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 12,000 feet (Southwest Ridge from Fourmile Creek standard route)
SUMMIT ELEVATION 14,036 feet
HIKING DISTANCE 5.25 miles, starting at the gate
TIME 2.5 hours up; 1 hour down
DRIVE TIME FROM DENVER 2 to 2.5 hours
A Historical Twist
Taking a lowlander to altitude and then asking her to summit a tall mountain is almost never a great idea. In fact, it’s often a recipe for respiratory distress. But I’d gotten the day off from work to conquer what would be my ninth fourteener—and I needed a climbing buddy. So I texted my friend Emily, who happened to be visiting from the East Coast.
“Wanna do a fourteener with me on Friday?” Although Emily had lived in Colorado off and on for five years before moving to Boston, I knew she’d never done a fourteener. She texted me back with a quick, “Yes!” On the morning of the hike, we pack the car with provisions, agree if at any point Emily can’t handle the elevation we’ll turn around, and leave Denver around 8 a.m. We reach the trailhead at 10:30 a.m. I’d hoped to get there earlier to avoid afternoon storms, but sleeping in got the better of us. We luck out with a bluebird day.
The first half of the hike is gradual; an old rock-strewn road winds us up and around various mining ruins, including the Dauntless and Hilltop mines, where we stop to take a few snaps. The surrounding landscape is also photo-worthy, although maybe not beautiful in the traditional sense. The mountainside is rocky and barren, but the cobalt sky is a brilliant contrast to the ruddy orange hues of the Colorado clay and gray rock that dot the mountain. During our lunch break near the Hilltop Mine, we sit on a side trail with our feet outstretched, taking in the views of the valley and Fourmile Creek Road. I try not to let on that I am watching Emily closely, but at 12,800 feet in elevation, she seems to be handling the hike just fine.
We continue, and at the top of the saddle between Mt. Sheridan (a thirteener) and Mt. Sherman, the town of Leadville slides into view along with a breathtaking look at Turquoise Lake. With vistas like this, I am eager to reach the summit. We start up Mt. Sherman’s southwest ridge, at about 13,150 feet, when I realize we need to stop. I tell Emily to slow down—but not because she needs a breather. Instead, I’m the one in need of a short break. I huff and puff and dive into my trail mix for fuel. I look at Emily with amazement as she waits for me, even offering a gulp of her water. She—a flatlander!—is out-hiking me. As a longtime Coloradan, I feel a twinge of embarrassment.
But that feeling melts away as we reach the most difficult portion of the hike—a narrow edge laced with scree. We skirt over it, taking care not to dwell on the drop-off. Instead, we fixate on our destination, the oh-so-close summit, where we relish a deep breath and the knowledge that we made it to the top together. —Dana Pritts
LOOK INTO THE PAST The mining town of Leavick sprang up in 1881 on the east side of Mt. Sheridan and in its heyday boasted a population of more than 200 hearty souls who lived their lives in search of gold, silver, and zinc. Mining ruins now pepper the entire area, including the hiking trails, and make for great side jaunts and photo opportunities. You’ll definitely lay eyes on the Dauntless Mine and the Hilltop Mine. Be careful, though: The ruins are fragile and unstable; do not enter or touch the structures.
GETTING THERE From Fairplay, drive about a mile south on U.S. 285, then turn right onto CR 18. You’ll drive along this road until you reach a closed gate at about 12,000 feet. This gate marks the trailhead. On busy summer weekends, you may not be able to park at the trailhead. Instead, park at a lower-elevation pull-off and hoof it to the gate.
THE FIRST PEAK BAGGER
Carl Blaurock pioneered a craze that lives on today.
Prospectors and American Indians hiked many of Colorado’s highest peaks way back in the 1800s, but it’s safe to say that no one had climbed all of the state’s fourteeners until 1923. That year, Denverites Carl Blaurock and Bill Ervin completed the list of 46 (revised surveys later raised the count to 54) by summiting Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range. In the ’20s, there were no guidebooks, no trip reports on 14ers.com, not even roads to many trailheads. Blaurock, who climbed his first fourteener, Pikes Peak, at age 15, recalled that he and Ervin would ride the train from Denver to Creede and “walk over to Ouray and Telluride and climb the peaks in between.” For perspective: The shortest walking route between Creede and Telluride is at least 75 miles and traverses the state’s wildest terrain—and that’s before any detours they took to bag other peaks.
To put their feat into further context, lightweight, weatherproof Gore-Tex was but a dream for these hardy hikers. Blaurock wore Army surplus wool shirts, neatly buttoned at the collar, baggy Army britches with puttees, and a floppy wool hat. The climbers smeared a concoction of charcoal and petroleum jelly on their faces to serve as sunscreen. And when the wind howled, they stuck folded newspapers inside their shirts and trousers for extra protection.
Though today he would be labeled an “extreme” climber, Blaurock welcomed beginners on his hikes and never took himself too seriously. In fact, Blaurock was known for celebrating successful ascents by doing a headstand on the highest point of each mountain he climbed. He was also a charter member of the Colorado Mountain Club (which still operates today) and taught hundreds of others to climb and ski, including women, who joined his trips as often as men. David Lavender, who Blaurock taught in 1927 to glissade down sweeping snowfields, wielding an ice axe as a brake, wrote of his mentor’s “gentleness, patience, and ability to make others feel comfortable on an uncomfortable cliff.” —Dougald MacDonald