During one visit with avid runner and hiker Sam Bremner, he was two peaks short of climbing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains. He chickened out on the airy “catwalk” ridge to 14,083-foot Mount Eolus and couldn’t handle the ropes on the aptly named “knife-edge” ridge on 14,130-foot Capitol Peak.

Of course, ropes can be tricky when you have no thumbs, and Sam Bremner, better known as Sam the Wolfdog, is a husky mix.

“He’s a pretty good climber though,” said his owner, Steve Bremner, who has climbed all of the state’s fourteeners. “When we get to a tough section I just say ‘up’ and he finds a way.”

Fortunately, for dogs and humans, most of Colorado’s fourteeners don’t require tail-tucking technical moves. The summit routes are long, hard and rocky — and the altitude can feel like a jackhammer on your head — but with the right preparation, most hikers can complete them. And every year hundreds of thousands do.

Coloradans and visitors love to trudge up to the stoney crests to drink in the endless views and thin, alpine air. It’s a Colorado thing.

Where else can you wake up in your own city/suburban bed, hop in the car at dawn and still get to your choice of 14,000-foot peaks by noon? Here, on summer weekends, the most accessible summits bristle with crowds of hikers. The scene is less “remote summit” and more “street fair,” with kids tossing corn chips into their mouths, tourists snapping pictures, bald guys smoking cigars and yuppies pacing the talus while cradling cell phones and saying, “Guess where I’m calling from?”

Climbing a fourteener has become a right of passage of sorts for Coloradans. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a nonprofit that builds sustainable trails, estimates the state’s 54 highest peaks (is it really 54?) see 600,000 visitors a year. Far fewer choose to climb them all. Every season, it seems. someone tries to set a speed record for bagging all 54. Most people take more than a decade.

Tom Beckwith, who keeps stats for the Colorado Mountain Club, says many save the most difficult peaks for last.

Tabeguache Peak - OutThere Colorado
Tabeguache Peak, 14,155 feet. Courtesy of Josh Friesema

“Pyramid, El Diente, Little Bear — peaks that are a little more demanding,” he said. “But most of the peaks aren’t like that. They’re relatively easy walk-ups. Even Mount Elbert, the highest one. They’re long, but not technically difficult.”

Still he said, “Even on the easy ones, it’s not the suburbs. It’s wilderness out there and you need to be prepared.”

Prepared for what? Altitude, for one thing. A breath of air on a fourteener has only 60 percent of the oxygen of a breath at sea level. Even a slow walk can leave a hiker winded, with a pounding headache.

“I tell people who want to climb a fourteener to first hike a lower mountain and see how they feel at 11,000 or 12,000 feet, then work their way up,” said Julie Beckwith, director of member services for the Colorado Mountain Club. Other than that, she said, “buy a guide book. If you’re in shape and you have the book, you can handle it.”

Hikers also must worry about weather, said T. J. Rapoport, director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. “The beauty of Colorado in the summer is that the weather is like clockwork. You know it will probably be sunny in the morning. The lightning will come by one or noon, and you want to be done by then.”

The frustrating thing, he said, is how often people ignore this simple pattern. “You get a late start . . . that can be really sketchy,” he said. “You get stuck in a storm and you have to scramble to get down.”

Several people are struck by lightning in the high country every year. Almost as bad, from Rapoport’s perspective, is that people fleeing lightning leave the sustainable trails his organization builds and traipse cross-country, damaging delicate tundra that can take decades to regenerate. “These peaks get more and more use every year. The biggest thing people can do to take care of them is stay on the trail, even if it’s really muddy,” Rapoport said.

Weather and altitude warnings usually are only the first of many warning beginning climbers receive.

Take lots of water and make sure to drink often, they’re told. Pack enough clothing to survive a freak August snowstorm. And watch for loose rock (it kills climbers in Colorado). All the warnings can be intimidating, and should be taken seriously, but most are simple and easy to follow.

Climbing the fourteeners can take hikers to remote spots in the state they might never otherwise see — past hidden alpine lakes and roaring waterfalls, and up along sculpted ridges with views stretching 100 miles. The struggle to the summit becomes addictive. Many people who complete the fourteeners move on to climb the highest thirteeners. That’s just what Bremner is doing.

