If there was a dictionary for Colorado lingo, Fourteener would be one of the first entries. Phrases like, “bagged two fourteeners last weekend,” are commonplace in social gatherings, and would leave most out of staters utterly confused. Simply enough, the term refers to a mountain that is taller than 14,000 feet. Colorado boasts 53 of these beauties, and until this past summer I’d climbed zero of them. I’ve lived in Colorado since 2010, but have always felt daunted by the prospect of hiking such a tall mountain. I imagined that climbing a 14er involved navigating treacherous, technical routes rife with rockslides and unexplainable mid-summer avalanches. Reality was much less terrifying. While some of the peaks do require technical climbing skills, the 14ers I’ve hiked required nothing more than vigorous walking and some scrambling. To inundate me to the world of fourteeners, my boyfriend carefully selected hikes that wouldn’t scare me off. Sure enough, the bait caught and I can’t wait to knock a few more off the list this summer! Over the course of a few months, we hiked a total of six, (Handies, Sunshine, Redcloud, Massive, Shavano, and Mt. of the Holy Cross) and summited all but one. Here’s a trip report of the first three fourteeners we climbed, which are perfect for beginners while still fun for more experienced hikers!
Handies Peak- 14,048 ft
Last July 4th weekend we took advantage of the extra day off work to drive to the San Juans. These mountains are visually stunning, with a ruggedness reminiscent of the Alps. You can set up your tent at the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead (which has bathrooms, woohoo!) and jump right on the trail. At 5.5 miles roundtrip and a Class 1 difficulty rating, Handies was a perfect first fourteener. The trail starts in a beautiful pine forest and slowly opens into meadows of wildflowers, then lastly you reach a high alpine landscape. The last stretch to the peak is very exposed with no shelter, so make sure to be off the mountain well before the afternoon storms roll in. We made good time and though the skies were gray, it did not start to rain till we were well below tree line. I had no idea what to expect upon summiting a fourteener, but a great feeling of accomplishment washed over me as I stood on top Handies. Hiking down, with raindrops softly pinging on my hood, I couldn’t wait to climb another. Luckily we had two peaks planned for the next day, Redcloud and Sunshine.
Recloud and Sunshine Peaks – (14,034ft and 14,001ft)
Encouraged by our success on Handies, the following morning we woke before dawn to tackle two more. Redcloud and Sunshine can both be accessed from the same campground as Handies, Grizzly Gulch trailhead. An early start is crucial to bag both peaks since the trail is about 12 miles roundtrip. We should have started even earlier than we did, a mistake we’d realize hours later. The beautiful trail stays below tree line for a while with a river raging along next to it. Even in July we had to traverse a hard packed snow field, the terrain of which looked like another planet. Otherworldly is a fitting description for this hike, because the terrain at Redcloud looks like Mars.
This is a long hike, and we had to stop to refuel a few times before summiting Redcloud. At the top, we gazed across the saddle at Sunshine which looked close enough to touch. Conditions were great, sunny with blue skies and rain clouds way off in the distance. Or so we thought. The connecting trail on the ridge is just about a mile long, but deceivingly tiring. From Redcloud you descend a few hundred feet to the flat saddle, with many switchbacks along the way. We expected the saddle to take about 30 minutes to traverse, a time frame we should have doubled. As we started regaining elevation on the trail up to Sunshine, small hail stoned began pinging off the rocks around us. My boyfriend likened the sound to a xylophone being played. Light gray clouds had rolled in, depositing the hail, but we were intent on summiting. We scrambled up some rocks to the summit and I snapped a quick photo of John before we turned right back around. Not lingering at the top may have saved our lives. As I picked my way back down to the ridge, I noticed a tingling on top of my head. It felt like Pop Rocks candy were popping under my hat, which I quickly tore off. Every inch of my long hair was standing on end. I suddenly remembered that this is one of the only signs of an imminent lighting strike. I yelled down to my boyfriend who told me to stay calm and get down fast. Terrified, I ran down the rocks with my hair still straight up, expecting to be zapped any second. We needed to get off the mountain, quickly. Nearly an hour of traversing and re-summiting Redcloud stood between us and the safety of lower elevation. I’m normally a very slow hiker, but the for the first time my boyfriend had to keep up with my panic-stricken pace. While the static in the air remained, no lightning cracked near us. I was unable to relax till we got to tree line, and by then it was raining hard. For the rest of the afternoon, as we cooked dinner in the trunk of John’s SUV, lightning struck the peaks around us. In retrospect, we should have turned around after summiting Redcloud. Sunshine Peak had looked so close, however, that we just couldn’t resist it. The best way to summit both without turning yourself into a human lightning rod would be to start very early in the morning, around 4am. Overall the hike was a great adventure and taught me the most important lesson of all, to respect the weather.