Fifty-four peaks. More than 140 routes. And hundreds of thousands of feet in elevation. Here, the ultimate beginner’s guide to climbing Colorado’s famous fourteeners.
Photos by Jeff Nelson
TRAILHEAD ELEVATION 11,669 feet (West Slopes standard route)
SUMMIT ELEVATION 14,060 feet
HIKING DISTANCE 7 miles round-trip
TIME 2.5 to 3 hours up; 2 hours down
DRIVE TIME FROM DENVER 1.5 hours
A Close Encounter
I’m not going to lie: Peering up at a tall mountain while simultaneously thinking about climbing it usually gives me vertigo. But from the parking lot, the summit of Mt. Bierstadt—one of the closest fourteeners to Denver—looks entirely attainable. I tell myself it’s probably just the way the sunlight is hitting the treeless mountainside on this early July morning, but the 38th highest peak in the Centennial State is less intimidating than I expected. Which is maybe why, at 7:25 a.m. on a Monday, there are 60 other people layering up, lacing their hiking boots, checking that they have at least 1.5 liters of water per person, applying sunscreen, and taking a last (vault) potty break before they begin the ascent.
The first mile of the standard West Slopes route supports my idea that this might actually be a doable climb: It’s a relatively flat walk, mostly on a dirt path that morphs into elevated boardwalks in some of the swamp- ier areas. My husband, our six-year-old boxer, and I cruise along, taking in views of nearby ponds and the Sawtooth ridge, which is intimidating and snakes all the way to Mt. Evans. Once the climb really begins, it doesn’t let up. This middle part of the ascent is the most lung-busting, but there are some long switchbacks and great spots to pull up a patch of grass and snack on some oxygen. As a novice peak bagger, I am initially worried that my pace will be too slow, but as we climb higher it’s apparent there’s no need to rush. Afternoon thunderstorms are a real menace any time after 12:30 p.m., but the sky is still impossibly clear at 10 a.m.
From the outset, the trail is easy to follow and is mostly free of scree and boulder fields until we reach the final crest, turn left, and find ourselves looking upon a wide ridge that purses to the rocky summit. Before we make for the top, we look northwest to see Torreys and Grays peaks, peer down the dizzying backside of Bierstadt to spot Frozen Lake, and watch for small mouselike animals called pikas among the rocks.
The push to the summit does not have a well-defined trail. The landscape is a jumble of large boulders that will tax your already tired legs. My husband has to lend me a hand in a few spots, but the last 300 feet aren’t a punishing cardio workout. We force ourselves to go all the way to the tippy top to make certain we actually hit 14,060 feet. The blown-open views make us happy we do. —LBK
WAKE-UP CALL Bierstadt is close enough to Denver that you don’t have to camp near the trailhead to get an early enough start. We awoke at 5 a.m., left our Denver home at 5:55 a.m., and were hiking by 7:30 a.m. If you want to camp the night before, there are plenty of backcountry spots along Guanella Pass, or you can grab a spot at the nearby Burning Bear or Whiteside campgrounds ($16, two vehicles allowed).
DOG IS MY CLIMBING PARTNER Parts of the Mt. Bierstadt trail go through the Mt. Evans Wilderness Area, which requires dogs to be on leash. We took our four-legged friend, who managed the route better than we did. However, hikers need to be aware they are responsible for their animal’s safety on the mountain. In August 2012, Colorado resident Anthony Ortolani took his dog Missy on a hike along the Sawtooth ridge and abandoned the five-year-old German shepherd after bad weather rolled in and the animal’s paws were too cut up for her to descend. The dog languished on the mountain for eight days before volunteer rescue hikers found her and saved the dehydrated 112-pound shepherd. Ortolani pleaded guilty to a charge of animal cruelty in October and was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation and 30 hours of community service. Bottom line: Treat your pooch like any other hiker.
GETTING THERE From Denver, drive west on U.S. 285 until you reach the town of Grant. In Grant, turn north on Guanella Pass Scenic Byway and drive about 13 miles to the top of Guanella Pass. You’ll see the parking lot for the trailhead on the right.
Should permits be required to climb our famed peaks?
Coloradans like to think of the Rocky Mountains as pristine wilderness, but the truth is many of the state’s popular fourteeners—like Longs Peak, Mt. Bierstadt, Mt. Elbert—are experiencing overexposure. To combat the degradation and overcrowding, local wilderness officials have been discussing a permits system, which would decrease the number of people who climb Colorado’s high hills. One such proposal surfaced in 2010 for the South Colony Basin, a spot known for its access to three fourteeners. The U.S. Forest Service began kicking around a $10 day-use permit to pay for necessary maintenance. The proposal met with resistance but is still under consideration, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s Jim Bedwell.
Bedwell concedes there are problems with permitting, including the cost and staff necessary to manage the paperwork and the patchwork system of organizations that would need to issue said permits. Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), shares those concerns (the nonprofit itself has no formal position on the issue), and adds limiting use doesn’t always mean limiting damage.
That’s why CFI and other similar organizations focus on building trails that can mitigate harm caused by thousands of footfalls. Athearn says a permits system could hurt his organization’s efforts: Hikers who have to pay to climb may be less willing to donate to organizations like his, and more important, money from permits doesn’t always necessarily go toward on-mountain maintenance—which means a permits system could be a detriment to the only solution anyone’s found for rescuing our state’s too-trampled fourteeners. —Dan England
Climbing lingo you’ll need to know—and use.
