Climbing My First 14er

Colorado is home to 58 mountain peaks over 14,000 feet. Commonly referred to as a 14er, climbing one of these peaks is a summer rite of passage for both Coloradans and outdoor enthusiasts who come to visit the state.

By Courtney Johnson
Explore Ambassador

Colorado is home to 58 mountain peaks over 14,000 feet. Commonly referred to as a 14er, climbing one of these peaks is a summer rite of passage for both Coloradans and outdoor enthusiasts who come to visit the state.

Climbing a 14er has been on my mind for years and years as an adventure list item. Summers would come and go, and I never quite pulled the trigger on climbing one. I had other trips, specific hikes to complete for a book and so on. I contacted a friend in February about getting our kids together to climb one this summer. She had done one this past summer with her then-7-year-old. We made rough plans to maybe hike one in June, but the month passed without us connecting on it.

I got a text on a Monday from that same friend saying that she and her 6-year-old daughter were going to try and “bag” Mount Bierstadt that coming Wednesday, along with her 8-year-old son. Less than 48 hours to get in the mindset for climbing a 14er? I was looking for something special to do with my daughter for her upcoming eighth birthday, and this was the only thing she had left to complete on the Generation Wild 100 Things to do Before You’re 12 List. So, I headed to the grocery store to purchase a plethora of sugary snacks to help motivate my daughter up the mountain. OK, to be honest, I was sure that I would need some, too!

There are 58 mountains in Colorado in the 14,000-foot range. They vary in difficulty from easiest to hardest (Class 1 to 5) based on distance, elevation gain and technicality of the trail. Mount Bierstadt is a Class 2 14er with 2,850 feet of elevation gain over approximately 7.5 miles. The trail requires no route finding and is a steady climb to the summit. In the last quarter before the summit, the trail becomes rocky and heads up through a boulder field before you reach the top.

Colorado weather requires you to get out early if you want to summit a 14,000-foot peak because of the potential for afternoon thunderstorms. Above the treeline, there is no protection from lightning, rain, snow or hail if you get caught in it. Often hikers will spend the night camping close to the peak to get an early start. We decided to get up early and drive up in the morning. It called for a 3:45 a.m. wake-up call to reach the I-70 Dino Lot to meet our friends and caravan to the trailhead.

Another reason to get out early is the popularity of climbing a 14er. Parking spaces can be at a premium, especially on the weekends. The earlier you head out, the less likely you will encounter lines of people heading up or down the trail.

With our bags loaded in the back and my daughter eating a bowl of oatmeal, we headed toward our meet-up point well before the sun began to rise. The first song we heard on the XM ’80s station was “King of Pain” by The Police, followed by “Never Surrender” by Corey Hart. Those were two pretty fitting songs.

We made it to the trailhead slightly after 6 a.m. A bit nervous, I took a few pictures of the rising sun while our friends loaded their packs. I spied the summit and pointed it out to my daughter Emma. No problem … “It’s just a long walk. We are going for a long walk,” my friend kept telling her kiddos. One last bathroom break and we were on the trail.

Mount Bierstadt is found in the Mount Evans wilderness area of the Colorado Front Range. It tops out at 14,060 feet. It is named after the American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, who made the first recorded summit of the mountain in 1863. The trail begins at 11,600 feet with a descent toward Scott Gomer Creek. Wooden boardwalks take you across the marshy area — a more recently added improvement. One short water crossing, and the trail begins to climb.

Nothing too steep, the trail meanders and switches back and forth as you head toward the summit. Green vegetation lines the trail, offering a bit of color and beauty before the trail heads up above the treeline. We were all feeling pretty good as we climbed up — just chatting away about the upcoming school year and other things. We stopped to take off a layer, sprayed ourselves with bug spray (the mosquitoes were swarming) and had a snack. Carrying hydration packs, we were able to drink water on a consistent basis — a necessity to help your body as you climb higher in altitude.

At one point on the trail, while the littles had to go off trail to pee, the scenery reminded me of something out of The Sound of Music. The rolling green hills covered in wildflowers and my daughter bounding back to us on the trail got me thinking of the movie out loud. Not a minute later, we could hear “The hills are alive … ” — one of our fellow summiteers had phone service at 12,000-plus feet, and I don’t even get great service at my house!

That little bit of distraction helped to bring a smile to my face. When the trail got steeper, after the overlook at 12,600 feet, I really began to struggle. There are only so many cute marmots and pikas you can see. The view surrounding us was beautiful, but looking ahead, all I saw was more steep terrain.

While I began to slow down, my friend and the three kiddos just kept climbing, really not showing much in the way of being tired. Digging into the gummy bears at this point may have helped my daughter, but it did little to help me as the “false summit” came into view. I had thoughts of turning around, but I knew I was getting close. Summiting was an experience I wanted to have with my daughter, and I know the accomplishment of finishing such a hard hike would be a good reminder that I can do hard things.

As I continued to slog my way up to the top, I was pleasantly surprised by how nice and encouraging everyone was. Whether they were passing me on the way up or on the way down, every hiker had some words of encouragement. “Keep going! You’re doing great! There’s a mountain goat at the top of the snow field you just have to see. The view at the top is worth it. You got this.” These are just a few of the supportive phrases I heard as I continued to try to catch up with my daughter and our friends.

