It’s just about time to get high in Colorado — on one of the state’s 54 official mountains that rise above 14,000 feet in elevation. The peaks known as the 14ers. I’ll never forget the first time I attempted to summit a 14er. It was Quandary Peak, elevation 14,265′, just 10 miles south of Breckenridge in the Tenmile Range. I went solo. I had to wear snowshoes since we had some early and big snowfall that Autumn.
These were not just any old snowshoes, by the way, they were my MSR Evo Ascents, more like snow claws, and perfect for a wintry Quandary summit attempt.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I got to about 13,700 feet according to my GPS when a front suddenly moved in (happens a lot in the Colorado Rockies). It started snowing and the wind kicked into high gear creating near whiteout conditions.
I hunkered down for a moment and contemplated going for the summit anyway, but then I thought “that is how people die” and decided to descend. I was so close but lived to ascend another day. I ended up bagging Quandary Peak the following summer and again the next winter.
In August 2010 some friends and I were ascending La Plata Peak in the Sawatch Range. It was around 10 a.m. (We’d started at sunrise) when we heard the first rumble. Thunder. Usually the thunderstorms start in the afternoon which is why we try to be descending the mountains by Noon at the latest.
Getting caught in a thunderstorm above treeline is simply terrifying.
We saw flashes of lightning on the horizon and had to make a decision: haul ass to the summit or turn around. The urge to bag the peak was overwhelming and temporarily shut down our fear of lightning. With about 800 feet of vertical to go, myself and two others in the party decided to go for the summit and the other two decided to descend.
As the rumbles grew louder I wondered if we’d made the right decision.
The adrenaline helped us gain the 800 feet of vertical quickly. We made the summit — and the thunderstorm ended up bypassing us to the north. Elation. As we ate snacks on the summit, the sun came out and I felt bad for the two that had turned back. It was gorgeous up there. In hindsight, though, they had made the right decision, and we had made the wrong decision.
Most people will never stand on a peak at 14,000 feet. That’s a shame since many of Colorado’s 14ers are surprisingly accessible.
Some trail heads are only an hour or two from downtown Denver. Obviously the more accessible ones are busier. But many more are remote and take quite a bit of planning and skill to climb.
You’ll be virtually alone out in the wilderness.
If you’re craving an adventure, plan a trip and go hike some Colorado 14ers this summer or fall. On a 14er, the air is thin, clean and cool. High-alpine wildflowers set the tundra ablaze in colors. You can see the Earth’s curvature. A sea of mountains surround you in all directions.
It’s euphoric, and when I’m up there I want to stay up there.