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Seeking sensible advice on how to respectfully, sustainably climb Colorado’s 14ers

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September 16, 2022, 9:57 am
The author and two of his sons on Mount Belford in 2020.

When I first moved to Colorado as a teenager and started climbing 14ers in the early 80s, the population was 2.8 million. There were far fewer people on those summits back then.

I’ve climbed 24 of them since then (a snail’s pace of one every two years or so), and the state’s population has more than doubled to 5.7 million people – all of whom seem to climb.

September is National Preparedness Month, which seeks to raise awareness about preparing for disasters, and it’s also a very busy month in Colorado’s backcountry – from hunting season to one of the busiest and best months for climbing Colorado 14ers.

Fourteeners are Colorado peaks above 14,000 feet in elevation, and there are 58 of them in the state (however, only 54 have saddles that drop more than 300 feet between it and a neighbor). “Bagging” all of them has become a national pastime.

I don’t think I’ll “bag” all of them, nor do I particularly want to. Some guy from Minnesota just did them all, unassisted, in a little over two weeks (sorry, that doesn’t sound very fun).

Part of it is I’m now in my 50s and jostling with a bunch of peak-baggers sounds a bit like standing in massive lift lines on a powder day at my favorite ski area. I’d rather skin up something with my dogs, and have it virtually to myself for just one run.

Same on the 14er front. Give me a secluded 12er or 13er any day of the week. The view of Mount of the Holy Cross (our only “local” Eagle County 14er) is better from 13er Notch Mountain.

The other factor keeping me from a final push later in life to “finish” the remaining 30 14ers on my list is the fact that the 24 I’ve done are nearby and mostly the most benign climbs. I’ve done 13 of the 14 14ers in our nearby Sawatch Range, which starts with Holy Cross in the north and includes the state’s highest (Mount Elbert) and four of the top five.

But they’re big and broad peaks, and I’m not sure I want to do the toughest climbs, Capitol and the Crestones, pushing 60. In fact, I backed down off Capitol’s infamous Knife Edge Ridge when I was in my 20s and weather was rolling in. Tragically, the Elk Range peak recently claimed the life of a Denver woman.

Although I don’t keep a record in my dog-eared copy of A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners, I’ve probably backed off half as many 14ers before reaching the summit as I’ve actually climbed (that I do jot down in my weathered old copy). I aborted on North Maroon, Sneffels and many others.

The most common reason: bad weather. It can hit you in an instant at that altitude.

As National Preparedness Month points out, it pays to be ready for any contingencies in the backcountry – and even at home these days — as extreme weather associated with climate change, including flash flooding and unpredictable wildfires, becomes more common. In September, in Colorado, that includes snow.

There are several Facebook groups aimed at helping Coloradoans climb the state’s 14ers in safe and respectful ways. When I was a teenager on the high peaks, I was wildly unprepared, sometimes climbing in tennis shoes with very little in the way of food, warm clothing and a way to start a fire.

Now, it’s virtually unthinkable to head up a 14ers – even the “easiest” walkups – without appropriate clothing, a way to call for help, first aid and food in the event of an injury or other disaster. I’d also strongly recommend leaving your dog at home.

The aforementioned Facebook groups are aimed at connecting 14er enthusiasts and spreading awareness around issues and causes that are relevant to the climbing community, such as “leave no trace” and other conservation efforts.

They’re used by members to seek advice — from which 14er to do first to weather and route conditions. Members can also make new friends and plan to hike together. But maybe the best aspect of these Facebook groups is their shared photography.

There are two fairly large groups — Colorado 14ers has more than 53,000 members, and 14ers.com has more than 37,000 members – and some smaller individual efforts like Cole’s Climb, which has about 1,500 followers.

I mention Cole’s Climb because he cites as inspiration “crowd-rescuing a lost hiker from a dangerous situation.” If you go to his Substack site, you’ll find an interesting interview on crowding on the state’s high peaks and what to do about it.

For me, it’s getting to be an easier and easier call. I’m all about quality over quantity and seeking out true wilderness experiences, rather than battling crowds, as our growing population puts more and more stress on the backcountry.

Please be prepared, be kind to the mountains and your fellow hikers, and be exceedingly sensible in your decision-making.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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