As we continued to make our way to the final pitch, the sky began to grow a bit darker, putting a little spring in my step. Without any place to take cover and on a boulder field that would become very slick when wet, I began to get a bit of a second wind.

My daughter waited a few minutes for me at the beginning of the boulder field while our friends continued to the top. There is no designated path up the last 250 feet of elevation gain to the summit. We chose to try to follow other hikers in front of us for the best path. Even so close to the summit, fellow 14er climbers gave each other encouragement and beta on the best and safest routes to the top.

Spending so much time looking down as we moved from rock to rock, I was quite surprised by how quickly we got to the top. My friend let out a “Yahoo!” as we joined our crew at the top. We enjoyed lunch while taking in the view and finished with my special occasion treat: chocolate-covered cinnamon bears.

Unfortunately, someone stole the USGS survey marker last year, so there was no marker to get a photo with. But, I proudly pulled out the cardboard sign my daughter and I made together the day before to get our photo with it. Getting a photo holding a cardboard sign naming the peak and elevation has become a popular tradition at the summit. But, I made sure to put the sign back in my pack to take home with us — litter, including cardboard signs, has become a big problem on the 14ers.

Before we began the climb back down, my friend’s son lost a tooth. With service at the top, I texted my husband and a couple of friends to tell them that we made it to the top. The sky remained cloudy, but we managed to avoid the rain for now.

As we headed down the boulder field, a mountain goat was lying on one of the few patches of snow that remained on the peak this late in July. The goat didn’t seem to mind all the people around snapping photos as it looked out into the Mount Evans wilderness area.

Marmots and pikas continued to make themselves known along the path, darting amongst the rocks and squeaking. I felt fairly strong on the way back down, despite having a headache from the altitude. Much of the talk on the descent was about which 14er we should climb next and the kids trying to keep count out loud of how many marmots they had seen.

As we got closer to the overlook, it began to sprinkle lightly. Although we never felt hot at any point on the journey, the cool drops felt good. The sprinkles were short-lived and ended after only a few minutes. Few people were coming up the trail at this point, but we did cross paths with a few hikers eager to reach the summit.

Looking fairly far down the trail below, I saw a man descending with what looked like a white fluffy animal (think malamute). Dogs are allowed on the trail, and we had seen several throughout our hike. But, this animal bounded and moved with such grace, even along the steep terrain on the sides of the trail, that I knew it was no dog. While the man continued down the trail, the animal stopped amongst some vegetation.

Keeping my eyes on the animal, I picked up my speed just a bit. “I think that is a mountain goat,” I said to the group. “I’m going to pick up the pace to see if I can get a good photo of him!” My daughter has a collection on her wall of animal photos that I have taken over the years. This would be a great opportunity to add another photo to her wall.

Moving at a good speed, I noticed three more mountain goats a bit farther down the trail. At this point, the goat I had been watching earlier had moved on to catch up with the others. Busy eating lunch, the goats didn’t seem to be spooked as I made my way down the trail closer to them. Despite swarming mosquitoes, I took my time shooting photos of these majestic creatures. My team of hikers caught up to me as the goats began to move on away from the trail.

We continued our hike back to the trailhead, munching on snacks and chatting away. Our plan was to hit an ice cream shop on the way home, so a discussion about the best flavors of ice cream helped make the time pass. In the back of my mind, I continued to be thankful that the rain held off despite the sky being full of storm clouds. As we made our way to the water crossing, I guess I mentally spoke too soon, as the rain began to fall.

Despite our dead legs, we picked up the pace a bit. Just shy of the crossing, the rain turned to hail, making the urgency to get back to the car even more dire. Thunder rattled in the distance, making me shiver more than the pain and dampness I felt because of the hail. My daughter looked at me with worried eyes on the verge of tears.

Cold, wet and tired, I could tell she was close to breaking down. A big roll of thunder, and she stopped in her tracks, scared to move forward. “We need to just keep going,” I said. “See that post. Let’s make it to that post,” I said as the hail kept pelting us. It was my turn to be the encouraging one, remembering how my daughter was my biggest cheerleader as we made our way to the summit.

With nowhere to take cover, I could see the parking lot getting closer and closer. Since we were already wet from head to toe, we decided to just walk through the stream, as making our way from rock to rock wasn’t a priority at the moment. Across the boardwalk, I continued to encourage my daughter by squeezing her hand and telling her how proud I was of her for climbing her first 14er.

The hail never let up as we finally reached our cars. Soaked to the bone, I told my daughter to get into the car as I turned on the heat and went into the back to grab her warm, dry clothes. Ten minutes later, all the kiddos and mamas were out of their wet gear and into comfy clothes for a stop at an ice cream shop and the drive home.

Moving a bit slowly, and still with wet hair, we waited in line for ice cream. My daughter was quick to tell people about our accomplishment, with me beaming with pride behind her. I personally wanted to shout it out to the whole store, so I am glad my social butterfly decided to tell people instead. After enjoying our treat, we said our goodbyes to our friends, making plans to try to hike another 14,000-foot peak in the fall.

Once at home, my daughter took a bath to warm up. After I hung our wet, muddy clothes out to dry, I ordered two photos from our day. One was a canvas of a mountain goat to hang in my daughter’s room, and the other was a print of Emma and I at the summit to put on my desk in my office. I can see that photo now as I write about this amazing experience I had with my daughter and our friends. I look forward to the next 14er we climb. I might even plan ahead and put it on my calendar!

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