Colorado, the eighth largest state with 104,091 square miles, is dominated by the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies, a long twisting spine of mountains that stretches across North America from Alaska and northern Canada to central New Mexico, reaches its climax in Colorado, which boasts more land above 10,000 feet than any other state. The most significant geographic feature of the Rockies is the Continental Divide, a long ridge that divides the Atlantic and the Pacific watersheds. Colorado also offers over 50 distinct mountain ranges, 830 summits over 11,000 feet, and 55 lofty peaks that scrape the sky above 14,000 feet or two and a half vertical miles above sea level.
These 55 Colorado peaks, usually called the Fourteeners, range from 14,001-foot Sunshine Peak to the boulder-strewn summit of 14,433-foot Mount Elbert high on the Continental Divide in the Sawatch Range. The Fourteeners form a marvelous alpine challenge for the mountaineer and intrepid hiker, who find plenty of adventure from hiking up rocky slopes to technical rock climbing routes up steep granite faces to ice and snow climbs up couloirs and snowfields. Many of the Fourteeners are easily accessible from Denver, Colorado Springs, and other cities on the plains below the Rockies. Climbing the Fourteeners is a huge challenge and has become so popular that the sheer numbers of people climbing some of the peaks threatens their delicate alpine ecosystems.
Climbing The Fourteeners
Most of Colorado’s Fourteeners are not a big deal for an experienced rock climber, but for most mountaineers they form not only a natural playground but are also a great place to learn basic mountain climbing, travel, and hiking skills. Most of the Fourteeners are basic walk-up hikes that require scrambling across talus slopes formed from broken rock fragments, plodding up steep grass slopes, and sometimes easy snow climbing. Others are harder scrambling routes that have short bits of actual rock climbing, which sometimes require a rope for safety, as well as steep snow and ice slopes where the climber uses crampons and an ice axe. Away from the standard hiking routes, some of the more rugged Fourteeners like Longs Peak and Capitol Peak offer long technical rock climbing routes.
Colorado’s Mountains are Dangerous
Like all high mountain areas, Colorado’s Fourteeners, no matter how easy they might seem, are serious outings. Up there above timberline, the barren land where no trees grow, the weather can be very severe as well as unpredictable. In summer, heavy thunderstorms accompanied by dangerous lightning occur almost every afternoon like clockwork. Most savvy mountaineers plan their outings so they are safely off the summit and high ridges before the storms begin building. They also carry the life-saving 10 Essentials, including waterproof rain gear, extra clothes and food, map and compass or GPS unit, a headlamp, sun protection, matches, and an ice axe. Altitude sickness and dehydration are common ailments, especially among those climbers coming up from lower elevations. If you have altitude sickness (symptoms include headache, nausea, and dizziness) the best cure is to descend to a lower elevation. Drink lots of water to avoid dehydration in the high dry elevations.
What is a Fourteener?
Not every point above 14,000 feet is considered a separate peak. In order to be considered a Fourteener by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Colorado Mountain Club, a peak must rise at least 300 feet above a saddle which connects it to another nearby peak. Some peaks are above 14,000 feet but the low point between them and a higher point is less than 300 feet, hence they are not considered separate peaks but points.
Yes, it sounds confusing, and it gets worse. There are a couple peaks that are on the official Fourteener list and do not meet the official criteria. These are El Diente Peak and North Maroon Peak. There are also other peaks that are not on the list and do not meet the above criteria, but because they are named on USGS maps some climbers also consider them Fourteeners and add them to their climbing list. These three peaks are Mount Cameron (14,238 feet), Conundrum Peak (14,060 feet, and North Eolus Peak (14,039 feet).