14 things to know about your first 14er

Look for a 14er that has clearly marked, safe and accessible trails for your first trip; Photo by Brandon Scherzberg
Look for a 14er that has clearly marked, safe, and accessible trails for your first trip. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mountaineering is dangerous, and people die. Many of those people die attempting to climb 14ers—climber slang for a mountain that rises 14,000 feet or more above sea level. The dangers are seemingly endless: quick-moving weather, unstable terrain, wildlife, poor planning—even the mistakes of other climbers can spell disaster in the high peaks. But the reward? An unsurpassable view and an accomplishment of both physical and mental strength. Make no mistake: Attempting a 14er is no beginner’s game! But if you’re ready to take your hiking résumé to the next level, here are 14 things to know about your first 14er:

1. There’s no such thing as an easy 14er.
Despite what the locals might tell you, there is no such thing as an easy 14er. Just because the summit of a mountain is packed doesn’t mean that everyone up there is fit to make the trip. Be prepared for a tough trek and don’t leave any supplies behind just because the party ahead of you makes you look like a walking outdoor-supply store. (Note: Tennis shoes should never make it past the trailhead!)

2. Not all 14ers are created equal.
A hike up the gnarly, steep scree fields on Long’s Peak in Colorado’s Front Range is not the best course of action for a first-timer; stick to a mountain with solid, accessible, and well-traveled trails for your first peak. Popular first climbs, like Quandary Peak (also in Colorado), are short and straightforward, so you’ll be able to focus on breathing rather than navigation.

3. Hitting the gym is essential.
Being in good shape for a 14er isn’t just a good idea; it might be the difference between making it to the top and spewing breakfast all over the switchbacks. The thinner air will wind you quickly even if you are in prime condition, so make an effort to train at altitude if you can. If not, pack in as much cardio and strength training as you can in the months leading up to your trip.

Turn back if storms roll in—no 14er is worth your life; Photo by Brandon Scherzberg
Turn back if storms roll in. No 14er is worth your life. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

4. Your climb doesn’t start that day.
Adjusting to the higher elevations surrounding your peak will also be a deal maker. If you’re coming from sea level, you’ll want to budget in a few days to let your body acclimate to the higher altitude before attempting your climb. Be sure to drink plenty of water.

5. Your pack will probably be full.
You may have seen hikers wearing jean shorts and flip-flops at the top of a 14er, but imagine being caught in a hailstorm clad only in cotton. Not a pretty picture! A bluebird day can rapidly turn cold and wet, so bring everything you might need for each outcome. Essentials include (but aren’t limited to) sturdy boots, a comfortable backpack, rain jacket and pants, sweat-wicking layers, water, sunscreen, gloves, a hat, plenty of food, sunglasses, a whistle, a down jacket or other insulating layer, a map, a first-aid kit, a compass, a multi-tool or knife, a headlamp, floss (for quick fixes), hiking poles, toilet paper, and extra socks.

6. You might need to start at 1 a.m.
Some 14ers require five hours, others a full day. A typical speed could average one hour for every 1,000 vertical feet of climbing, but since this is your first 14er, you might need even more time. Map out your route and take note of elevation gain, total elevation, and mileage and give yourself at least a two-hour buffer. For your first climb, you want to be back at the car well before dark; keep in mind that storms typically roll in during the afternoon, so aim to be off the summit by noon.

7. Your pace will be slow.
You’ll be more likely to achieve success if you pace yourself, take small steps, and break for water and food often.

8. Pick your route wisely
A typical 14er may offer various routes up to the summit, but you should be looking for the one that matches your experience level. Don’t take the technical climbing route unless you have the equipment, permits, and experience required.

Be prepared with essentials like an insulating layer, rain shells, and a map and compass for any 14er attempt; Photo by Johnie Gall
Be prepared with essentials like an insulating layer, rain shells, and a map and compass for any 14er attempt. Photo by Johnie Gall

9. Switchbacks are better than shortcuts.
Most 14ers come intact with a well-marked trail that will lead you up steep switchbacks (zigzag-shaped trails). There are plenty of reasons to stay on the trail—like protecting fragile ecosystems and not getting lost—but they’re also there for your benefit: You’ll get there more quickly with less effort if you avoid “shortcuts.”

10. You’ll probably pee in front of someone.
At some point or another you’ll need to pee up there, especially if you’re staying properly hydrated. You kind of have to toss modesty out the window above the treeline, where your only cover might be a medium-sized rock. Do your best to wait for other hikers to score a safe distance, but if you have to go, you have to go. Get off the trail and don’t leave paper waste (or otherwise) behind. Plan ahead by packing a plastic, leak-proof bag you can pack your potty-time trash out in. Leave no trace!

11. But there’s still etiquette up there.
Toilet humor aside, there are some basic rules you should follow up there: Stay off the grassy areas and stick to durable surfaces meant for hikers, let uphill hikers have the right of way, don’t litter, and say hello to fellow hikers.

12. Altitude sickness can strike anyone.
A little altitude sickness might not seem like a big deal, but it can be the difference between life and death. Stay alert and aware and always heed the warning signs: dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headaches. If any of these occur, take a break, drink some water, and assess the situation. If you think you’re suffering from altitude sickness, start climbing back down. You might start feeling better in as little as a few hundred feet.

 Remember: Switchbacks are better than shortcuts, especially on a 14er. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg
Remember: Switchbacks are better than shortcuts, especially on a 14er. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

13. The weather at the trailhead won’t always be the weather at the summit.
Mountain weather is swift moving and can be very dangerous. Your best bet? Pick up a book on weather so you know how to read the sky and predict the weather. Check the forecast the day before and the morning of your hike, and start descending as soon as you see dark, stormy clouds. Lightning is a big problem in the summer; start as early as possible and turn back if you see a storm in the distance. It’s also helpful to remember that temperatures typically drop the higher you climb, so pack plenty of layers so you can regulate body temperature.

14. It will always be there tomorrow.
Not every 14er attempt will be met with bluebird skies, stable stomachs, and hearty lungs. Making the decision to turn around before reaching the summit might be the toughest decision you have to make on the mountain, but no peak is worth your life. Stay alert and be smart—and remember that the mountain isn’t going anywhere. There can always be another “first” attempt.

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