Covering central, southern and south-western Colorado are a series of mountains that soar over 14,000 ft (4,267 m). Surrounded by National Forests and other wilderness areas, these peaks stand at the pinnacle of multiple ranges and, between them, offer a truly diverse collection of adventurous challenges.
Name: The Colorado 14ers (Fourteeners).
Location: Colorado, USA.
Number of mountains: 53
Qualifying height: 14,000 ft (4,267 m)
First defined: 1925 by Jerome L Hart.
Introduction to the Colorado 14ers.
With the fifty-three peaks of the Colorado 14ers club located among seven different ranges (though both of these statistics are debated), this collection of mountains is Colorado’s answer to Scotland’s 283 low-lying Munros and mountaineering’s ultimate challenge – the towering, Himalayan eight-thousanders.
Here we discover the history of the Colorado 14ers and note which peaks you simply must begin bagging!
As the form of measurement is inherent in their name, 14ers, for this article we will swap our usual measurement metric references for imperial ones (feet before metres, miles before kilometres). After all, the Colorado four-thousand-two-hundred-and-sixty-seveners just isn’t as catchy!
History of the Colorado 14ers.
The first guide to Colorado 14ers was compiled in 1925 by John L Jerome Hart. He named this book ‘Fourteen Thousand Feet’ and it was subsequently reprinted several times and regarded the most comprehensive and reliable guide to the mountains until 1967. This book defined the concept of the Colorado 14ers, and aided its popularity growth among both mountaineers and the general public.
A new guide by Ray Phillips was created in 1967, complementing Hart’s book with a clearer collection of specific routes up the 53 mountains. Now there are several online and offline guides and reference books designed to assist every type of Colorado 14er challenge.
But just how do you define a Colorado 14er?
As with so much in mountaineering, what appears simple turns out not to be. There are rules to this club, and several peaks miss out on 14er membership because of them.
The simplest version of the concept is that any peak over 14,000 ft should be classed as a 14er. Yet this allows subsidiary peaks to feature, leading to a diluted and lengthy list. As with other such measures (as in the eight-thousander club, for example), prominence is used to arbitrarily define what constitutes a discrete mountain from a subsidiary peak, saddle or ridge.
So, all 14ers must have at least 300 ft (91.5 m) of prominence above the saddle or valley below. The difference means that on the open list there are in excess of fifty-eight 14ers, yet in the more stringently-judged list there are only fifty three.
It is this list of fifty-three 14ers, beginning at Mount Elbert (14,440 ft/ 4,401 m) and ending at Sunshine Peak (14,007 ft/ 4,269 m) that is commonly, though not universally, accepted.
The majority of 14er peaks share a modern history of mining.
One of the centres of North America’s great gold rush of the 19th Century, many of Colorado’s peaks bare the marks of early prospecting, surveying and mining. This is also reflected in the golden, if only short-lived, histories of many of the towns found across the region.
Before this population influx, Native American populations used the many peaks as sites of spiritual as well as geographical significance.
Living among the peaks, passes and valleys, the Ute and Arapaho peoples tell stories of hunting on the mountains. They include the tale Old Man Griswold, who is said to have lain in wait patiently within the boulders on the summit of Longs Peak (14,259 ft/ 4,346 m) for an eagle to fall into his trap, with some success we might add.
Yet with no clear evidence left at the summits (such as our modern, western symbol – a flag of conquest), surely destroyed by modern footfall anyway, these stories are the only evidence we have for ascents that preceded the arrival of white Americans. That does not create cause to dismiss them by any means, as these summits will have surely played a pivotal role in the life of any peoples living among them.
Geography of the Colorado 14ers.
Colorado’s 14ers are more populous than any other US state’s. The second highest number are found in Alaska (28) followed by California (12). In total, 96 peaks are members of the wider US 14ers club. As as state, Colorado boasts approximately 550 mountain peaks that exceed 13,120 ft (4,000 m).
Some 300 million years ago, most of the area would have been part of the enormous Uncompahgre Highlands. Through the violent and epic plate movements that followed, culminating in the rising of the Rocky’s over the most recent 70 million year period, these multiple ranges were buried, distorted and formed.
The height of Colorado’s land is still, arguably, a highland. The state lies entirely at an elevation exceeding 3,280 ft (1,000 m), unique in the United States. Its low point is in Yuma County on the border with the state of Kansas, where it falls to a still impressive 3,317 ft (1,011 m).
In winter, many 14er peaks will be covered in snow. With the annual melt, this drains down mainly to the south and east, with the majority destined for the high plains of Colorado.
