Climbing Colorado’s Fourteeners can be a great experience, but the extreme location and nature of these hikes can quickly turn the adventure from good to bad for worse when a few simple factors come into play.
If you want to maximize your chances of a successful summit, make sure you don’t compromise on these five things:
1. Stick to the route
The importance of sticking to an established route on a high summit cannot be overstated. When fatalities and rescues occur in the mountains of Colorado, it’s often one person who goes off course, intentionally or accidentally, that gets someone in trouble in the first place. Remember, just because traveling off-route seems like a viable option doesn’t mean it is. The established route on the mountain is where it belongs for a reason, often for the sake of hiker safety.
Finding a route is just as important as adhering to the set route. Accidentally leaving the route can lead to a very scary and dangerous situation. Because of this, it’s important to be diligent when traveling at high altitude and pay attention to the right cairns and trails. This also makes it important to research a route before setting out on the trail. Watch Youtube videos and analyze images with directions. Better yet, print out directional pictures and bring them with you.
2. Communication is key
Surprise—in the middle of upstate Colorado, there isn’t a good cell phone connection. That’s why it’s important to have another means of communication that you can rely on in an emergency.
GPS communication devices are expensive, but they should be part of most backcountry adventures. Even a sprained ankle can be deadly when the elements are involved, making even a seemingly harmless adventure something worth taking very seriously.
The standard communications advisor used by many Colorado adventurers seems to be Garmin inReach. Search and rescue teams use it. I use it. Many of my friends use it. It works – plain and simple. And it’s great for keeping a peace of mind and a cool head when things start to go south.
3. Altitude sickness lurks
It’s easy to assume that being physically fit or being at high altitude means altitude sickness is not a risk. That is not necessarily the case. There is always a chance that altitude sickness will rear its head.
Speaking from personal experience, I’ve probably walked to 14,000 feet more than 60 times and I’m still occasionally reminded of how painful the symptoms of altitude sickness can be.
Because of this, it’s important to stay hydrated and fueled, and to exercise caution when consuming too much caffeine. It’s also important to note that in addition to drinking water, you should also be drinking something with electrolytes.
Do not continue to climb if you show signs of altitude sickness. Go down the mountain and shoot to the top another day. The only real way to stop altitude sickness, once it has started, is to descend to a lower altitude, and this is something that should be taken seriously sooner rather than later as symptoms do not usually get better on their own.
4. Weather forecasts are not always true
In general, I have found Mountain-Forecast.com to be the most helpful site when it comes to consistently providing a reliable and detailed forecast for Colorado’s highest peaks. However, forecasts tend to constantly change and evolve throughout the day, making it crucial to consistently monitor overhead weather and avoid weather-related risks.
A good example of how weather can quickly make an ascent difficult is a recent rescue on El Diente Peak in Southwest Colorado. Luckily, crews were able to rescue a hiker with a broken leg near the summit in a safe weather window, but as the crew noted, “luck” was a factor. Even a delay of just 15 minutes would have prevented their special helicopter from playing a role in the mission, and who knows what the outcome would be if that had been the case.
Climbing in inclement weather not only increases risk for the person climbing, but also for search and rescue teams who may have to enter the field if something goes wrong. Changing plans when the weather forecast changes can be a hassle, but it’s often the safest and most responsible course of action.
5. Be very aware of your own level of achievement
Whilst all 14m climbs are rated ‘class four’ or below this still means that some climbs can be very intense and extremely tiring – don’t underestimate a climb.
In addition to thoroughly researching a route before a summit tour, it is also important to be aware of your own abilities. This will help you avoid a dangerous situation where you go over your head.
Obviously, a big motivator as to why many people climb Colorado’s fourteens can be the challenge, which often involves going beyond what one has previously achieved. That being said, practicing off-mountain skills such as For example, climbing at a gym or running the local trails will help better prepare you to go a little outside of your comfort zone without exceeding your own abilities.
Another benefit of off-mountain training is that it gives you a better understanding of how your body works when it matters most. Are You Dehydrated? Should you tackle this or that route? Is that slight pain in your foot something you should end the day with?
Many rescues are the result of overestimating one’s own abilities and a sticky situation. The better you understand your own abilities and weaknesses, the easier it will be to prevent this from happening.
BONUS: The right gear can save your life
Pack layers for changing weather. Wear a helmet (and the right one) if the terrain requires it. Bring a first aid kit and extra socks. And don’t forget the toilet paper. And don’t forget, a poncho can always come in handy to waterproof yourself. If you are unfamiliar with the 10 essentials, check out this list and make sure you bring it with you.
What’s your tip for climbing a fourteen? Let us know in the comment section below.
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