Longs Peak - OutThere Colorado
Longs Peak, 14,259 feet. Courtesy of Josh Friesema

FOURTEENERS GEOLOGY

Why does Colorado have so many tall mountains that are relatively the same height (54 peaks over 14,000 feet) but not a single one above 15,000, or even 14,500?

“The answer is we don’t have a real good answer,” said Jack Reed, geologist emeritus for the U.S. Geological Survey. This much is clear, he said. Mountains form when the amount an area rises exceeds the amount it erodes. Most high mountains form either through movement of the Earth’s crust along plate boundaries or volcanic eruptions. The Colorado Rockies were formed by neither.

“What we seem to see instead is some sort of crustal process that has elevated the whole region the same amount,” said Reed. The area that is now Colorado was characterized by low, rolling hills 5 million years ago. Then the whole cluster of hills started to rise in unison, like people in a crowded elevator.

As the hills rose, erosion tore valleys and canyons in the rolling surface. Only the toughest and most quickly rising rocks could withstand the natural weathering forces. Today, these areas make up the state’s highest peaks. Since they were close in height when they started, and all rose about an equal distance, they are still relatively the same height. And they may still be going up, Reed said.

“They may be only rising a millimeter a year, which would be too small for us to measure,” he said. “But a millimeter a year over 1 million years would buy you a kilometer. That’s a lot of mountain.”

Mount Princeton - OutThere Colorado
Mount Princeton, 14,196 feet. Courtesy of Josh Friesema

A GUIDE TO GUIDES

Colorado mountain guides are referred to by the author’s name. If someone mentions the Roach map to Pikes Peak, it’s not a map showing where the bugs are, it’s Gerry Roach’s guide to the mountain. Here’s a breakdown of the most popular.
+ “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs” by Gerry Roach The most popular and up-to-date of Colorado’s fourteener guides, Roach pairs detailed maps with consistent, accurate directions, and throws in helpful weather tips and hidden philosophical nuggets, known as “Roachisms,” to break up the cut-and-dry text.
+ “Dawson’s Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners,” Volumes 1 and 2, by Lou Dawson. Dawson offers complete, accurate descriptions of multiple routes on each peak, with good photos and maps. Much of the information focuses on spring skiing and snow climbing routes best enjoyed by more experienced climbers. Anyone only interested in summer climbs can stick with the cheaper, one-volume Roach guide.
+ “Guide to the Colorado Mountains,” by Robert Ormes The first mountain guide for the state, originally published in 1952, is kept alive by updates by the Colorado Mountain Club, but still retains Ormes’ poetically vague descriptions. Some fourteeners get no more than a sentence or two of directions, because, Ormes claimed, if you needed more, you had no business climbing the peak. It’s still a great resource for climbers who want a guide that leaves them plenty of adventure.
+ “A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners,” by Walter Borneman and Lyndon Lampert The oldest, and least-used of the fourteener guides, this book is not as reader-friendly as other guides, but has enjoyable historical information about many peaks. Available used from online book sellers.

PLAN AHEAD

The early bird gets the summit. Storms hit the Colorado Rockies almost every afternoon in summer, dishing out bone-chilling rain, hail and potentially deadly lightning. The cardinal rule of climbing in the state, therefore, is to get a pre-dawn “alpine start” and reach the summit by noon at the latest to avoid bad weather. When planning how long it will take to reach the summit of a fourteener, figure you’ll move at 1 mph – or less – above treeline.

Crestone Needle in Sangre de Cristo Mountains - OutThere Colorado
Crestone Needle (14,203 feet) towers over South Colony Basin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

THE PEAK-BAGGERS PACKING LIST

  • Plenty of water and snacks (don’t assume you’ll find water above treeline)
  • Comfortable shoes (running shoes are fine for most easy peaks, sturdy boots should be used for more difficult peaks)
  • Thick socks
  • Raincoat
  • Non-cotton clothing, including three top layers
  • Warm hat and gloves
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat and sunglasses
  • Headlamp/flashlight (for that alpine start)
  • First-aid kit
  • Map (usually photocopied pages of a guidebook will do)
  • Compass
  • Matches
  • Camera, cellphone
  • Backpack

EASY STARTS

Not all fourteeners are created equal. Many are exposed rock scrambles, but these seven peaks are just a stiff walk. Anyone willing to sweat can reach the top.

