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My first encounter with Colorado’s 14ers was an afterthought. I was on a cross-country trip in September 2010, recently unemployed and attempting to rebuild my life, with no desire to actually hike more than a few of them. After moving to NM in 2013, it was still a far-off proposition and only after passing the halfway mark around 2016 did I feel that it could be something achievable. By the end of 2019, I had summited 51 14ers in Colorado, and finishing them felt like a real possibility. I had seven unique 14ers remaining, Snowmass, LB, Capitol, and the Chicago Basin 4.
I would have probably finished them in 2020, but you know what caused a few problems. By the start of 2021, like many, I was at a very low point, employed but socially isolated, and mentally losing it. This finally started to change in February after receiving a notification that it was my turn for the vaccine. After getting my Moderna doses, I was again ready to move around, and my travel patterns returned mostly to my version of normal for at least a few months. For me, this typically means that I spend about 80 % of my weekends away from home since I live in an isolated and dull town, and I'm fond of spontaneous travel. While my foreign trips have been, and still are curtailed, I was at least driving and flying around once more.
I'm the type that has to do everything, which means to eat all the appetizers, entrees, and dessert, and drink all the booze too. After being largely isolated in NM for more than a year, I went nuts with the hiking, snowboarding, and traveling around. I took four trips to the Pacific Northwest, climbed Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and South Sister, drove the Oregon Coast, partied at my friends' wedding in Yosemite, made two trips to Arizona, and pretty much went on a nonstop binge.
By the end of June, I was exhausted, and found myself again in one of those low motivation states where I couldn’t muster the energy to drive a few hundred miles. My good friend Rob, one of my longtime hiking partners, wanted to take his fiancé up Mt. Elbert for her first 14er, so I joined in, and he did the driving. We hiked it in late June on a warm day, taking the lightly traveled East Ridge route. Even on a summer weekend, it was relatively quiet. And she crushed it, getting up to the top without problem, at a very enjoyable pace. The snow was mostly melted, the flowers were starting to pop, and the trail had been recently upgraded and was in excellent condition. This was a repeat, as I had hiked the standard route back in October 2012, but it was good to be up high again and re-visiting Colorado’s high point. And hey, a crowd on top is tolerable in small doses. I think that with all the summit fever and the turmoil of the last few years, that life in the slow lane is indeed a good thing. I'd also say that although these heavily trafficked peaks get knocked for the excessive crowds and out-of-staters, they are still really pretty. I'm not really a big fan of the Sawatch peaks, but who can't appreciate those views? Knocking back a beer in BV or Salida afterwards is just a classic Colorado experience.
A few weeks later, my friend Nick texted me about attempting Little Bear, and I quickly agreed to it. We met up in Alamosa with another outdoor partner of his, who I’ll just call α. Nick also had the means of getting up the Lake Como Road, with his trusty truck with RockfinderTM technology, and we got up to the switchback just below Jaws 0.5. That was a big deal, as this became a manageable and not too difficult hike up to the lake, and shaved off quite a bit of distance and elevation gain off the hike. My previous trips to the Blanca group had all been starts from the valley floor, which made for interminable, mentally exhausting days. We arrived at the lake mid-afternoon, set up a campsite in the very lush nearby meadow, and tried to chill out.
The plan was to do the Little Bear – Blanca traverse, so we headed up Little Bear. Routefinding is straightforward, and there's a scramble on solid rock up to the ridge, followed by a traverse on a clearly marked social trail, and then it's up a bit to the entrance of the notorious Hourglass. The Hourglass is a creepy spot, a shadowy, featureless steep slope with a choke point that had running water going down the middle. This meant that getting past that point would be a bit tricky, and we opted for a few 5.2-5.3 moves on climber's left to get around the narrowest spot. The rope at the time was nicely anchored and looked pretty solid, but stretched to just above the narrowest spot and wasn’t terribly helpful. The slope eased a bit afterwards and it was fairly solid rock approaching the top.The good part was that the summit was literally at the top of the couloir, and we were greeted with a ukulele player serenading us with a Beatles tune. The view is one of the finest from a 14er, with the unmistakable rugged traverse to Blanca's summit. We were spared any loose rocks on our way up, as we were the only people in the gully at the time.
Now α wanted to do the traverse. We hung out just before the first big downclimb for 10-15 minutes and watched as the clouds slowly built up. This was at 9:30 AM, which was a bit early, and after resisting turning back, complaining about not snagging Blanca, he finally agreed to go back down. Good call, since it was storming just a couple of hours later, and we hiked back down the road in a steady rain while the high peaks were getting battered with heavy rain and lightning strikes.
