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Handies Peak, near Lake City, is a relatively easy fourteener that most rookie hikers don't know about due to its distance from the Front Range. —Photo courtesy of chrisH2006 / YouTube

Expert Advice on Conquering Colorado’s Fourteeners

Colorado Mountain Club’s Jeff Golden shares tips and tricks to help you navigate our state’s highest peaks. 

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Memorial Day has come and gone, which means we’ve reached the season of white pants, grilling, and, best of all, fourteeners. But summiting a 14,000-plus-foot peak isn’t as easy as sliding a steak over the flames. If you don’t go about training or hiking the right way, you could be missing out on the full experience—or worse, putting yourself in danger. That’s why, for the next month, we’ll be publishing a new story each week that outlines the right ways to prepare for your first (or 20th) breathtaking trek.

First up is a Q&A with Jeff Golden, the Colorado Mountain Club’s communications and digital marketing specialist, who’s completed about 150 fourteeners since moving to the Southwest region in 2008. Here, he offers tips and tricks for newcomers and experts looking to bag some peaks this season:

5280: OK, so how many fourteeners are there in Colorado? We see a lot of different numbers around here.

Jeff Golden: Fifty-four is the standard number, but 58 is becoming more and more accepted. Within the past 10 to 20 years, there was a re-survey that changed the elevation of a couple mountains—Challenger Point was one that was bumped up from a thirteener to a fourteener. There’s a big catch though. There’s a thing called prominence; it’s basically a saddle in the middle of two mountains and looks like a double-humped camel. If one hump is higher, it has to be at least 300 feet higher than the other hump to be considered its own mountain. The most famous classic example of this is the Maroon Bells; South Maroon Peak is higher, but from the connecting saddle, North Maroon Peak is only 200 and something feet from the saddle. Just going by that 300-feet rule, North Maroon wouldn’t be considered its own mountain, but it’s been kind of grandfathered in because it’s such a classic mountain. Most people will say it counts.

What’s the biggest mistake that many hikers make when climbing fourteeners?

Climbing a fourteener is just as much mental—if not more so—than it is physical. People will get in their own head and focus on how much it hurts, so they’re not enjoying the experience. Or people do a couple and get in their heads that they want to do them all. They’ll crush through the list and try to squeeze as many mountains into a summer as they can. I realize that it’s cliché to say it’s more the journey than the destination, but that’s a good mentality to have when you’re doing these things. Each one is a special experience, so you should really take the time to enjoy where you’re at. Take a moment, stop, look around. It’s beautiful up there.

A lot of people mention Mt. Bierstadt or Grays and Torreys as good fourteeners for first-timers, but they’re frequently crowded. What lesser-known peaks are also doable?

If you just want to do one, make a weekend out of it and drive a bit farther. Huron Peak in the Buena Vista-Leadville area is statistically about the same as the Front Range fourteeners; it’s 3,000 feet [of elevation gain] in about seven miles. It’s an extra half hour, hour farther from the Front Range with a quarter of the crowd. For more of a wilderness hiking experience, go even farther to the San Juans and try Handies Peak near Lake City. That’s probably the easiest of them all, but it’s pretty far for a one-day trip. If you go the American Basin route (2,000 something feet in four or five miles) in late June or early July during peak wildflower season, the whole American Basin is exploding with wildflowers. Since it’s even farther from Denver, you’ll see maybe eight to 10 other people on a summer day.

What kind of gear would you recommend hikers take that they might not think of?

If you’re hiking in fall or spring or even winter, always carry a 12-ounce vacuum thermos. It’s great to have tomato soup, tea, hot chocolate, Irish coffee, whatever—just having that warmth is super nice. Then the brand name is a Buff, but it’s a multiclava [essentially a big piece of polyester fabric]. It’s a super versatile piece of equipment; I use it as a headband, as a face mask if it gets windy, around my neck for sun protection; if you’re overnight camping and making dinner, you can use it as a rag to pick stuff up with when cooking. I’ve got four of them in different sizes.

If you’re training for a fourteener, where should you hike?

There are a few lower-elevation hikes near Denver and Boulder that are pretty comparable mileage wise and elevation wise [to fourteeners]. Near Boulder, Bear Peak is a great training peak; it’s something like eight or nine miles in 3,000 feet. Bergen Peak outside of Evergreen has a higher mileage but less elevation gain (2,200 feet of elevation gain over 10 miles). It’ll get your legs burning. If you can do those comfortably, you’ll just have to add the higher elevation to get to a fourteener level.

(Read the Ultimate Guide to Hiking Colorado’s Fourteeners

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