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Be smart climbing Colorado's Fourteeners

Good Dirt


Hikers are unprotected from lightning on many Fourteeners, such as these on switchbacks nearing Pikes Peak’s summit earlier this month. - TIM BERGSTEN
  • Tim Bergsten
  • Hikers are unprotected from lightning on many Fourteeners, such as these on switchbacks nearing Pikes Peak’s summit earlier this month.

With my heart rumbling in my chest, I made the final laborious steps to the 14,232-foot summit of Mount Shavano. The view from the top was unforgettable and worth the effort. The state's alpine country stretched for hundreds of miles, and the high peaks rolled along the horizon like granite waves.

There wasn't much time for dawdling. I'd started early, but perhaps not early enough. A few clouds had gathered in the thin air, but they seemed wispy and harmless. I guzzled some water, snapped my photos and began my descent.

I don't know where the lightning struck, but it knocked me to the ground, or perhaps I collapsed in fear. But the flash, and the booming sound — you feel it as much as you hear it — rattled my brain. I no longer tempt lightning, and my respect for tall peaks has grown.

It's midsummer now in the Centennial State, and the wildflowers are making sweet music across the mountainsides. Climbing Colorado's Fourteeners is easily one of our state's most popular activities. There are many who insist that you don't really know the state until you've climbed a big Colorado mountain. It's a worthy pursuit.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Bill Houghton, 71, former president of the Colorado Mountain Club, talk about climbing the Fourteeners. Houghton has summited 94 of the state's 100 highest peaks, including all that are more than 14,000 feet in elevation. He pulled up a chair downstairs at Mountain Chalet and shared his experiences with a handful of peak veterans — and some who seek to climb for the first time.

"It's the challenge of climbing the peaks that really gets to people," Houghton said. "But I think it's important to take the time and enjoy the mountains, rather than climbing them and marking them off the list."

He talked about his "Ten Essentials" for those who venture to the high country. Navigation: Bring a map. A compass may be a good idea, especially for peaks that require a long hike before the real climbing begins. Sun protection: Wear sunscreen with a protection level of SPF 23 plus long sleeves, pants, sunglasses, etc. Insulation: Bring several light layers of clothes. Leave the cotton at home. It might be 90 degrees down below, but the windchill at 13,000 feet in July is frosty. First Aid: personalize to your needs (allergy medicine, ibuprofen, etc.).

Climbing burns calories at an alarming rate. Houghton's list stresses nutrition: Everything tastes better when you're out in the woods, so bring your favorite trail snacks and have a feast. Hydration: Be smart, and hydrate before you arrive at the trailhead. Carry what you think you'll need, and remember that water is heavy. Bring a filtration system, or purification tablets.

Arrive at the trailhead early, Houghton says. You're doing it right if you catch the sunrise from the trail. You'll have a memory to cherish for a lifetime. But this may require illumination: Don't get lost in the dark. Bring a headlamp or small flashlight. Fire: For unplanned overnight stays, which happen to more than a few climbers every year. Stay warm, but be careful in our dry climate. Repair kit: Things break. Be prepared to fix them with a multitool, or even duct tape. And finally, emergency shelter: A waterproof rain poncho, or lightweight tent. You may not need it, but somebody else might.

It's a no-brainer to bring a pack, and many of them come with a hydration system (water bladder) plus plenty of room for the essentials. Houghton encourages climbers to wear hiking boots, though many people are switching to lighter trail shoes. He prefers sturdy foot protection for snowy, muddy conditions and navigating rocky, technical terrain.

The mountains and the basic rules for climbing them have not changed over the years. The number of people summiting Fourteeners has increased dramatically, however.

My lightning experience on Mount Shavano happened in August 1998. I met only half a dozen people that day. But those days are gone. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, an organization that "protects and preserves the natural integrity" of the big peaks, estimates about 250,000 people climb our mountains each year. Even Houghton admits that it now takes as much skill to find a trailhead parking space as it does to climb a Fourteener. The late summer months bring the heaviest traffic, but it slows in September and early October.

Common sense is your most valuable tool in the mountains, especially when it comes to weather. "If you trust the weatherman to tell you what the weather will do in the mountains, you're asking for trouble," Houghton says. "The mountains have their own ideas of what the weather will be." Many of Colorado's Fourteeners can be climbed in six hours or less, meaning you can be off the peak by noon. Staying later is risky, as daily rain — or snow — is common.

Do some homework before you climb. The folks at Mountain Chalet or REI will answer your questions.

Houghton swears by the book Colorado's Fourteeners by Gerry Roach. Many years ago I purchased A Climbing Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners by Walter R. Borneman and Lyndon J. Lampert. Its tattered pages are now filled with my notes. The website has photos, maps and lots of information, but be careful to separate fact from opinion.

Finally, bring a camera. Pack out your trash. Step lightly and be conscious of our precious backcountry environments.

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