ACUTE MOUNTAIN SICKNESS (AMS) Caused by low-oxygen environments (anything above about 5,000 feet in elevation), this usually minor medical condition is often characterized by headache, fatigue, nausea, and dizziness. AMS can become serious during extended stays at very high or extreme altitude (above 11,500 feet). Fluid can build up in the lungs (high altitude pulmonary edema, HAPE) or brain (high altitude cerebral edema, HACE), both of which require immediate descent to lower elevation.
CLASS Routes on Colorado’s fourteeners are generally rated by class. Classes 1 and 2 are “hiking” routes and include easy to moderately difficult hiking on good to slightly less-well-maintained trails. Routes that are classified as 3, 4, or 5 are considered “climbing” routes, which can range from moderate scrambling (Class 3) and climbing steep and dangerous terrain (Class 4) to technical climbing that requires rope and belaying (Class 5).
CAIRN A noticeable pile of rocks placed by hikers to mark a trail, particularly when the trail is difficult to discern.
SADDLE A high pass between two or more adjacent peaks. SCREE Small, loose rocks that often make stable footing difficult.
SUMMIT As a noun, the topographically highest point of a mountain; as a verb, the action of reaching such a high point.
STANDARD ROUTE The most common—and often easiest—path of a particular climb; many fourteeners have multiple routes to their summits.
TRAVERSE As a noun, a section of a route that progresses in a horizontal direction; as a verb, the action of climbing in a horizontal direction.
GRAYS + TORREYS PEAKS
TRAILHEAD ELEVATION 11,280 feet (Grays Trail standard route)
SUMMIT ELEVATION Grays, 14,270 feet; Torreys, 14,267 feet
HIKING DISTANCE 8.25 miles round-trip
TIME 4 hours up; 2 hours down
DRIVE TIME FROM DENVER 1 hour and 15 minutes
Half The Battle
Coloradans have a bad habit of being a little too flip about climbing fourteeners—I mean, c’mon, these are huge mountains!—and that’s especially true with Grays and Torreys peaks. The mountains, which are a short drive from Denver, are wildly popular beginner fourteeners because their respective terrains are moderate and hikers can do both in a single day-trip. So…I try to be dismissive of the excursion as well. I know I will still have to schlep up two summits, but, as my friends remind me, the mountains are connected by a saddle, making it comparatively easy to hike up one and cross over to the other.
At least, that’s the refrain I repeat to myself as we drive west on I-70 to begin our early morning climb. It’s still chilly at 8 a.m. on a late-summer day when we layer up in Under Armour and sweatpants and strike out on Grays Trail, a dirt path that dissolves into gravel before larger rocks and boulders appear as we climb higher. Unlike many fourteeners, the treeless peaks of Grays and Torreys are visible from the outset. But as we ascend, the mountains don’t appear to be getting any closer. They are, I decide, mocking me. But I am undeterred. We continue upward, the sun warming our backs on the wide-open trail. We curve left, then right, and back again as the grass-lined route undulates through the postcard-worthy valley. At the trail junction about two miles in—where hikers can choose to tackle Grays first or Torreys—we stop to rest, snack, hydrate, and de-layer. The summits still look painfully far away, but I am feeling good—enjoying myself even. Most of our fellow peak baggers—we are joined by a few hundred other hikers, though the trail never feels too crowded—head left toward Grays, so we venture right, putting Torreys squarely in our sights. Using rocks as stepping stones, we follow cairns to the saddle, which lies about 500 feet from the summit of Torreys. It is here, after spotting a family of mountain goats precariously balanced just off the path, that I notice a distinct change. The mountaintop looms large, but I’m losing my drive. I’ve consumed more than a liter of water, yet I notice a light throbbing in my head. I suddenly feel a little weak, sluggish. I know immediately I’m suffering mild altitude sickness.
The symptoms aren’t subsiding after a five-minute break, but they’re not bad enough to force me to stop. Not when I’m so close. Slowly, we trudge the final feet and reach the summit. We are greeted by a few dozen others, beers in hand, who arrived there before us; many of them have already ascended Grays. I look south toward the sister peak. It doesn’t appear that far away—but my body simply won’t let me do it. Instead, I descend and watch one of my companions skirt the saddle to crack a beer of his own at 14,270 feet. In my case, the Rocky Mountains won half of the battle, but as much as I wish I had been able to summit Grays, I am proud to say I conquered Torreys. —Daliah Singer
A FULL ITINERARY If you live in Denver, camping nearby the night before isn’t necessary to hike Grays and Torreys. But if you want to make the fourteeners part of a weekend excursion, plan a hike to nearby Chihuahua Lake, outside of Keystone, which you can see from both summits. You’ll want a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the trailhead.
FEEL THE BURN Up the adventure quotient on your fourteener quest by approaching Torreys Peak via the more technical Kelso Ridge. You’ll follow Grays Trail until, at around 12,300 feet, instead of curving left you’ll turn right toward some old mining buildings. The exposed ridge is a Class 3 scramble over hunks of granite. Some people choose to bring a rope and harness, though it’s not required. Instead of the difficult descent, follow the traditional trail to conquer Grays or head all the way down.
GETTING THERE Take I-70 west to the Bakerville exit (221). Turn south onto Stevens Gulch Road/CR 321 and continue for about four miles—you’ll see signs for the Grays Peak trailhead—until you reach a parking area.