That was my first new 14er in nearly two years, and it lived up to its notorious reputation. Nick dislodged a rock above the Hourglass during the descent and it was a nonstop bowling alley, as that rock must have been shooting down in excess of 50 mph. Luckily, the other parties climbing Little Bear were well-spaced out and patient in this rather dicey zone. But it was indeed a relief to have finally summited Little Bear. While it was my fourth time in Lake Como basin, it was my first attempt of Little Bear and it went as smoothly as I could have hoped for.
Storming the Capitol
A few weeks later, we were planning to go up Capitol Peak, but Nick dropped out at the last minute, so I was again stuck with α. But I usually give people a second chance, and this was no exception. We met briefly for lunch in BV, and my impression of him did not change. My friend described him as “high-strung”, and was little interested in being collegial or accommodating. We hiked in from the upper trailhead to Capitol Lake in an intermittent drizzle, and I was already having some difficulty getting up there. The peak is visible for most of the hike to the lake, and it’s one that is immediately forbidding and imposing from afar. It was easily one of the best approaches for a 14er, and despite feeling unwell for most of the hike in, I really enjoyed the scenery, and the campsite was fantastic.
Summit day came, and we had agreed to start around 6 AM. By the morning, the winds had shifted, and the beautiful evening had given way to a pretty apocalyptic scene, with smoke blowing in from wildfires in the PNW and California. I slept badly as usual when I camp, and was still trying to catch those last few minutes of rest after tossing and turning all night.
“Why aren't you up yet?” he said.
So that was pretty much the theme of the day. I was moving pretty slowly, from the lack of sleep, from hauling a backpack in there, and having stomach issues throughout the trip. We did get going at 6 AM, but when your first words are negative ones, it's a pretty good way to sour an experience.
The way up Capitol is complex, and mentally draining. It’s a steep trail up to the ridgeline, and then the real fun (or suffering) begins. We eventually hooked up with another small group from Colorado Springs, and stuck together for the remainder of the route.
After a short, steep descent, it was talus hopping most of the way to the K2 saddle, and then we carefully made our way around K2. This was a bit loose, but still manageable, and brought us to the infamous knife edge. Now even after seeing countless pictures and visualizing how to get across, doing it in person is another matter. It is stable rock, it was dry that day, and staying slightly to the left of the ridge will get you most of the way across. But then there are a few short sections where I had to butt-scoot it, and it was also one of those few instances in life where you really are focused on the next steps and moves, and time seems to stand still.
α‘s response was that it was “easy”. Not exactly modest, maybe true for him, but as a rule I never say stuff like that. I managed it with what I felt was the right proportion of respect, fear, and preparedness. After navigating the last portion, and spacing out a bit to avoid rockfall, we finally made it to the top. The smoke up there was thick, and it was a dull gray haze with nearby Snowmass barely visible from the summit and the Maroon Bells lost in the haze. We went back down to the lake, carefully, packed up, and made our way down to the trailhead.
We were supposed to get some food, but I had been very slow in getting back as my energy was near zero and I had been feeling pretty ill. α told me he had no time, dropped me off at my car, and went on his way to the next trailhead with no further words exchanged. It was clear that he was irritated at my slow pace. So I’d say that this was one of my less enjoyable peaks, mostly due to the company I was around, and the bad air quality. I suppose that I will need to repeat it under better conditions, with the right people.
Having finished the two most difficult 14ers in the state, my remaining peaks were Snowmass and the Chicago Basin 4.
After juggling online messages for the better part of the week of August 21, I finally was able to locate a few partners for Snowmass via the S Ridge. I had no interest in the long trek in via Snowmass Lake, or backpacking, but my car was not able to negotiate the way to Lead King Basin. But over the next few days we got together a ragtag bunch of people, all experienced and in a late summer state of fitness, and we made our way up. I drove the circuitous 360 miles to Marble, and met up with the crew. They’re on the .com (cougar, oorg, and pika), and oorg’s boyfriend Stephen joined us and expertly got us to the trailhead in his Taco. It was August 28, and fall was in the air. The green meadows were slowly changing color into the brown and yellow hues of fall, and the air was moist and chilly down below with the first hint of the perfume of decaying vegetation.
The S Ridge is a thrill, it’s the shortest and most stable route up Snowmass, but also with some pretty exposed sections and awkward moves. By this point hiking these peaks, it was nothing that I couldn’t handle, but having expert partners was very reassuring. Getting to the S Ridge involved climbing a rather loose gully for about 300 feet, and then it was a clearly visible S curve along the ridge, with the summit in sight for much of it. John was an expert routefinder and avid climber with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Colorado high peaks. Unlike my previous time in the Elks, the company was fun, the air was crystal clear, and it’s really classic Colorado scenery from up high, bright gray jagged rocks, the Maroon Bells off in the distance, a sparkling Snowmass Lake, and green meadows below.
