Friday, September 13, 2013

So you want to climb 14ers?

So you want to climb 14ers? Read on...

I've decided to write some educational posts about my experiences climbing 14ers. After summiting 58 peaks, I wouldn't say I'm an 'expert', but I would say I have a pretty good idea of what it takes. The first post is more of an overview. I'll also talk in detail about clothing, equipment, logistics, and more. Many of these tips would also apply to climbing 13ers and lower peaks, as well.

The difficulty: Is climbing a 14er hard? Yes. And no. It depends on several factors, but it isn't without difficulty. For starters, the air is 30% thinner than sea level at the start of the hike. This would be like skipping every third breath at sea level. At the summit, it's 40% thinner. The thin air is the hardest challenge in my opinion. Thin air makes you tire quickly, it makes you recover slowly, and can reduce your cognitive functionality.

Then there is the altitude, which offers 2 challenges. It's possible to get altitude sickness as low as 10k feet. Altitude sickness can be fatal. The only cure is to descend. The altitude can also lead to dehydration, abdominal cramps, and other strange medical symptoms. Acclimatization helps, but some people will not experience these problems at all. There is also a medication you can take to help with altitude related health issues, but it can have varied results.

The second challenge is obvious, but still worth mentioning. Steep uphill climbing. Unlike a lot of hiking trails, a 14er trail goes up and up and up. Most trails gain 3,000' of elevation or more, automatically putting them in the "hard" catagory by most considerations. Some are extremely steep, others offer relentless switchbacks. But no matter what the trail looks like, you need to go UP.

The third challenge is weather. Your last 2-3000 feet will be above treeline, with little or no available cover. Storms can move in rapidly above treeline. Temperatures can be cold, winds can be strong, rain can appear suddenly, and lightning is menacing. The best defense against afternoon T-storms is to start early, often before the sun even comes up. You also have to move quickly enough to be up to the summit and back down to treeline before noon or even 11 AM. On Mt. Sherman or Bierstadt, this is pretty easy. On Longs Peak or Pyramid, it takes more effort.
They say that for every 1,000 feet of elevation, you lose about 3 degrees F. So, if it's 90 degrees at home, it may be 66 degrees on the summit. Or, if it's 60 degrees at home, it could be 36 degrees on the summit. I've started many 14er hikes in temperatures below freezing. In the summer!

There's also psychological factors, which effect some people more than others. This mostly includes fear of heights, which is related to exposure. Some 14er route are not exposed, but may take you close to areas that do have exposure.

To climb a 14er the most important thing is cardiovascular fitness. Strength and Balance can be helpful, but cardio trumps all. I'll talk about this more later.

This is going to vary based on what 14er you are looking at.
1) A decent pair of closed-toed shoes, running shoes are okay for about 1/2 of the 14ers. Light hikers are nice as well.
2) A water bladder. I like Platypus, but Camelback is good, and there are others. One that holds 3L is preferred, you can always take less if need be. You can also use water bottles if that is what you prefer. Some people like to re-use gatorade bottles because they are cheap, light, and fairly durable.
3) A decent backpack. Depending on what mountain you do, 20-30 liters is big enough for most dayhikes. It needs to be able to hold your water bladder, clothing, snacks, and essentials.
4) Synthetic clothing. This is generally going to be polyester or nylon. Beathable, non-binding, allowing for free movement. No cotton! The phrase "cotton kills" exists for a reason, it performs poorly when it becomes wet.
5) Appropriate snacks. I like Clif Shot Blocks, or Powerbar Gel, or something designed to provide energy on the go. For the summit, something packed with calories.

Congrats, you have the most BASIC items needed for the easiest dayhike 14ers. As you move to the more complicated ones, more specialized equipment will be necessary, especially when you start backpacking and camping overnight.

Knowlege is power. You need information for a successful summit. I recommend you check out before climbing any 14er. You need to know where the trailhead is and how to get there, what the route is called, and how far/long it is, at a minimum. Some routes are well defined all the way (Handies, Huron, Pikes) and some are difficult to follow (N Maroon, Pyramid). I also highly recommend that you leave a record to someone of 1) where you are going 2) when you expect to be done 3) what the phone number is for the county sherrif in that area. With accurate information, a search party could be quickly and effectively dispatched at the earliest possible time (if need be). Without accurate and detailed information, it would become difficult or impossible to direct and effective search.

Imagine this scenario. You expect someone to return, but they have not. Where did they go? How do you narrow it down? When did they think they would be back? What route did they take?

You also need to understand and embrace the idea of LEAVE NO TRACE.

You need the drive and motivation to find the summit. When it's freezing cold, windy, and you are tired, it takes some guts to keep moving upward. It's not always a picnic on a 14er hike, and adverse conditions can be expected. When life puts a big pothole in the road, do you plow through it, or slam on the brakes and turn around? Climbing a 14er can be similar to your mental state while running. Your body is suggesting that stopping to walk would be easier, and more comfortable. You have to will yourself to continue; which is why I think running is great physical AND mental training.

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