lets you down. Find a good compass at your local outdoor recreation shop.
  • Solar powered battery pack (and a cord for charging) – I’d make a more specific recommendation on this, but my solar pack is the first one I found on Amazon and the verdict is still out. For $30, it has kept my phone charged while camping and I’ll be testing it out on hikes this summer. And whatever you do – make sure you don’t forget a cord to connect your device!
  • Sunblock – If you’re on a fourteener without sunblock, the sun will likely damage your skin. Pack sweatproof sunblock and stop to re-apply it as needed.
  • First-aid kit – Find something small online, but make sure it’s got the essentials you would need to protect a blister or small wound. I also carry something to stop bleeding.
  • Food and Snacks – This is another one that will vary by person and by hike. I like to bring a couple Lenny and Larry’s Complete Cookies, some sort of beef jerky, energizing gummies, and some trail mix (Lately, I’ve gone with Shar).
  • Layers – On many fourteener climbs, it’s best to be prepared for any type of weather that might hit. Bring layers that you can take off and put on as temperatures change. I also always like to have a water-proof layer, which I’ve had to use several times.
  • Waterproofing – I’ll always bring a waterproof jacket, a couple dry bags of some sort, and a trash bag. Bonus points if you use the trash bag to pick up trash along the way in the meantime. If you have to use it, you have to use it. But you likely won’t be using it and you’ll be keeping the trail clean in the process.
  • GPS unit – Some people use their phone, but purchasing an actual GPS unit will give you a more reliable tool. Keep in mind that you should be doing extensive research on the route beforehand, regardless.

Editor’s Note: This does not include everything you’ll need for a fourteener hike.

2. Don’t forget to train

It’s easy to forget how difficult some fourteeners are over the off-season. Don’t forget to test yourself on a few difficult hikes with less dire consequences prior to setting out to summit a high-elevation peak. Living in Colorado Springs, I typically train on the Manitou Incline (which is currently closed) or the next steepest local trail I can find. I advise you do the same.

It’s also important to keep in mind that you’ll be hiking a fourteener with a lot of gear. Consider carrying more weight while training to get a true test of your abilities.

3. Remember, it’s not fall weather anymore

Storms are often a contributing factor when accidents occur on fourteeners. While fall weather tends to bring clear skies above the state, spring weather tends to result in the opposite. Climbing at a higher elevation during the spring and summer (and really any season) requires constant attention to the weather. Deadly storms can suddenly appear, often bringing hail, heavy rain, strong winds, and lightning.

Find a weather forecasting website that you trust to give you accurate information. I prefer to use Mountain Forecast. It will give you information about expected storms, temperatures, and wind speeds, making a distinction by time of day.

It’s also important to note that no forecast is always correct (though Joel Gratz at OpenSnow does a pretty great job during ski season). Be aware of how the weather is changing around you and give yourself extra time to get to safety if need be. The storms always seem to move in faster than you’d expect.

4. Conditions aren’t prime quite yet

Expect to encounter mud and snow on the trail. Keep in mind that this might make the trail hard to follow, meaning you’ll need to pay very close attention to where you’re at on the mountain. Staying on the trail is crucial on a fourteener, as some mistakes can lead to deadly situations even on ‘easy’ peaks.

Snow on the trail will also mean that you’ll likely need to pack spikes, crampons, or snowshoes depending on the specific conditions. Keep in mind that you’ll also want to keep snow out of your boots.

It’s also important to mention that you should always hike through mud, not around it. Hiking around mud will cause deterioration on the side of the trail.

5. Don’t forget to plan your route

Online tools make planning a route to the summit of a fourteener quite easy. Use a reliable resource (I prefer 14ers.com) to check route conditions and see images of the trail prior to starting your trek. Always download the images to your phone so that you can use them as a reference throughout the hike and consider print them out, along with the route, so that you’ve got backup in case your electronics die.

Another good idea is to do research regarding a route in multiple places online. Accounts can vary and while a route might seem straightforward, checking multiple sources will increase the likelihood catching a tiny detail that may end up having a big impact on the experience.

6. Mind the elevation

Don’t forget about altitude sickness. If you start feeling symptoms, don’t just chalk it up to the fact that it’s your first climb of the season. Altitude sickness can be deadly and should also be taken seriously. Be aware of things like exhaustion, nausea, and lack of appetite, among other noticeable symptoms. Find out more about altitude sickness here.

In Conclusion

Climbing Colorado’s fourteeners is a summer activity that many crave. Not only are the hikes beautiful, they also deliver a sense of accomplishment to those that take them on. This article is, by no means, all-encompassing when it comes to fourteener safety, gear, or advice. It’s simply meant to point out a few important elements that come into play while climbing a peak. Do plenty of research online prior to embarking on a fourteener climb. If it’s your first high-elevation hike, here are a few more tips to help you get your research started.

Director of Content and Operations

Spencer McKee manages the OutThere Colorado digital publication as the Director of Content and Operations. In his spare time, Spencer loves to rock climb, trail run, and mountain bike. Follow along with his adventures on Instagram at @spence.outside

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