The various ranges are separated from each other by high valleys, passes and basins, which are often locally referred to as parks. The ranges are divided into two, almost parallel, north-south chains and two mountain clusters further west.
To the east is the Front Range and the lower portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. These two ranges are closest to the largest eastern population centres, including Denver and Colorado Springs.
Down the centre of the ranges run the more densely-packed Mosquito and Sawatch ranges, while the Elk Mountains lie west of these. The San Juan Mountains, arguably the most rugged range in the Colorado 14ers, lies out to the south-west, between the Rio Grande and Uncompahgre National Forests.
In terms of wildlife, the slopes of all the 14ers are similarly populated.
Forests of aspen and conifer line the lower slopes up to the tree line, which varies between 10,500 ft (3,200 m) and 12,000 ft (3,660 m) in elevation. Above this, only alpine vegetation is found, with some fascinating adaptations to survive the cold, difficult conditions.
One such marvel is the pink-flowering Anthocyanins, such as moss campion and alpine forget-me-nots. Their flower pigment converts light to heat to help keep its tissues warm through the colder alpine days.
The fauna are also typical of this region of the USA. From large moose to small marmot, the vertigo-proof mountain goat to the heavy-headed bighorn sheep, the region is rich with many common American wilderness animals present. The inhabitants change dramatically between the lower elevations, the tree line and up in the alpine zone, so keep an eye out for new climbing partners at each stage of your adventure.
And up above, the aerial highlight is often one of the the eagle species or other large birds of prey that can be seen circling high overhead.
The Colorado 14ers
• Mount Elbert (14,440 ft/ 4,401 m) is the highest peak in the Colorado 14ers and the Rocky Mountains of North America. It is found in the Sawatch Range of central Colorado, which contains five of the top ten and fifteen Colorado 14ers in total.
Mount Elbert is the second highest peak in the contiguous United States (which excludes Alaska, Hawaii and other territories not in the North American landmass). Yet it is only the 27th highest peak in the United States, with 25 of the 26 higher peaks found in the towering ice-state of Alaska. It is also considered only a class II ascent, and so is a peak well-worth bagging!
The lowest peak in the Colorado 14ers is Sunshine Peak (14,007 ft/ 4,269 m) in the San Juan Mountain of south-west Colorado.
While the smallest of the club, and separated from nearby Redcloud Peak (14,034 ft/ 4,278 m) by a prominence of only 481 ft (147 m), it also has some of the steepest relief in the whole of the Colorado 14ers. From the township of Sherman, its south face rises 4,450 ft (1,356 m) in the space of only 1.2 miles (1.9 km).
Alongside Mount Elbert, a couple of the better known peaks in the Colorado 14ers include:
• Pikes Peak – 14,115 ft (4,302 m).
Standing guard over the Great Plains as part of the Front Range, Pikes Peak was a symbol of the gold rush, immortalised by the slogan painted on wagons: ‘Pike’s Peak or Bust’. Today it plays host to numerous endurance and speed events, including the second oldest motorsport race in the USA, which finishes on its bitumen-covered summit.
• Mount Bierstadt – 14,060 ft (4,286 m).
An hour’s drive west of Denver, Mount Bierstadt is one of the easier 14er ascents (see below). Connected to nearby Mount Evans (14,264 ft/ 4,348 m) and the smaller Mount Spalding (13,842 ft/ 4,219 m) by ridges, this mountain is part of an irregularly-shaped massif found in the central Front Range. This mountain is often used to acclimatise to altitude in preparation for more challenging 14ers.
There are also a group of five peaks known as the Collegiate Peak 14ers. They are found in the Sawatch Range and are named after famous American (and one British) colleges (universities).
Each was named according to a tradition begun by Professor Josiah D Whitney in 1869, when he led survey teams up the two peaks he named Mount Yale (14,196 ft/ 4,327 m) and Mount Harvard (14,420 ft/ 4,395 m, the third highest 14er).
The last to be named was Mount Oxford (14,153 ft/ 4,313 m) in 1925, when Hart, who compiled the first 14er list, realised it was the only mountain on his list that was yet to be named. The other two are Mount Princeton (14,197 ft/ 4,327 m) and Mount Columbia (14,073 ft/ 4,289 m).
There is some debate about how to define the ranges that are included in the Colorado 14ers. Some lists name up to twelve discrete ranges, while other list as few as six.
For ease, here is the most condensed, but no less accurate, list available:
• Sawatch Range – 15 peaks (Incl. Missouri Mountain).
• San Juan Mountains – 12 peaks.
• Sangre de Cristo – 10 peaks.
• Elk Mountains – 5 peaks (Incl. Snowmass Mountain).
• Front Range – 6 peaks.
