It was a gorgeous Saturday morning in the mountains, but Megan Lovell was feeling “kind of sucky.”
Maybe it was the 3:30 a.m. departure from Colorado Springs, or the thin air and exertion of dragging herself up a 14,148-foot pile of rocks that had her feeling breathless, dizzy and weary.
Not more than halfway up, 24-year-old Lovell was struggling, collapsing for a break on the talus every few minutes. She’d never hiked so high before.
“You’re not the only one feeling rough,” said her fiance, Adam Marsh, carrying her backpack and giving her water. “I promise you we’ll get to the top of this and if that’s all we do, that’s all we do. We’ve got all day and it’s a beautiful day.
“Light-headedness is a symptom of being bad-ass.”
Each year, an estimated 500,000 people attempt to climb one of Colorado’s 54 (or, by some counts, 53 or 57 or…) peaks higher than 14,000 feet. Some climb a handful in their lifetime. Others enjoy the experience so much they set a goal to scale them all.
Mount Democrat is considered one of the easiest, 4 miles round-trip, with 2,100 feet of elevation gain, a trail walk that requires little scrambling.
But as Lovell learned, easy is relative. Even for native Coloradans, it’s a different world up where the winds howl, little grows, snow lingers all year and you have to work to catch your breath.
After all, if climbing these peaks were truly easy, everyone would do it.
Thanks to an old mining road and municipal water infrastructure, you can drive to the trailhead at about 12,000 feet. There’s a campground at Kite Lake if you want to acclimate to the elevation. And without too much extra effort, you also can summit adjacent fourteeners Lincoln and Bross.
On most fourteener hikes you’ll start in the pine forest and burst above treeline just in time for the first rays of sunlight to warm the alpine air. With a few exceptions, success usually is a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, following a well-worn trail through the tundra or scree, or seeking out trail markers across talus and boulder fields. (Climb a few fourteeners and you’ll become well-acquainted with the differences between scree and talus.)
But the first summit bid is no ordinary hike.
It never occurred to Lovell to climb a fourteener until Marsh, a veteran of eight ascents, urged her to.
“My body feels like it wants to go back to bed, but I’m pretty excited,” she said before we set out.
Marsh also dragged along friend Mike McCrary, who had never attempted a fourteener.
Setting out in the dark
We made good time at first, the pre-dawn alpine air crisp and refreshing. Then the trail rose steeply uphill, past the orange tailings and rotted timbers of long-abandoned mines.
Lovell, like many first-timers, fought self-doubts: “This is too hard. Why are you doing this to yourself?”
Hypoxia, or acute mountain sickness, is a diminished supply of oxygen to the brain and body that strikes climbers, especially those who ascend rapidly from lower elevations. That’s why it’s often a good idea to camp higher up the night before a climb.
Minor symptoms include dizziness or light-headedness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea, rapid pulse and shortness of breath. Climbers should immediately go lower if they experience more severe symptoms, such as a bluish discoloration of the skin, chest tightness, coughing, confusion, a pale complexion or inability to walk in a straight line.
As the grassy tundra gave way to bare rocks, it was clear Lovell was suffering some effects. Studies show more than 40 percent of people who climb above 10,000 feet experience symptoms.
An hour later, we crossed one lingering snowfield to reach the summit.
“Is this where the helicopter comes to pick you up?” said Lovell, breathless but smiling.
9-year-old on top of the world
It’s rare to find solitude on a Colorado fourteener on a summer weekend. Among hikers at the top was 9-year-old Ben Hayden, of the Denver area, also making his first fourteener climb.
“It’s hard. It’s also really scary because you’re afraid you’re going to fall,” he said.
Some of his classmates had said he wasn’t strong, so he was out to prove otherwise.
To the north rose Mount Lincoln, usually climbed next after Democrat, and beyond it the jagged Gore Range. Pikes Peak was a distant contour to the east. Mount Sherman, another “easy” fourteener, dominated the view to the south.
To the west, beyond the Arkansas River, rose a sea of peaks, innumerable white-capped mountains that spoke of limitless possibilities. To see such beauty at eye level, and to know you got there on your own two feet, is a feeling that almost defies words.
“It feels incredible,” said McCrary. “Great view, a good feeling of accomplishment on a Saturday morning.”
Even Lovell was on board. “It was sucky at first, but totally worth it.”
Lunches were devoured, photos were taken, and before long it was time to head down. We had taken too long climbing Democrat, so we were done for the day.
Lightning is a major hazard on Colorado’s mountains. Though it was only 10:30 a.m., wicked-looking clouds had begun to litter the once-blue sky.
Despite the morning’s rigors, Lovell and McCrary said they would climb again.
“I knew it would be tough, but it definitely rose to a new level,” said Lovell.
Rain and sleet ended the victory celebration at the trailhead.
Our time above the clouds seemed a vacation cut short. That’s why we keep coming back.
READERS SHARE THEIR FIRST FOURTEENER EXPERIENCES
We invited OutThere Colorado readers to tell us about their first fourteener climbs. Here are a few responses.
“It truly is an amazing, euphoric feeling!” — Denise Ahrens Flory
“I still remember my first 14er at age 6: Mt. Sherman. (I’m 33 now and have two 14ers to go). My parents and I climbed Mt. Sherman on a very windy day – the winds were so rough at the summit that my mom was worried I would be blown off the edge. I thought all of the rocks on the way up looked awesome, so I kept pocketing rocks that I thought looked interesting. I carried probably 5 pounds worth of rocks to the top and almost all the way down, where I lost interest in carrying them and dumped my pockets. I remember feeling altitude sickness for the first time in my life and feeling as though I was going to throw up. Fortunately the cheese my parents packed for me settled my stomach for me.” — Matt Payne
“Hiked my first two last year, planning 6-8 this year. Did my first one about 5 weeks after knee surgery. It held up like a champ.” — Dana Adoretti
“My first was Democrat, solo the last 800 feet because my husband was so unsure of himself. Two weeks later, we took our time, and he made it to the top of Sherman! We have since climbed 13 of the 14ers. But what made it special for my husband is that he is a 63-year-old insulin-dependent diabetic, and this type of exercise forces him to check his blood every 20-30 minutes. That involves more time, more food, sugar, and the like. His brother, healthy, has climbed and hiked around the world but my husband never could, until now with a little help and more time. What a view!” — Carla Merritt DeKalb
“My first and only was Mount Sneffles. I have three attempts at Longs peak, twice to the Keyhole and once past it but stopped by a July blizzard!” — Matt Basgall
“My first was Quandary, and to my surprise at the top my (now) husband proposed. Couldn’t have asked for a better surprise!! It fit right in with our love of hiking and all things outdoors. I’ve done 3 more since.” — Darcy Hall Markussen