  • Mount Elbert: Round trip 7 miles, 4,100 feet of gain
  • Huron Peak: Round trip 10 miles, 3,700 feet of gain
  • Mount Princeton: Round trip 6 miles, 3,370 feet of gain. High clearance vehicle advised.
  • Mount Antero: Round trip 4.5 miles, 3,400 feet of gain High clearance vehicle advised.
  • Mount Sherman: Round trip 5 miles, 2,436 feet of gain
  • Quandary Peak: Round trip 4.5 miles, 2,545 feet of gain
  • Mount Bierstadt: Round trip 4.5 miles, 2,400 feet of gain

AIR UP THERE

The atmosphere at sea level is 21 percent oxygen. At 14,000 feet it still is 21 percent oxygen. So why is it so hard to breathe up there? Because the atmospheric pressure is only 60 percent of sea level, so each breath has only two-thirds as many oxygen molecules.

PEAK SEASON

What’s the climbing season for Colorado’s highest peaks? True aficionados are quick to say year-round, but for those who want snow-free hiking, the common wisdom is July through mid-September. Of course, it still snows during summer, so be prepared.

Mount Massive - OutThere Colorado
Mount Massive, 14,429 feet. Courtesy of Josh Friesema

TOP 10 WAYS TO NAME A PEAK

What do we name our highest peaks after?

  • 19 after their physical appearance
  • 19 after dead white men
  • 5 after universities
  • 5 after American Indians
  • 2 after bouts of confusion
  • 2 after peripheral immortals
  • 1 after a political party
  • 1 after a Midwestern state
  • 1 after a crashed space shuttle
  • 1 after a fictitious passage to the center of the Earth

A hiker’s guide

I climbed my first fourteener at age 34. It wasn’t planned and I never expected to get to the top. At the summit I found victory — and a new passion. Since that day — and six peaks later — I am more prepared. This is what I’ve come to learn:

  • TREKKING POLES: I find them a must! They kick you into 4WD when you are running out of gas. They can work as extra arms on the way up and take stress off your knees on the way down.
  • FEET: It’s all in the toes. Make sure you have sturdy, comfortable shoes. Sore spots and blisters can make a good day turn bad quickly. Carry moleskin and trim your toenails. Toes jamming the front of a boot for 4-plus hours can cause a lot of pain.
  • ALL WEATHER: You can never be too prepared for all weather conditions. Always pack warm clothes and rain gear. It is not uncommon for it to snow during a lightning storm in July.
  • TAKE MY BREATH AWAY: Control your breathing. Regardless of what shape you are in, you’ll be breathing heavy after climbing to 14,000 feet. Take several short breath stops. Meditation breathing — in through the nose, out through the mouth — comes in handy.
  • WATER: Make sure you have enough water for the round trip. You’ll want plenty, especially on the way up. Hydro packs are lighter and easier than carrying bottled water.
  • POWER SNACKS: Carrying some energy is a good idea too. There are several decent-tasting energy bars on the market. Trail mix is a great pick-me-up. You burn a lot of calories walking uphill for hours.
  • KNOW YOUR ROUTE: Do your research in advance. There are several guide books available that advise on multiple routes up the mountains, from easy to difficult. If the book warns of dangers, it is usually right.
  • COMPANIONSHIP: There’s a lot to be said about a good hiking partner. Words of encouragement can take you all the way to the top. Make sure your partner is aware of your experience level, so you have someone supportive to motivate you.
  • DISCOURAGEMENT: It’s easy to want to give up. If you don’t have a hiking partner, remember the goal. Just take a break and regroup. It’s amazing what the body is capable of doing when pushed. You really can do it.
  • ENJOY THE VIEW: Stop and really appreciate the unique scenery. You find yourself in pristine surroundings that you could never get to in a car. From wildlife to wildflowers, each is to be cherished and respected.
  • EXPECT TRAFFIC: You meet people from ages 7 to 70 on the trail. “Bagging” fourteeners has become quite popular, so expect to run into someone. Remember that hikers going uphill have the right of way.
  • VICTORY: You made it to the summit. You feel literally on top of the world — what a sense of accomplishment! You will always remember this day, so take time to celebrate.

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