When I look out the west windows of the Central Library, I see the snow quickly disappearing from Mount Evans. Soon it will be peak season for visiting Colorado's highest mountains: the fourteeners. Mount Evans is just one of 58 mountain peaks in Colorado above 14,000 feet high.* No other state has as many fourteeners, although California and Alaska both have higher mountains (much higher, in the case of Alaska). Alaska has 29 fourteeners (including one "20er", Denali), and California has 12. Washington has two.
Colorado's fourteeners have been inspiring people for a long time. Blanca Peak, in the Sangre de Cristo range, was one of the four peaks forming the corners of the traditional homeland of the Navajo. They know it as Tsisnassjini, or White Shell Mountain. Pikes Peak captured America's imagination after it was reported by Zebulon Pike in 1806, and gave its name to the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of the late 1850's--even though the gold fields were north of Pikes Peak. In 1893, the view from its summit inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write America the Beautiful. The Maroon Bells--both fourteeners--have graced about a million postcards, and Wilson Peak, near Telluride, is the mountain on the Coors Light can.
The tops of some fourteeners are pretty easy to visit. The easiest way is to take the cog railway to the top of Pike's Peak. The paved road up Mount Evans is a little more exciting, and the last few miles of dirt road on the Pike's Peak Highway are downright hair-raising. But visiting the top of the other fourteeners requires hiking or climbing. Some are less grueling than others, but all of them can be dangerous if you aren't well-prepared. If you don't start early, the snow gets slushy and treacherous in the afternoon, and lightning storms can move in amazingly fast. I learned this lesson years ago when I looked at my hiking partner and saw his hair standing on end. Seconds later, a violent thunderstorm appeared over a ridge, zapping the mountainside with bolt after bolt of lightning as we scrambled like marmots under the nearest boulders. (We learned later there are better ways to respond.)
Some of the best "beginner" peaks are relatively close to Denver, such as Grays Peak and Torreys Peak, which can both be climbed on the same 8.5 mile hike, and Mount Bierstadt, which is a seven mile hike. Another nice thing about these mountains is that they're some of the best places in Colorado to see mountain goats. They are tough hikes (at least for me) but I don't find them particularly scary. Longs Peak, the northernmost Colorado fourteener, is a whole different ballgame. It's a 14.5 mile round trip that turns into a scramble across treacherous exposed slopes. Most people have their limits when it comes to heights, and I found mine on Longs Peak. But several fourteeners are even more treacherous than Longs, and require technical climbing skills. The mountains around Aspen, such as the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak, are said to be especially dangerous because they are made of loose, crumbly rock. Heinz Pagels, a physicist who wrote wonderful popular science books, lost his life on Pyramid Peak in 1988.
Many fourteeners are much safer and easier to climb than Pyramid Peak, but none of them should be attempted without knowing what you're getting into. If you're looking to try a fourteener this summer, here are some resources to help you get ready.
This is an comprehensive website that lets you find the perfect climb to match your abilities. You can view routes by difficulty and by exposure (risk of falling), read recent trip reports, and download GPS routes (highly recommended for less-traveled fourteeners).
This is the website of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a non-profit organization that helps build trails, preserve fragile ecosystems, and educate the public about Colorado's fourteeners. They have a YouTube channel with a series of excellent educational videos about fourteeners.
* The number of fourteeners in Colorado depends on the definition of a fourteener. I'm using the list from the Colorado Geological Survey.
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Great info, thanks! My favorite account of climbing fourteeners is Mark Obmasick's Halfway to Heaven--a fun way to climb along without the effort!
Thanks, Becker! I need to read that one.