Despite the late start to 14er season this year, due to the massive amounts of snow over the winter, my friends and I managed to get in just as many peaks as in other years. Dedication to the cause! Not that I ever plan to hike them all—Class 4s with full climbing gear are definitely not for me—but it simply wouldn’t be a summer in Colorado if I wasn’t on the tippy top of the state at least a few times. Here are the five I ticked off my list in 2019.
July 21, Mt Yale (14,196 feet)
This is an absolutely gorgeous trail! The forest you start in is beautiful and above treeline, the views of the surrounding mountain ranges are epic. This is one of my favorites, for sure. It’s not too long or too difficult, although there is a bit of scrambling at the top that isn’t dog friendly.
Sadly, I already knew Trotsky wouldn’t make this one. It’s the same distance as La Plata, which we did last summer, and he was having a rough time by the end of that one a whole year ago. So I left him behind, which was difficult to accept. But the company on the hike was great and kept my spirits up, not allowing my thoughts to linger on the sorrow of having an elderly pup.
The best part about this hike was the weather. I lingered on the summit for a whole hour, waiting for the last of our group to make it up. Yes, I started in a tank top and then added layer after layer as I sat until I had on full winter gear. But for those who have done 14ers, you know that even with all those layers, staying up top for more than 10-15 minutes isn’t realistic. But we had full sun and almost no wind, so I took full advantage of my vantage point.
Individually, these are two beautiful Class 2 mountains. Together, this was the most hellacious thing I’ve ever put my body though. 17.25 miles, 14 hours and 55 minutes, over 6,000 feet of elevation gain, and a good mile and a half across a boulder field we thought we would die on. The 14ers.com website warns you quite clearly: DON’T DO THIS. But, you know, warnings are for other people. So we did it.
We started the hike in the dark, at 4:30 AM from the trailhead (not the campground 3.6 miles in), and exactly four hours later, we summitted Columbia. A new trail up Columbia is nearing completion, but we were on the old trail, which is in bad shape. It involves a 700 ft ascent up a steep, loose rock gully. We were ahead of all the other hikers and kept having to call down to them to watch their heads because we were sliding around and kicking loose so much rock. All of us had at least one moment where we thought we were going to fall. When the new trail is complete, no one should take this old West Slope route anymore. But the nice thing about Columbia is that the last .75 miles are easy! It’s rolling, pleasant terrain and you feel great when you get to the top.
And then the nightmare began. The distance between the two peaks is under three miles, but even though we left the Columbia summit around 9 AM, we didn’t summit Harvard until 2:30. The problem was the massive boulder field—with no defined trail—between the mountains. We descended down steep terrain and then began slowly, slowly picking our way across boulders. We had to think carefully about every step and tried not to think at all about the millions of tons of boulders above our heads that could come crashing down at any minute. We encountered only 10 other people on our way and everyone wanted to know where to go and what to do, but no one had a clue. The strategy was to go in the general right direction and try to find the safest looking path.
We crossed snow fields a few times, and unfortunately, on one of them, I made a misstep. A lot of the snow was still hard packed, but around the boulders, it had melted into slush. At one point, I stepped too close to a boulder and plunged in up to my knee. The sharp rock gave me a bloody four inch gash and messed up my ankle for the next two weeks, but at least I didn’t break anything. I shudder to think how close I was to an expensive airlift out there.
When we finally exited the boulder field, almost three hours after leaving the summit of Columbia, we still had a 1,400 ft vertical climb to go. At this point, we had spent the last six hours exerting ourselves above 13,000 ft, where the effective oxygen level is only 12.7%, compared to 21% at sea level. Unsurprisingly, altitude sickness started to set in. After we passed 14,000 feet, and still had a long way to go to the Harvard summit, I was in bad, bad shape. I couldn’t look up or down because both gave me vertigo. I kept my eyes a few feet in front of me and relied on my friends to lead the way. Waves of nausea rolled over my body again and again. I kept needing to lean my full body against boulders for support. I tried to vomit a few times but couldn’t. And I was actually concerned for my mental state, because if you aren’t with it mentally, a simple mistake can be deadly. I started reciting simple facts to myself: who’s the president, what are my friends’ names, what do they do for a living, what are the names of my family members, etc. I wanted to make sure I was all there.
