Anyone searching for an outdoor adventure need look no further than Colorado’s front range.
The state is home to 54 mountain peaks that reach above 14,000 feet in elevation. For people who need an extra bit of motivation while attempting to reach their fitness goals, the idea of reaching the top or overcoming a challenge and experiencing the beauty of nature, hiking a 14er may just be the perfect activity.
All of Colorado’s 14ers offer hiking trails to their summits. The activity has become so popular that a multitude of books, trail guides and review publications exist simply to assist hikers during their endeavors.
Hikers who have reached the summit of all 54 14ers are known as Peak Baggers, and they belong to a select club. Many often lead groups of hikers, act as guides, publish books and maps and generally provide invaluable tips and information.
Rob Ladewig, a contractor in the Missile Defense Agency Threat Modeling Center here, reached his 54th summit more than 10 years ago and leads a group of fellow office mates on an extended hiking\camping trip every summer.
“For most people, the challenge is their main motivation for the first one,” he said. “From there, some of us think, ‘well that wasn’t too bad, why not hike all the close ones.’ Then pretty soon you’re looking for those hikes where you can bag two in the same day.”
It took Ladewig more than 10 years to hike all 54. Some peaks even took multiple attempts because weather, lightning or time interfered with the goal.
Besides being an avid triathlon competitor, Ladewig still likes to hike the peaks, and he’s not shy about sharing his hiking knowledge either.
“The main thing for people who want to experience the thrill of climbing a 14er is to always keep safety in mind,” he said. “You need to be prepared for winter weather, even during summer time. Anyone who has run in the Pikes Peak Marathon knows that when its 55 degrees at the foot of the mountain in Manitou Springs, it can be 26 degrees at the summit. I typically hike in shorts, but most will want a hat, gloves, winter coat and water-proof shell.”
Hikers should start out by obtaining a trail guide. Most 14er guides provide maps and details about the trails, including how to find trail heads, difficulty levels of each hike, time estimates and different paths up any given peak. Hikers can find websites that present computer models of trails, offer multiple routes and allow users to print pictures and present step-by-step instructions.
Ladewig likes the printed guides, however, because they can be carried along the trip.
“Difficulty levels start at class two and go up to class five, with two being relatively easy,” Ladewig said. “For some of the class fives, it’s recommended that hikers use helmets and ropes.”
But Ladewig also cautions hikers – if you’re not careful, it’s easy to get into trouble, even on the easiest trails.
“People die on these trails,” he said. “I read a news story recently where two hikers were caught on Long’s Peak during a lightning storm above timber line. So people have got to be prepared. You can’t assume it’s going to be a summer day at the summit like it is at the base of the peak.”
Ladewig said hikers fall victim to lightening, slick rock, falling rock, hiking above their skill level and being unprepared for the mountain environment.
He also recommends that hikers never hike alone.
Ladewig and his brother were hiking in the Chicago Basin near Durango, Colo. a few years ago when his brother slipped on a patch of ice while descending a peak.
“I watched him tumble head over heels, five or six feet in the air with each tumble for more than 400 vertical feet,” he said. “He got up at the end of the ordeal, but he had a broken arm and had split the skin on his leg from knee to ankle. If he’d been alone he would not have survived.”
Hikers should also prepare for slow hiking as altitude increases, bring more water than they estimate they’ll drink and never be afraid to head back down before summiting.
Now that he’s experienced at hiking all the peaks, including four not labeled as 14ers because they’re considered sub-peaks, Ladewig likes the experience of guiding others.
“Last year, our modeling center group hiked Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in the state,” he said. “We had a group who were first-timers too. My guarantee to them was: I’ll get you to the summit if the weather is safe and you’re prepared mentally to do it. We ended up getting them all to the top.”
Shawn Bailey, a contractor in the MDA Threat Modeling Center, was part of the group that reached Mt. Elbert’s summit last year. So far she’s hiked 13 of the 14ers, and says she has no intention of hiking all 54, but still enjoys the experience.
“I like going with friends, sleeping at the trail head in the open air, watching the shooting stars and taking lots of pictures,” she said. “I like hiking at my own pace and knowing that getting up the mountain is all on me. It’s very empowering knowing I got up there all on my own – and you can’t beat the view, looking down from the top of the world.”