The altitude addiction: Climbing Colorado’s fourteeners

Nothing compares to the overwhelmingly humbling feeling of standing at the very top of a mountain.

Nor does anything compare to the journey that brought you there, knowing that your own two feet – along with plenty of sweat, determination, and sometimes even blood and tears – carried you 14,000 feet into the sky.

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View from the top of Mt. Elbert. Photo by Emily Smith.
View from the top of Mt. Elbert. Photo by Emily Smith.

A fourteener is any mountain that reaches or exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level. Colorado is home to 53, including Mt. Elbert, the second-highest mountain in the continental U.S.

When I asked friends who had climbed fourteeners before to describe the experience in five words or less, answers ranged from “Every Colorado native’s must do,” and “Most breathtaking experience of life,” to “Altitude sickness is for chumps.”

When a friend invited me to climb Mt. Bierstadt with her in the summer of 2010, the year after I graduated from high school, I jumped at the chance to try something new. I had always been an avid hiker and camper, but never heard of fourteeners until that summer.

Long story short, we climbed Mt. Bierstadt, got caught in a thunderstorm at the summit that involved hail, snow (in June) and electricity from lightning so severe that our hair was actually standing up and rocks were shocking our hands as we touched them. We ended up sprinting down the trail and out of the storm, legitimately fearing for our lives and respecting nature in a whole new way.

I was hooked.

Last Saturday, I set out to summit my tenth fourteener, with the same friend who introduced me.

We leave the Denver area well before sunrise and make it to the trailhead of Mt. Sherman by 7:15 a.m. Within two minutes of beginning our hike in great spirits, we are both breathing hard with pounding hearts. Although I am now quite familiar with the incredibly thin air and steep trails associated with every fourteener, somehow I am always taken aback by how difficult these hikes truly are.

I am constantly humbled by the sheer magnitude of the mountain before me.

We continue hiking, past an abandoned mine and a stunningly-turquoise alpine lake. Although there are quite a few people in front of and behind us on the trail, the crowds are not nearly as large as those on many of the front range peaks closer to Denver, luckily.

Across a snowfield and up onto the ridge, we continue. As with every fourteener I have climbed, weather is a huge, unpredictable factor in making it to the summit, and we are surprised – but not shocked – by powerful wind gusts as we make our way up the steep, rocky ridge.

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At one point, after losing our balance a few times, thanks to 50 and 60 MPH wind gusts, we even consider turning back. Both yearning for that sense of accomplishment only found at the summit, however, we push on, stopping for shelter behind larger rocks, and sometimes crawling on all fours to avoid being blown off the heart-stoppingly narrow ridge.

We both comment on how we now understand how hikers get blown off these mountains and fall to their deaths. Again, the only word to describe the experience is humbling.

Summit of Mt. Sherman. Photo courtesy of Paige Bryant.
Summit of Mt. Sherman, 14,036 feet. Photo courtesy of Paige Bryant.

In just under two hours after leaving our car, we reach the summit, celebrating by snapping photos, mingling with fellow peakbaggers and scarfing down lunch at 9 a.m. This is the fastest I have ever summitted a peak, and though it was a shorter hike than most, it is an accomplished feeling.

Gazing out across the mountaintops, at eye level and below, rather than looking up at them, I am reminded why I left my warm bed at 4 a.m. to suck wind as my calves burn and my head aches. When looking out upon these beautiful mountains, I am reminded how small and insignificant my “problems” are.

There is nothing in the world, for me at least, that offers the same opportunity to challenge myself, scare myself and reflect upon what truly matters to me in this world.

It is this view, this feeling, this connection to nature. Nothing beats it. I am addicted.

Managing Editor Emily Smith can be reached at news@collegian.com.