I was definitely the weakest link on this hike, but my friends had a touch of the altitude sickness as well. By 14,200 feet, none of us even wanted to summit Harvard anymore. We were over it. But the only way down was on the other side of the summit, so we pushed onward. We finally made it and rested for about 15 minutes and then began our descent. And what do you know – as soon as we got below 13,000 ft, I felt great. I mean, obviously I was beyond exhausted, but the nausea and dizziness instantly disappeared. Oxygen, baby! Does a body good.
At 12,500 feet, we reached a beautiful meadow and stopped for beer. We have a tradition of drinking a beer on the summit of 14ers, but that did not happen on either one this time. We knew we needed our full wits about us. So finally, we stretched out in the sun for a good 45 minutes before we finished the six miles through beautiful terrain—which we were too demolished to fully appreciate—back to the car.
My 14er friends are the best. In the event of the zombie apocalypse, I need them on my team. These women are powerful and determined. We all had moments of real fear on that boulder field and serious doubts about our ability to complete the hike. We all had some altitude sickness. We were all nervous at varying moments. But no one cracked. No one froze, panicked, had a meltdown, or dragged the group down in any way. We set our minds to doing this thing and we did it. And now we belong to an elite group of intrepid (and slightly crazy) hikers, and we have some serious bragging rights.
September 1, Huron Peak (14,003 feet)
This was a nice little easy one…and Trotsky Bear came along! We took my beast wreck of an SUV to the upper 4WD parking lot to shave the hike down from 10.5 miles to only 6.5 miles, and the summit was just a whisper above 14,000 feet. Given those conditions, I had a hunch Trotsky could do it, and he had a blast! This one was also fun because we had a newbie with us (who pounded her summit beer like a champ!) and a reborn newbie (is that a thing?), meaning that he had only done one before and that was many years ago.
As with Yale, the forested area was beautiful. Also, the meadow just past treeline before the final, steep push to the summit was quite lovely as well. A great place for a little picnic. There was no scrambling, though the last bit was slippery and steep. It was worse coming down than going up. The wind was sharp on the summit and some dark clouds were rolling in, so we began our descent pretty quickly, but again, we stopped to enjoy that lovely meadow on the way down.
If you’ve never done a 14er or are only starting off, this is a great one for beginners. Short, non-technical, and beautiful. Two thumbs up!
September 15, Handies Peak (14,048 feet)
Continuing my slide from the brutal Harvard/Columbia combo into easier and easier 14ers, I finished off the summer with a nice Class 1. It was the last of the season and also the last for Trotsky Bear. I don’t see him being able to do any next year, so we took on Handies alone, just me and my little guy. And we had the summit to ourselves too, which was great!
Handies is a beautiful, non-technical 14er but is extremely difficult to get to as the trailhead is on the Alpine Loop, a 4WD-required bouncefest with dozens of places to potentially flip and roll hundreds of feet down the mountain, crumpling your car and yourself. Don’t let that deter you – if you have a some off-roading experience, rent a jeep and go (slowly and carefully)! It’s beautiful. We drove the north part of the loop (Engineer Pass) in the morning, stopped at Animas Forks, and then drove half the south part of the loop to American Basin, where the trailhead is. Given the difficulty of accessing the mountain, there weren’t many other hikers, but there were plenty of wildflowers, scenic views, and marmots.
And now, the snow is flying at 14,000 feet and the short 14er season is over for us. But that means plenty of easier, more pleasant hikes through autumn leaves and winter snow that Trotsky can accompany me on. He’s raring to go, and I’m not stopping until he does.