We went down via the West Slopes, which was unrelentingly awful, pretty much large tippy rocks all the way down. This probably takes the cake for the worst 14er route, worse than descending Challenger Point. This has been the site of a few injuries and accidents, and we were very careful. I think that this was the peak that I feared the most out of the 14ers, as it had all the notorious characteristics of the Elks and I’m glad I saved this as one of my last 14ers. Thanks to Cory for letting me tag along, and to John, Nikko, and Stephen for making up a fun crew. The summit nudity was also very scenic.
To stay in shape, I went for easier peaks over Labor Day weekend, mixing in a visit to Denver and the Springs with a quick ascent of Evans from Summit Lake, and then Pikes Peak from Crags. Both were straightforward, and I finally snagged Pikes Peak under human power. It's a bit weird seeing the human circus up at the top, but having coffee and donuts, and a toilet up there was good. There was still a fair amount of construction going on up there, I still preferred the old sign and station.
For my finisher, my friend Mike (hellmanm) snagged a Chicago Basin reservation for September 11-15, and I joined in. The weather is always an issue, as it just seems to always rain there, and with the pandemic, getting a train reservation requires booking long in advance. But he got it right with a late summer date, gambling on smaller crowds and a better chance of more stable weather.
Chicago Basin is a special spot, far from civilization, a 2.5 hour train ride north of Durango, and after you’re dropped off and your pack is unloaded, you’re left to your own devices. We met the night before in the parking lot and went through the stacks of freeze dried meals, my new portable stove and fuel canisters (which were in short supply and took me quite a while to find in Denver), and we double and triple checked everything. It requires preparation, and it’s also quite a bit of hiking.
The way in was leisurely, and despite gaining nearly 3000 feet in elevation over six miles, it rarely felt that taxing. The trail is excellent, and the views really open up after about 4.5 miles. We found a shaded spot at 11000’, which would be home for the next three nights. This was already my third time backpacking this summer, and I still don't particularly enjoy it. I sleep badly and then there's figuring out how to crap in the woods.
As with many of my hikes this summer, I was miserable with stomach pain the first day and was barely able to even make it up to Twin Lakes. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to do this again the following day, as I had not done two days of 3000+ foot hikes in quite a long time. We managed to get up Sunlight, and very carefully went up the notorious summit block. Up there we met fellow hikers Kevin and Tamas, and we went as a group up Windom. It did rain / snow on us for a bit, so the way up was slippery, and the route is harder than advertised. The peak is really a pretty narrow, compact perch, and there were tricky sections to navigate on the way up and down. But thankfully the weather cleared and it was fairly smooth sailing back down.
Funny thing was that the second day felt a lot easier than the first, even the ascent to Twin Lakes was much less taxing than I had anticipated. The last peaks, North Eolus and Mt. Eolus, were worthy finishers, and easier than the rather rough day yesterday on Sunlight and Windom. Kevin and Tamas joined us at the campsite, and we went as a group. Kevin also had a good camera with him and took lots of pictures along the way. We passed our usual mountain goat family after the Twin Lakes turnoff, then made our steady way to the North Eolus junction. North Eolus was a short scramble on very grippy rock, and we then moved on to our final objective, getting up Eolus. This meant taking the very nifty Catwalk. It's still relatively exposed, but much easier than the exposed portions of Capitol and Snowmass. Getting to the summit of Eolus is a bit tricky, with several ways up and some fun Class 3 scrambling among a complicated jumble of rocks, but we topped out on the ridge and then walked that last few hundred feet to the summit of Eolus. And just like that, I was a finisher.
“Thankful for good health and good fortune,” I wrote in the summit register.
I normally don’t imbibe on the summit, but Kevin had saved some whiskey in a soda bottle, so I took a swig of that to celebrate. He went ahead of us and shot some nifty pictures as we descended, as being 20-something, he was still full of energy and bagged a 13er afterwards. Oh to be young and energetic.
It took me ten years and 355 days from the day I first hiked up Quandary Peak (9/23/10). I decided to retire and become a couch potato. Well, that lasted three days.
