Colorado’s collection of 14,000-foot peaks are gorgeous and dangerous, and they beckon with thrills and chills to two levels of candidates.
There are the fit but unconfident, who struggle to imagine walking for miles above timberline. And there are the fit but overconfident, who believe they can walk to the top on their hands.
I’m not an expert climber, but I have a cherished list of conquered fourteeners. When visiting flat states, my story of ascending the cliff-like final stretch to the summit of Longs Peak draws looks of astonishment.
When telling the same tale at parties in Colorado, my experience inspires talk of climbing Longs in deep snow in the dead of winter or of climbing Longs one day and two more fourteeners the next day, or of climbing Mount Everest. Yes, Colorado is filled with the absurdly fit and fearless.
Many Coloradans have the stamina to climb a fourteener but don’t believe they can. When I suggest climbing, say, Mount Elbert, these residents say no way. Never, they say, could they succeed in such a feat.
They should talk with Springs resident Matt Von Thun, who has climbed all 58 of Colorado’s fourteeners. He’s vanquished peaks around the globe, including Ecuador’s 20,564-foot Mount Chimborazo.
He calls the path up Elbert “a sidewalk to the top that is really easy.”
OK, wait. Completing the 10.3-mile hike to and from Elbert’s summit, complete with a 4,410-foot altitude gain, is easy.
Easy compared with climbing Mount Chimborazo.
The Elbert hiker spends 2.5 miles above tree line, which means a long run to cover if a storm hits. The hiker needs to budget five to seven hours and start by 6 a.m., at the latest, to avoid storms.
A few hikers will reach the summit and say, “Oh, that was so easy!” But most of us savor the view, one of the most dazzling in the state, and try not to collapse.
Still, Von Thun has a point. The route to the top is wide, heavily trod and, in some ways, resembles a sidewalk. Even after heavy snows this winter and spring, there’s little snow this summer to challenge a hiker.
Elbert requires no technical skills or equipment. It does require, for the novice, a serious dose of will. A moment will arrive on the ascent when legs ache and lungs sting and this question hovers above the weakening spirit: Why are you doing this to yourself?
Recently, two friends were climbing Elbert and at the midway point looked at each other and said in unison, “Forget this.” They instead chose a less challenging quest. They hustled down the mountain to Leadville for a few beers. Keep calling on that willpower. Don’t stop. Think of all the bragging you can do to fascinated flatlanders.
Elbert is one of a variety of what Von Thun calls “beginner” mountains. He recommends selecting a less glamorous, less popular peak in the 12,000- to 13,000-foot range. These climbs, he says, offer a more soothing wilderness escape.
He has a point. In July and August, the parking lot at the Elbert trailhead is often full by 6 a.m. The climb is beautiful, but it’s not peaceful. You’ll be surrounded.
So there’s the pep talk for the unconfident. And now a word of caution to the overconfident.
Von Thun emphasizes an important word: “Respect.”
“There’s a dangerous period,” he says, “when the ability of climbers is greater than their experience.”
Respect is required, blended with an awareness of reality. Choose the right mountain, one friendly to your level of skill. Start early. Bring proper clothing in case the weather swings. Pay close attention to the skies.
The world changes above timberline. Most of this change is exhilarating. The air feels different. The views are spectacular. The head feels light.
But all the fun can vanish in an instant. I climbed Longs Peak on a blazing day with temperatures soaring above 100 in Denver. We arrived at the summit, flat as a football field, drenched in sweat. It was 85 degrees, and the ascent had been clear and glorious.
The descent was not so glorious. Storms rolled in early. Thunder is a soul-altering, louder-than-you-can-imagine experience at 13,000 feet. First it rained. Then it snowed.
We started at 5:30 a.m. We should have started at 4:30. We needed warmer clothing. We failed to show the required respect for a mighty mountain. But don’t let fear stop you. Armed with courage and respect and resolve, take the plunge. After conquering one of those beginners, who knows what’s ahead? Someday, you might grow into one of those hardy types who talk at Colorado parties about conquering peaks in the dead of winter.