• Mosquito Range – 5 peaks.
Five mountains in Colorado are over 14,000 ft, but miss out on a place in the 14ers because they have a prominence that is too small. These overly social peaks are:
• Mount Cameron (14,238 ft/ 4,340 m).
• El Diente Peak (14,159 ft/ 4,316 m).
• Conundrum Peak (14,060 ft/ 4,285 m).
• North Eolus (14,039 ft/ 4,279 m).
• North Maroon Peak (14,014 ft/ 4,271 m).
How to climb the Colorado 14ers.
The range of climbing challenges in the Colorado 14ers is vast and varied. From taking the cog railway up and down to the Pikes Peak summit, to technical climbing challenges such as those found on Capitol Peak, you’re bound to find your ideal adventure among the fifty-three 14er peaks.
For novice hikers, first head out to one of the following, easier peaks:
• Grays Peak (14,270 ft/ 4,350 m) is a class I, 8-mile (13 km) round trip, found in the Front Range.
A gentle, well-marked trail with few surprises, you’ll hike up a total elevation of 3,000 ft (914 m) over the day-long hike. Nearby Torreys Peak (14,267 ft/ 4,349 m), found on the other side of the Grays-Torreys saddle, is a worthwhile extension to this hike. While rated as a class II, it is still perfectly suitable for beginners, a opinion reflected in its popularity during peak season (June-October).
• Mount Bierstadt (14,060ft/ 4,286 m) is considered one of the Colorado 14ers easiest climbs, and also located in the Front Range.
Its class I West Slopes route is a 6-mile (9.6 km) round-trip, gaining 2,390 ft (728 m) in elevation. This popular route begins at a carpark trailhead found on the Guanella Pass road, so is very accessible. As a result, it is also very popular.
For the more adventurous, the class III scramble across Sawtooth Ridge to Mount Evans (14,264 ft/ 4,348 m), is regarded as a 14er classic.
Other simple peaks to begin with are Mount Sherman (14,036 ft/ 4,278 m) and Mount Bross (14,172 ft/ 4,320 m) in the Mosquito Range, and San Luis Peak (14,014 ft/ 4,272 m) in the San Juan Range.
Some good quality guidance for climbing these peaks, including preparation advice for any such adventure, can be found here.
For more experienced hikers or those looking for more challenging adventures, there are numerous scrambles and climbs to be found. Here are a selection of the best:
• Pyramid Peak (14,018 ft/ 4,273 m) is a class III/IV climb up rock faces that are more reliable than some of its more idyllic, but crumbly, neighbours in the Elk Mountains.
With consistent handholds and footholds found on its ridged but solid slopes, you can follow the standard route, or any other, with some ease. This allows you to focus on enjoying the climb, rather than concerning yourself too much with navigating!
However, be careful not to compare yourself to the resident mountain goats; they put even the best of us to shame with their easy, speedy, vertical ascents!
• Longs Peak (14,259 ft/ 4,346 m) in the Front Range is the most popular class III scramble in the 14ers club.
A long 14-mile (22.5 km) route, most complete this climb in a day. Only half will reach the summit, however.
After a 5.5 mile (9 km) approach, you pass through the Keyhole and enter terrain demanding steep scrambles, ledges and a crawled approach to the summit. Many reach their limit of climbing abilities or courage long before the summit. An entertaining and challenging adventure, whose crowds thin out the further up the mountain you climb.
• Capitol Peak (14,130 ft/ 4,307 m) is a class IV climb located in the Elk Mountains. It is deservedly rated so, with thrills and challenges that are almost without comparison in the Colorado 14ers.
An 18-mile (29 km) ascent that may call for an overnight bivouac but can be completed in a day, this challenge begins with a long approach by Capitol creek to Capitol lake. The steep climb from here quickly earns its class IV rating, with heart-in-the-mouth highlights such as the steep pass and famous knife-edge traverse just below the summit.
And then comes the descent – a whole other exciting challenge to navigate.
• Crestone Needle (14,197 ft/ 4,327 m) is a class III scramble up a potentially confusing route in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Though its route is well-trodden, the multiple gullies can disorientate the even the best navigators. However, with due attention, this peak offers one of the best scrambling climbs among the Colorado 14ers.
For a comprehensive breakdown of mountains by difficulty, refer to this excellent survey by experienced Colorado 14er summiteers.
In between the extremes of difficulty are numerous peaks offering challenges, terrains and distances to suit any type of adventurer. With many trailheads, and even summits, accessible by car, and most within a couple of hours of the populous towns and cities to the east, the Colorado 14ers are very much available to serve up your ideal hiking and climbing challenges.
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