For years now, summiting fourteeners (14,000+ foot peaks) in Colorado has been cast off by most climbers as a goal for faux-mountaineers and “hikers.” That prejudice is somewhat understandable. A handful of these peaks are over-trafficked and heavily touristed (Pikes, Longs, and Evans are among the worst examples), and a scant few require any technical climbing via their standard summit routes.
That said, summiting the fourteeners in Colorado is a worthy goal for all climbers, regardless of skill or experience level.
Before I get into why, it’s worth mentioning that there are generally 58 14,000-foot peaks recognized in Colorado. Fifty three of these are “official,” meaning they have at least 300 feet of prominence, rising at least that high above the saddle that connects them to the nearest, higher peak (if another exists nearby). The remaining five peaks are above 14,000-feet but don’t fit that rule, yet are still recognized as fourteeners by the majority of the folks interested in summiting all the Colorado Fourteeners.
It’s also worth noting that there are other peaks over 14,000 feet in the contiguous United States. Washington has a couple and California has over a dozen, but Colorado has by far the most in a concentrated area. Outside the contiguous US, Alaska holds numerous peaks 14,000 feet tall and higher, but these, of course, are a different beast entirely.
A rock climber for most of my life, I initially became interested in summiting fourteeners after I developed an autoimmune neurological disorder resulting in a series of debilitating symptoms, particularly small fiber neuropathy, which made it difficult to climb hard. My hands and feet burned constantly, and I began to lose sensation in my fingers and toes over time.
I’m a big believer in setting long-term goals to stay motivated, and it’s a practice that has helped me overcome the depression I’ve struggled with as a result of years of chronic pain, so I knew I needed to pivot.
I began looking for a goal that would still get me out into the mountains I loved and still involve some scrambling, route-finding, exposure, and occasional technical climbing, but one was doable enough for someone in my physical condition. That brings me to the first reason why summiting 14ers is such a great goal.
It’s a goal that’s accessible to (nearly) everyone.
We’re trying to diversify our sport and make it more inclusive. Goals like summiting all the fourteeners do just that. It’s an objective that doesn’t require any major financial commitment (cough, cough… Everest). It also doesn’t require purchasing expensive gear (trad). You can accomplish a summit of all 58 peaks with nothing but a sturdy pair of boots and a decent head for heights.
It doesn’t require any high level of experience or technical skill (El Cap), nor does it require an extraordinarily high level of physical fitness or training, like that required to send hard sport routes and boulder problems. It also doesn’t require a partner or team to accompany you.
What it does require, however, is an immense amount of dedication, the most worthy barrier to entry for any objective.
At a minimum, you’ll likely spend 50+ days on the trail. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have hiked hundreds of miles and tackled well over 100,000 feet of elevation gain. You’ll also have probably spent dozens of nights in a tent in the backcountry (many Colorado Fourteeners are day hikes, but some require at least one night of backcountry camping, for the average climber).
Summiting all 58 fourteeners also isn’t a goal that requires a single, substantial time commitment, like an expedition to a major summit abroad. While tackling all these mountains will require a hefty amount of time overall, it’s an objective that you can spread out and work on over a lifetime, dedicating a weekend here and there. You can work towards a summit of all 58 peaks as fast or as slow as you want.
As a rock climber, I used to climb at the same handful of crags day in and day out. That’s another cool thing about chasing fourteeners. By virtue of achieving the goal, you’re getting out into every major mountain range in Colorado, hiking on a variety of terrain, climbing on a variety of rock, seeing a variety of flora and fauna, meeting a variety of different people, and camping in a variety of conditions and locales.
So… what about the actual climbing?
Well, while 90% of the mountains involve nothing more than 3rd Class scrambling via their standard route, a few require 4th or 5th Class climbing to reach the summit, and a great many (even humble Sawatch peaks like Missouri Mountain) offer myriad technical rock routes. I’ve stumbled across countless spectacular multi-pitch lines I never would’ve checked out simply by virtue of heading out to hike a fourteener. Particularly if you’re someone that’s been grinding on 60-foot sport routes for your entire career, chasing fourteeners offers an excellent launchpad to get into bigger mountain objectives.
Modify your goal and tackle these peaks in winter, and you’re looking at a mountaineering objective that, collectively, is magnitudes harder than summiting many international mountains that are much higher in elevation.
Crowds can be a concern in the summer on some of the easier peaks, particularly all the ones closest to Denver, but if you head up later in the fall season, or get in early with a pair of snowshoes once the snow starts to melt in spring, you can largely avoid these crowds.
Yes, there are a handful of rescues and deaths every year on Colorado mountains because of inexperienced hikers going off-route, hiking in late afternoon and being struck by lightning, or making some other gumby mistake. Yes, there are some peaks like Pikes, Evans, Longs, and many of the northern Sawatch that are extremely crowded in summer months, and the standard routes on these are often rife with switchback cuts, degraded scree slopes, and the occasional piece of litter.
But that’s not a reason to stay away. You, and only you, decide if you’re going to be a part of the problem or be someone who helps fix it. Stay educated on the best environmental protection and safety practices and put those into use, and do your part to educate others and stop someone if you see them doing something wrong.
We don’t foster outdoor stewardship by telling people to stay away from the outdoors. We improve our chances at long-term conservation by showing people how beautiful and special these natural places are, by drawing more attention to the fact that they need protecting, and by leading by example, teaching folks how to do so. There may be a lot of dumb tourists on some of the more popular Colorado fourteeners in the summer, but there are also going to be plenty of folks leaving the mountain in better condition than they found it in. Just be the latter.
The Colorado Fourteeners often get a bad rap from rock climbers, and I think it’s undeserved. Summiting these peaks gets you outside, away from your usual crags, into a diverse array of alpine environments. You’ll come across a variety of rock, flora, fauna, conditions, and people.
It’s a goal that’s accessible to almost anyone with a pair of shoes and a fair bit of determination, and it’s a goal that can be accomplished over a lifetime, at almost any age. Most of the peaks may not require technical climbing, but almost all of them offer some technical routes, if that’s up your alley, and tackling fourteeners offers an excellent introduction to mountaineering.
If you’ve been a rock climber all your life, give the Colorado Fourteeners a try. You might be surprised.
14ers.com offers excellent route descriptions, trip reports, condition updates, safety tips, and other info, while Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs is the premier guidebook on the subject.