My Daughter’s First 14er: A Beginner’s Guide to Climbing Colorado’s Rooftop
posted by: Amber Johnson
My 11-year-old daughter Hadley has always been a strong hiker but I was surprised when she announced she wanted a climb a 14er this summer.
I was a bit worried about her readiness but mostly about my own. I’ve “bagged” a dozen of Colorado’s 54 peaks that rise 14,000+ feet above sea level but it has been several years since my last climb. In the interim, I’ve grown dazzlingly wiser, impressively slower and more cognizant of my own mortality because, if you’ve ever climbed a 14er, you know there are moments when you feel like you’re going to die (or that death might be more enjoyable than this).
Most mountaineering enthusiasts recommend starting with Mt. Bierstadt or Grays Peak but we opted to hike 14,036 Mount Sherman, a rounded peak that looms above the western edge of South Park. There are no easy 14ers (with the exception of driving to the top of Mount Evans and Pikes Peak in your air-conditioned car). The pitch isn’t the only factor that makes them tough, it’s the altitude. The barometric pressure decreases when you climb, causing air to expand in volume and decrease the amount of air you take in on each breath.
Case in point: We climbed famed Ha Ling Peak outside of Banff National Park in July and the trail was much more challenging, but Mount Sherman’s elevation made us feel like we were summiting Everest without oxygen. Or a sherpa. And with a 50-pound bag of rocks on our backs.
There are two standard routes up Mount Sherman and we chose the route accessed via the Southwest Ridge from Fourmile Creek outside of Fairplay, Colo. The hike is 5.25 miles round-trip from the gate but parking along the road is minimal and our 9 a.m. (relatively late) arrival forced us to park a mile away. 5.25 miles + 1 mile just to the trailhead + that same mile back to your car = seriously considering the virtues of hitchhiking.
My husband Jamie, Hadley and I have very different hiking styles. He is more of a sprint-and-stop kind of guy while I am slow and steady with minimal breaks and Hadley is somewhere in between. We started at about 11,500 feet so there was no time to acclimate to the altitude. Hadley and I slugged along the windy rock-strewn road past Dauntless and Hilltop mines, gasping for air but after 20 minutes we were breathing more regularly as the trail narrowed. Despite the commanding views at the top, I am not partial to 14ers for their beauty. Part of the reason is you are doing the brunt of the climb above treeline and, call me crazy, but there is little innate beauty about rocks, particularly when that is all you see for hours on end.
However, when we arrived at the snowfields, I was missing those rocks.
We generally carry an altimeter but it wasn’t needed on Mount Sherman–the summit is in view for most of the hike. If you’re not familiar with altimeters, they help you ascertain your elevation and avoid something agonizing called false summits: thinking you reached the top, only to find the real summit taunting you in the distance. For further clarification: Baby keeps you up for first six months of her life. Finally sleeps through the night. Parent thinks HOLY CRAP, BABY SLEPT THROUGH THE NIGHT. I HAVE ARRIVED! Next night: Baby wakes up every hour. False summit.
There were a number of families hiking with elementary-school-aged children but very few made it past 12,500 feet and many looked downright miserable. Soapbox: Do not EVER climb 14ers with a baby in a backpack. We always take an ibuprofen preventatively when we begin hiking and again at the first sign of an altitude-induced headache. Just imagine how much worse it is for a little one who can’t voice how the altitude is impacting them.
As we hiked to the saddle between 13,748-foot Mount Sheridan and Mount Sherman, Leadville and Turquoise Lake gleamed in the background ensconced by an army of 13,000 and 14,000-foot giants.
At that point, Hadley got summit fever and boldly forged forward up the most difficult part of the climb: a narrow ledge of scree. I got an illness of a different kind: altitude sickness. Jamie–knowing he will be stuck with me long after his daughter flies the coop–wisely stayed back with me to ensure I didn’t become one with the glacier-scoured valley below.
When we reached the summit, we joined an elite club of folks whose altitude sickness made them forget the misery of the climb as we marveled at the 360-degree views of the Mosquito Range’s craggy peaks, aspen groves, boreal forests and profusions of wildflowers as chirping pikas played peek-a-boo in the rocks.
Hadley’s biggest advice for climbing your first 14er? “Don’t die.”
Though those views really are to-die-for and I can’t wait to do Mount Bierstadt with her next year.
- Get an early start with the goal to be off the summit by noon due to dangerous weather patterns that blow through the Rocky Mountains.
- Pack at least 2-3 quarts of water, Ibuprofin for headaches in a small first-aid kit and Gatorade to help with altitude sickness.
- Bring plenty of food and Gel Shots for quick boosts of energy so you don’t have to wait an hour for your energy bar to digest.
- Layer, layer, layer. Your base layer should be a moisture-wicking shirt (NO COTTON) and be sure to keep a fleece layer in your backpacking, along with a synthetic jacket and a rain and wind shell. The summit is always windier and colder than below. Wear sturdy hiking boots and appropriate hiking socks (again, no cotton).
- Other miscellaneous items in your daypack should include sunscreen, a compass, watch, and map will help you find your way along unmarked trails.
- Most fourteener guides use the Yosemite Decimal System to describe trail conditions. For beginners, be sure to stick with hikes that are Class 1 (well-marked and worn trail) or Class 2 (this can vary from a semi-worn trail to no trail at all. Trail surface might be steep and slick and route-finding might be necessary).
You need to be in good shape and have great stamina to climb Colorado’s 54 fourteeners. Some require technical climbing skills while others are long hikes with well-marked trails. One thing is common is they all require a bit of crazy. Here’s how they are rated in terms of difficulty on www.14ers.com:
Easier: Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, Handies Peak, Mount Sherman, Mount Democrat, Mount Bross, Mount Lincoln, Quandary Peak, Mount Evans, Mount Bierstadt, Mount Elbert, Mount Massive, Mount Antero, Pikes Peak, Mount Princeton, Culebra Peak, San Luis Peak, Huron Peak and La Plata Peak.
Moderate: Mount Belford, Mount Oxford, Humboldt Peak, Redcloud Peak, Sunshine Peak, Mount Columbia, Mount Harvard, Uncompahgre Peak, Mount Shavano, Tabaguache Mountain, Blanca Peak, Castle Peak, Mount Yale, Missouri Mountain, Mount of the Holy Cross, Ellingwood Point and Mount Lindsey
Difficult: Longs Peak, Wetterhorn Peak, Mount Sneffels, Crestone Peak, Snowmass Mountain, Mount Eolus, Windom Peak, El Diente Peak, Maroon Peak (S), Sunlight Peak and Wilson Peak.
Very difficult: Mount Wilson, Crestone Needle, Maroon Peak (N), Capitol Peak, Little Bear Peak and Pyramid Peak.
Colorado 14er Resources:
14ers.com: Colorado Fourteeners, Pictures, Trip Reports, Routes and more and more.
SummitPost.org: Great chart of all of Colorado’s 14ers.
14ers.org: A nonprofit organization working to protect and preserve the 54 mountains in the state over 14000 feet high.