The Risk and Reward of Conquering Colorado's 14ers
Every day on my way to work, I catch sight of Capitol and Pyramid peaks out the bus window. If you’re not familiar, they are two of the seven 14ers—peaks at least 14,000 feet in elevation—in the Elk Mountains. I’ve summited all of these local high points, except Capitol; it requires a redo after a friend and I got chased off by an incoming storm. From the time I tackled my first of Colorado’s highest mountains (Bierstadt in 1992) to summiting my 41st (Wetterhorn in 2015), I’ve learned a lot about the risks and rewards of hiking and scrambling at high altitude.
Do you know, for instance, how quickly Champagne goes to your head at 14,000 feet? I discovered the answer—pretty much immediately, for me—on my first climb of Longs Peak, when a friend and I thought it would be fun to celebrate a successful summit of this notoriously long climb by popping a bottle of bubbly at the top. I was a lot younger and more nimble in those days, and managed to make it down without a scratch.
How about the importance of a good map and route description? When I hiked Bierstadt all those years ago, I brought only a newspaper clipping about the climb and five friends. Luckily the trail was straightforward, and our only hardship was navigating through the muddy bog of willow bushes near the bottom. Now you’d never find me in the backcountry without a detailed map and a very good idea of where I’m going.
While I love the challenge of getting to the top of a 14er (even when I’m reduced to counting out my steps in segments of, say, 20 to keep on going when the going gets tough), it’s about much more than the physical. For instance, there may be no better place to dissect a relationship than by talking it through with a friend during a long day of mountain climbing. Tackling a summit together is also a great way to get to know newer friends better. And it’s gratifying to see your seemingly never-tired dog snooze hard after hiking a high peak (when she was 12, my still very active golden retriever once fell asleep on the summit of a 14er).
My husband is as avid a 14er climber as I am. During the summer before we got married, we climbed Mount Sneffels, in the San Juan Mountains, together, and a photo of us on the summit became the cover of our wedding program. The week before our ceremony, we hiked up Mounts Belford and Oxford in the nearby Sawatch Range and, on the hike down, gathered golden aspen leaves to scatter along the aisle.
Our 10-year-old son has been up nine 14ers. When he was six months old, my husband and I took turns toting him up Mount Shavano in a front baby carrier (I was actually nursing him—discreetly—when we summited). More recently, he’s been able to get up under his own power, fearlessly scrambling up rocky slopes.
I hope you draw some inspiration from this issue’s feature on climbing 14ers in the Elk Mountains and just beyond, whether it means finally tackling your long-planned climb of Snowmass Mountain or maybe just completing the hike to Crater Lake to view the Maroon Bells up close.
As for me, that view from the bus window each morning is a great reminder that even as I’m thick in the routine of daily life, the opportunity to get out in the wild and climb mountains is close by. See you on the trail.