Six Secrets to Success for Summiting Your First Fourteener
It’s finally spring. The air is warming up, flowers are peaking through, the snow is melting. And maybe you’ve decided that now is a good time to think about how to cross off some bucket-list items for the summer. And what better bucket-list item is there than summiting your first “14er”?
A “14er” is what the hiking and mountaineering community lovingly calls any mountain with a summit above 14,000ft (4267.2 m). In my home state of Colorado, there are 54 of them! Hiking to the top of a 14er can seem like an intimidating task, especially if you’ve never hiked one before. The good news is, with the right gear and some sound advice, you can be on your way to some seriously awesome high altitude hiking in no time.
1. Prepare for Altitude
The first thing you should consider when thinking about hiking a 14er is training for high altitude. Most 14er routes begin at 10,000ft or above, so from the get go you are hiking in thin air! Before you try to summit your mountain, it is important to train for altitude, especially if you do not live at high altitude already. One way to do this is to get comfortable on steep terrain of 3,000+ feet, if you have terrain like that close to you. If you don’t, other options are to use a workout machine like a stair-master to mimic steep climbing or to hike or run stairs!
Once you’ve trained for altitude, it is a good idea to acclimate before you hike. Adjusting to altitude can take a few days. Prepare for this by traveling to your general hiking area a few days in advance. You can go for some higher altitude hikes once there, but remember to sleep at lower elevation. Drink LOTS of water!
If you are short on time and don’t have a few days to spare acclimating, know the signs of altitude sickness. These can include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and loss of energy, and shortness of breath. If you are worried about altitude sickness, you can talk to a doctor before your hike about medications like acetazolamide (Diamox) or Nifedipine (Procardia), which speed up how fast your body gets used to higher altitude.
2. Pick the Right Climb
The next thing you should consider when thinking about hiking a 14er is picking the right mountain to climb. Remember: not every 14er is the same! Most 14ers can be intense hikes, with around 4-8 hours of walking, some 4-13 miles of trail, and usually over 3,000ft of elevation gain. If you want an easier first summit, look for trails with consistent elevation grades that are well trafficked and do not have hiking hazards such as water crossings.
Every mountain has its own unique route to the top, paired with its own pros and cons. Do your mountain research, read trail reviews, look at difficulty ratings, and choose a mountain that you feel good about climbing. When you pick your mountain, make sure you download the trail map before you begin your hike (I like AllTrails but you can check out these other good apps). Many of these trails will not have cell service. Make sure you know where you are going the entire time. Remember to pay attention to trail signs as you hike, too!
Top Tip: If you are near the Collegiate Range in the Rocky Mountains, I recommend looking at Mt. Elbert to start. Not only is Mt. Elbert famous for being a nice, gentle hike, but it is also the tallest mountain in the state at 14,439ft!
3. Bring a Buddy
Hiking at high altitude is not something you should do alone, whether this is your first ascent or if you are a summit regular. When planning your climb, pick a hiking partner you trust to accompany you. This person doesn’t have to know the route, but it is a really great bonus if they do! Find someone who you feel comfortable going into the wilderness with, preferably someone you don’t mind talking to for 5+ hours, and ask them to hike with you. Solo is NOT the way to go.
Make sure a third-party knows where you are going! Share the details of your hike with someone who isn’t coming, so you and your hiking partner have outside support, if needed.
4. Start Early and in Good Weather!
In the Northern Hemisphere, the best season to hike 14ers is in high-late summer or early fall (think: July, August, September). These months provide optimal weather conditions for hiking, as most of the snow will have melted from the mountains at this point (and if it hasn’t yet, it just isn’t leaving).
However, even in good hiking conditions it is important to get an early start. I recommend starting at the trailhead between 6am and 7am (7:30am, at the latest). This will give you plenty of time to reach the top of your mountain before the afternoon, when inclement weather usually comes through. You don’t want to be caught in rain or snow on your way up (or while at the top). Stay dry and in a good mood. Start early.
One note here, on bad weather. If you wake up for the day of your hike and the weather has changed–perhaps it is raining, or the forecast shows rain or snow or high wind–consider postponing to another day. The urge and excitement to power on anyway can be strong, but it is important to remember that these hikes take you through remote terrain (often with no cell service) that can be treacherous in bad weather. What looks like gentle rain to you at the base can be intense rain or snow higher up. If the weather isn’t favorable, postpone!
5. Water, Water, Water (and Snacks)
The worst enemy of a high altitude hiker is dehydration. Bring water and LOTS of it. A good place to start is two full Nalgene-sized bottles. I usually bring something with electrolytes too, like Gatorade, as well as water purification tablets or products in case I get lost (Aquamira is great). Take more water than you think you need, because you will need it!
Also, snacks. These hikes are huge efforts. Make sure you eat something (like a bar or an egg sandwich) before you get going. Bring plenty of snacks, like apples, trail mix, or bars to munch on the trail. Plan for lunch, too! There is nothing quite like eating your favorite PB&J at 14,000ft. Expect to be hungry.
6. Good Gear
The only remaining thing you need to get you to the top of the mountain is the right gear and a good attitude. The best news is that Switchbackr has you covered on all things hiking gear. The good attitude you will need to provide yourself.
Weather can shift rapidly at high altitude. It might be warm at the base, but cold up top! Make sure to pack layers. A good place to start is with a base layer, an extra t-shirt, a fleece/sweater, a light puffy and/or a windbreaker or raincoat. I usually start my hike in leggings and a long sleeve, and change into a t-shirt if I get too hot on the way up. By the time I reach the top, I put on my long sleeve and light puffy immediately. It will likely be cold at 14,000ft.
You should also bring a first aid kit, a light-weight back-pack, gloves, a hat, thick socks, and reliable hiking shoes with GOOD TRACTION. Don’t go running up a mountain in Nike sneakers with flat soles.
Top Tip: I also like to hike with hiking poles. Poles help you with your balance, and can shift some of your weight. They are especially helpful for the way down, when the trail can be steeper and your knees might hurt.
Follow these simple steps, and you should be well on your way to successfully summiting your first 14er! The climb can be tiring, but the view from the top of the world is worth it, every time.
About the Author
Alexandra “Mac” Taylor is an avid hiker, skier, runner, ski-mountaineer, cycler and all around mountain-lover. Growing up in the Rocky Mountains, she harbors a deep respect for natural spaces, and believes fundamentally in supporting Switchbackr’s mission of making the outdoors more accessible to more people. A recent graduate of Stanford University, Mac is currently training for the LSAT and her second marathon. She is happiest at high altitude, exploring with her two English labs, Jack and Trout.