I had a long weekend on the 17-19 of September, so I was literally back at work for a day and a half. The forecast looked good, and my energy had returned, so this was my chance to go up Kelso Ridge. It’s one of the longest drives for me, being in the Front Range near Denver. I teamed up with two intrepid ladies, Stephanie who was training for big mountain climbing in Ecuador, and her friend Annie. After a 2:30 AM start from Denver, we arrived at the upper trailhead at 4 AM to snag that last coveted weekend parking spot. We ended up trying to sleep in a cold car before getting started around 6 AM, just before sunrise. Most people were headed up the standard combo, but we took the right turn up to the saddle and started our climb. It’s not well-marked, but more or less a ridge scramble with a few tricky sections thrown in there, and that short but very photogenic knife edge. After Capitol, I felt that this was much easier, but still a thrill standing on these narrow points of rock. And shortly after that, we were back in the thick of the crowds at the summit of Torreys, full of excited hikers, visitors from out-of-state, dogs, and the perfume of marijuana smoke.
With the fall colors popping throughout the state. I drove back north the following weekend, this time to Lake City, for what would be my 12th and last 14er of 2021, Uncompahgre. This was one of the best fall colors in recent memory, with the ideal combination of vibrant colors, dynamic skies, and a few dustings of snow. It was my second time up there, the first being in 2015 when I ran into a few people attending the fall gathering. I got a rather late start, caught a ride up in an ATV, and was the last person on the summit that day, and had to walk down all the way to the lower trailhead. No matter, it was a slow way to take in the last bit of warm weather and enjoy the fall colors.
A few last thoughts
The peaks have become visibly more crowded, in the ten years since I first hiked one in Colorado. Permits are inevitable, getting those coveted reservations is increasingly difficult, finding solitude is harder still. We’re seeing the signs of a stressed environment, with the mountain air sometimes far worse than a big city, beetle-killed trees, wildfire scars, smoke, litter, Bluetooth speakers, traffic, and all the less desirable signs of human existence. I’m admittedly part of the problem, driving hundreds of miles on weekends to visit the state, many of them being solo drives. The good news is that the vast majority of the trails are pretty clean, but with the usage increasing, we need to be better stewards. There are also dedicated volunteers who are busy rebuilding trails, monitoring usage and environmental impacts, and those who just do the right thing by packing out their (and others) trash.
There are now thousands of 14er finishers. The CMC registry shows around 2000 finishers as of 2021, which is probably far underestimated. There were around 1000 finishers from the start of records in 1923 to 2000. To put this in perspective, around a hundred new people finish the peaks each year.
But each person’s experience is different. Some people view it through a checklist lens, pushing their physical limits, or as a way to meet new people and regular climbing partners. There was the fellow from Minnesota who drove all the way to attempt a 14er between his chemo sessions. There are all of the regular members on 14ers.com, who do all sorts of rad things far beyond my own physical abilities. There were the people smoking pot at the top, one guy smoking a cigarette, people raising money for their favorite charitable causes, and all sorts of random and quirky people I met hiking these peaks.
I went through many different mindsets during this epic journey. Sometimes it felt like a checklist, sometimes a chore, but more often than not, I had great weather and lucked out with amazing scenery. The hiking partners came later, as I did about 40 of them solo, and it was difficult to find regular partners willing to travel from out-of-state. The community on this website and on the related FB groups are for the most part helpful people. A big thanks goes out to Bill Middlebrook for building this site.
The 14ers are really a great confidence builder and a stepping stone for bigger outdoor-related goals. They were certainly the catalyst for my recent climbs of Rainier (in another TR) and Hood, and I feel like I am ready to at least attempt some of the peaks in the Alps and Andes. That said, approaching these places with humility is also a good thing. The top is only halfway, the "easy" peaks are not so for everyone, and the best you can do is to go into a hike or climb prepared- success is not guaranteed.
And finally, in the grand scheme of things, you’re tiny and insignificant. Peaks don’t get "conquered", as many like to say, but you learn what you’re made of.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
Nice work! I met you on Evans this summer, you were coming up as I was coming off, I complimented your 14ers.com shirt and we chatted for about 15 min about how close you were to finishing. I am happy to see you accomplished your goal.
Thanks all, glad you enjoyed reading it. @okeefemb- I remember you, we met just past the Sawtooth junction, hopefully the rest of your season went well. @d_baker, will_e, you guys have done some pretty insane stuff! I figured I'd try a few of these routes barefoot, mostly repeats, mostly the easier stuff, I'm on maybe a quarter of them at the moment. Look forward to meeting more of you in the future.
Congrats on your climbs, great write up, was a nice read. Some excellent photographs! I gave up on striving to bag all the peaks in a check-list manner and now enjoy a more stress free view of getting others their first 14er.
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