July 8, 2013 Updated: July 8, 2013 at 7:35 am
Josh Friesema was 7 when he climbed the highest peak in Colorado, 14,440-foot Mount Elbert.
Escorted by his grandfather, he reached the summit, though his older brother didn't, which led to years of fun-poking between the brothers.
It also led to a love of mountaineering that continues to this day, as he leads his three young children above the clouds to some of the highest points in the Lower 48 states. Daughter Ellie and son Kenny climbed their first at 5. Son Isaac was 6.
"It really pulls the family together. You've all got to work together and make decisions together," said Friesema, who lives in Teller County. "There's no quality time without quantity time with your kids. Hiking a fourteener, you're going to be with the kids for a long time. They talk a lot and you get to hear everything about their lives."
While some of the high Colorado peaks require steep climbs up dangerous slopes, plenty of others are relatively short walk-ups on well-marked trails.
No fourteener is easy, as anyone who has tried to catch their breath in the thin air while battling gravity can attest. So Friesema said the trick is to keep the climb on the kids' terms. Make sure they want to go. Carry most of the food and gear. Let them go at their pace and assure them they only have to go as high as they want. And have a firm policy that you won't carry them.
The Friesema family hikes often, which helps prepare them physically for the rigors of mountaineering. And Josh regales them with stories of his many climbs to get them in the spirit.
There have been some tears, some turnarounds before the top, but overall, he said the kids have had a great time. He hopes it will instill in them a love of the mountains.
"That's part of it, just trying to get them out there and enjoying it; that way they get stronger and have confidence. They love going back to school (in the fall) and bragging about what they've done," he said.
Colorado Springs climber Matt Payne did his first 13,000-foot peak at age 4. The memory is blurry, but he was doing fourteeners by the time he was 6. His father was on a mission to climb the 100 highest peaks in Colorado, something not many people did in the 1970s and 80s, and he thought it was the "coolest thing on Earth."
"I always looked up to him and that just made it even more pronounced. It was something we could both share and talk about for hours at a time. We still do," he said.
Sure, there were scary moments, like when they had to flee a thunderstorm on Mount Antero, practically skiing on wet rocks while Payne held his father's hand. It left him with a healthy respect for lightning.
They still were climbing together as recently as 2010, before an injury sidelined Payne's father. Payne is following in his father's footsteps and has climbed 79 of the highest 100 peaks in Colorado.
Payne said his 5-year-old son has expressed no interest in climbing a fourteener ... yet.
FIVE POTENTIAL PEAKS FOR KIDS
For those who might want to introduce their kids to fourteeners, here are five of the easier high peaks. The best resource for maps, directions and hike details is 14ers.com.
One of the closer fourteeners to Colorado Springs, about two hours' drive, is also the most kid-friendly. The trail climbs 2,100 feet and is 5.25 miles round-trip. Several family-friendly campgrounds can be found along Park County Road 18 leading to the trailhead outside of Fairplay.
This gentle peak is off Guanella Pass, a scenic drive in its own right, south of Georgetown. In summer, any vehicle can drive to the pass at 11,669 feet, making for a climb of 2,850 feet and 7 miles to the summit. And your kids will have lots of company, as this is one of the more popular fourteeners due to its proximity to Denver. Drive up from the south, from U.S. Highway 285, and you'll find lots of camping along the road to the pass.
This huge, bulky mountain near Buena Vista is only kid-friendly if you have a high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicle, as you can drive to nearly 12,000 feet. That makes for a 7-mile, round-trip hike with 2,400 feet of climbing, mostly on ATV trails.
Don't bring the kids on this one in a sedan. The hike from the car parking lot is 15 miles round-trip.
This lovely peak in the San Juan Mountains is near Lake City, a four-hour drive from Colorado Springs, but worth it if you want to introduce your kids to the rugged beauty of the San Juans. A high-clearance vehicle can get to 11,600 feet at the American Basin trailhead, which makes for a hike of 5.5 miles round-trip and 2,500 feet of climbing, passing lakes and other rocks formations sure to delight the kids.
Many people climb this peak near Alma in tandem with mounts Lincoln and Bross, which make a loop around Kite Lake. But Democrat on its own is a 4-mile, 2,150-foot adventure steep enough to test your kids' mettle. If they do well and the weather is clear, you can take them on to the other two mountains. The thrill of climbing three fourteeners in a day will stay with them a long time.
R. Scott Rappold, The Gazette