Risk vs. Reward: 14'ers a feat worth venturing

Published on Saturday, 26 October 2013 21:00 - Written by By Brian Pearson bpearson@tylerpaper.com

While some present more challenges than others, no 14’er offers easy hiking.

But for those willing to risk the possibility of burning quads, blisters, black toenails, scrapes, bruises, broken bones, altitude sickness and death by lightning, a 14,000-foot mountain offers breathtaking rewards.

Colorado boasts 54 peaks that ascend to more than 14,000 feet, and many of them can be done in a matter of hours or on a long day hike.

The so-called easiest, Mount Elbert, also happens to be the highest at 14,433 feet. The toughest part of the hike is below the tree line, where the trail can be like hiking up stairs two at a time.

I’ve done seven 14’ers: Elbert, Lincoln, Bross, Democrat, Cameron, Sneffles, Sherman and Princeton. None was like a walk down Rose Rudman Trail in Tyler.

The website www.14ers.com puts the mountains in four categories: easiest, moderate, difficult and most difficult.

Elbert, Lincoln, Bross, Democrat, Cameron and Sherman fall into the “easiest” category, while Sneffles and Princeton are considered moderate.

For me, Princeton stood out as the toughest of the bunch. My wife, Beth, and I hiked it during our honeymoon in July, and a nail on one of my big toes remains black to this day, and I bear scars from an unfortunate run-in with a rock.

Running shoes were fine for the other 14’ers on the list, but good hiking shoes would have made going up and down the 14,197-foot Princeton much easier.

Based on all the research we conducted — and it’s critical to research your mountain and understand what hiking a 14’er entails — we thought we’d be done with Princeton in about five hours.

It took us four to get up it and then a grueling five to come down.

We parked as high up the jeep road as far as we could go in a Honda CRV and had to walk for miles just to get to the trail head. A jeep with decent clearance can take hikers way up to a different, shorter route.

We adjusted to the altitude quickly and found ourselves getting stronger during the ascent. Taking Ibuprofen in the days leading up to the hike sped up the adjustment, and it can help prevent altitude sickness.

Princeton was steeper and rockier than we anticipated, particularly above the vegetation line where about the only things that live are lichen and funny little creatures called marmots, which look like husky gophers and make funny chirps. Marmots won’t hesitate to plunder an open, unattended back pack in search of food.

Speaking of that, essential things to bring when hiking a 14’er include plenty of water, high-carb food, a jacket and a rain poncho. Hiking a 14’er burns a ridiculous amount of calories. One of my favorite 14’er food is Twizzlers, considered a candy but high in complex carbs and closer to pasta than Snickers. (Just check out the labels.)

Mountains create their own weather systems, so storms can pop up out of nowhere and become dangerous. It is wise to get an early start and be off the mountain by 3 p.m.

People die on 14’ers every year, due to lightning strikes, falls, hypothermia, avalanches and altitude sickness. We ran across a plaque high up on Princeton noting the spot where a lightning strike killed a hiker.

Princeton, near the town of Buena Vista, wasn’t so much dangerous as it was rocky. Getting up the thing required using hands in some places to traverse the rocks. Despite plentiful cairns — rock piles used as trail markers — much of the pathway looked no different from its surroundings.

And descending proved to be far more difficult than going up. It was as if all the rocks had families of rocks behind us by the time we reached the summit.

It was a great, challenging hike, but not a starter 14’er. From what I’ve read, Bierstadt, Grays and Torreys rank among the easiest.

Years ago, I managed to do four in one day. Not far from Princeton is the cluster of Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross. It’s an easy drive up to the base and not that far of a hike. The four peaks are different. Some do not consider Cameron, sandwiched between Democrat and Lincoln, a true 14’er because there isn’t deep enough saddles between them.

Democrat looks like your typical mountain, while Lincoln looks like something out of Mars. And Bross is weird in that it looks like a big mound, and it was tough to figure out the exact spot of its peak.

Sherman was my beginner, and it was relatively easy. Sherman offers an extra treat in the form of a long-abandoned silver mine at 12,200 feet.

Sneffles offers a scenic alpine meadow near the parking, with crystal-clear ponds. It is closer to difficulty to Princeton, due to its rockiness and steepness. However, the hike isn’t nearly as long.

Most 14’ers have multiple routes, which vary in length and difficulty. One route on the diabolically challenging Crestone Needle, is considered Class 5 and can only be tackled by expert mountain climbers. (Route classification ranges from 1 to 5.) Crestone Needle ranks right up there with The Matterhorn in the Alps.

California and Washington are the only other states outside Colorado that have 14’ers in the contiguous United States.

California has more than a dozen 14’ers, including the hiker-friendly 14,505-foot Mount Whit­ney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.

Washington only has one, but it’s a doozey — the spectacular 14,417-foot Mount Rainier, a massive volcano.

In Colorado, the window for hiking 14’ers runs from about late June until early September, de­pending on snow melt and snow fall. It is not uncommon to have to cross a snow field to get to the peak, even in mid-summer.

That’s all just part of the wonderful world of variables that come with hiking 14’ers.

But one thing is for certain: Once you do one, chances are that you’ll want to do another.

I know we will.

Brian Pearson is managing editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph.