This is how to conquer your first 14er

The fellow hiker we passed looked tired and just slightly miserable. His hand limply held his partner’s, but he trudged on with each step and no complaint escaped his mouth.

He looked up toward the looming summit, took a slow sip of his water, and kept moving.

Liz, Mattie, Andrew, and Lingyu celebrating making it to the summit of Quandary Peak. Photo: Mattie Schuler
I felt for this dude. We were only half way up a 3-mile route to the summit. Each step grew harder and harder as we neared closer to the top at 14,265 feet, and each breath became more and more shallow.

However, I should mention something about this fellow hiker: he was five years old.

Five years old, and he was completing (presumably) not even his first 14er, but perhaps his second, third, or even sixth.

This was my first 14er at 27 years old, and I was similarly close to tears. This little guy was clearly a badass, and I needed to take a few moments of inspiration from him.

It had taken me, embarrassingly, three years of living in Colorado to finally get a 14er on the calendar. A 14er is a peak that rises above 14,000 feet at the summit. There are 58 in Colorado. Most have manageable hiking paths, some involve scrambling and a few require technical gear.

While feeling strong at the end of an 11-mile hike after three days of backpacking the Flattops Wilderness outside of Yampa, Colorado, my friends Lingyu and Liz decided that the following weekend we would conquer a 14er.

This would be mine and Liz’s first ever; Lingyu’s tenth. He’d done Quandary Peak five times before and declared that it was a good one for first-timers.

The group making their way to the summit of Mount Quandary, which seemed forever faraway. Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Zimmer
“Six miles? That should be more than doable,” Liz and I thought. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy — all of the signs at the trailhead warned us that in big, bold letters — but we figured 6 miles wasn’t as bad as the 11 we’d done the weekend before, or 22 miles like the route to Snowmass Peak, another popular 14er.

About a mile in and straight up with no switchbacks, we trudged on. Our conversations had died out as the incline grew steeper and the summit stood out up ahead, goading us to finish.

As our paces differed, we each had our own strategy to keep moving. Andrew, another friend in our group, planned to book it as far and fast as he could go until he inevitably had to take a break, resting on a nearby rock beside the scree-like trail.

I took the strategy of stopping every 10 or 20 steps — that’s about as many as I could do until my quads burned and my chest ached.

Liz, Lingyu, and Julie opted for a slow and steady pace the entire way. We collectively aimed for just the next big rock, the next dip, or that person resting in the bright red jacket. After each self-proclaimed marker, we would rest for a few minutes.

Just a few friends we found along the way. Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Zimmer.
I’ve backpacked for days on end with 40 pounds on my back; I’ve hiked in two feet of powder with snowboard boots on and carrying my board; I’ve ran half marathons at elevations of 8,000 feet.

This 6-mile hike with a day pack? It felt like the hardest climb I have ever done and pushed me not only physically, but mentally, too.

At times, the only thing willing my feet to go on was knowing that once I hit the top, I could turn around. I wasn’t going to stop, but I wasn’t necessarily going to enjoy the journey either.

I did make it, though. We all did. And yes, we felt like badasses. And yes, the view was stunning and breathtaking and went on for miles like everyone said it would.

Our legs throbbed and our lungs pleaded for more air, but we still had the energy to scream out that we had made it. 

I was proud of myself and my friends. Although it might seem like a requirement to live in Colorado, not everyone has summited a 14er nor do they want to.

Am I glad I did it? Yes. Would I do it again? Of course … But maybe next summer, not next weekend.

The view, well worth the sore quads and aching chest, from the top of Mount Quandary. Photo: Mattie Schuler

Follow these 4 tips to conquer your first 14er

Bring trekking poles: Even if you don’t normally use them, bring them. They can help ease some of the steep steps up, but can also help on the way down when your legs are Jello and you are scrambling down.

Take your time: Be prepared that this hike will take a while. For Quandary, we literally went one mile per hour, and all of us were used to hiking at least once or twice a week.

Whatever the length of the hike, prepare for an all day event. Check OpenSummit for the forecast, and research on when you should leave; most 14er hikes need to be started before sunrise so that you can be done with the hike before afternoon storms roll in.

Pack the right gear: Heading up to such a high elevation means that you will be exposed to all the elements, like wind, rain and sun. Use sunscreen, bring a windproof jacket, and pack extra layers to wear on the way down, since yours will be sweaty and cold.

Know when to turn back: We had blue skies with little wind, but we knew that if the weather changed, we would have to cut our hike short. Same if someone didn’t feel well and was showing signs of High Altitude Sickness, such as headaches, and feeling dizzy or nauseated.

A large part of respecting mother nature is also learning to respect yourself, and know when you need to pause and try again another day.

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