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Aug 01, 2011
The Cult of the Colorado Fourteeners - Four Seasons Magazine

“How MUCH further?” My wife, Kristin, is puffing over a truck-sized boulder on the way up Longs Peak above Estes Park, Colorado. Literally puffing. She’s so warmed up here at 11,000 feet, that I can see the steam coming out of her nose and mouth in the early morning air. And, like a cartoon, some of that steam seems directly related to her feelings about me at this moment. 

After a three-hour hike through the bristlecone forest surrounding the mountain’s base we have emerged above the moonlit tree line to see Long’s rocky summit massif looming above us like some phantom cathedral.

Traipsing up through a maze of boulders towards a dramatic gate-like cliff formation called “The Keyhole” we look behind us as the sun's first pink rays hit the Front Range, while in the plains below us Denver still glitters like diamonds on a velvet backdrop. 

“Just a little more,” I urge. In most people’s ethical universe, that would count as a lie. But the chilly morning winds and altitude are beginning to take affect. Right now the creature comforts of Estes Park seem a lot more seductive to her than figuring out what I’ve been up to all these years. 

I am driven man. It’s not the thin air, nor the heart-attack primordial views of the other mountains now all slipping below us.  Nor the occasional ram that darts its head up from behind the mist-covered boulders. It’s the summit fever. And in Colorado, that summit fever takes on an extra hue at 14,000 feet.  Because up here, many of us are not just hikers, but collectors.  

Colorado has 58 peaks above 14,000 feet. And while that number puts Colorado in the same league as Switzerland, Chile or any other climbing Valhalla, Colorado is actually one-of-a-kind because all of its 14ers can be summited without technical expertise. Those 58 peaks are for the taking without crampons, ropes, or indeed anything more than thick soles and even thicker skin. Hence, Colorado attracts a large and colorful community dedicated climbing all 58 mountains, or, in local parlance “doing the Grand Slam.” And it’s a diverse crowd. 

“I’m not an athlete in any way,” said author and photographer, Susan Jay Paul, who completed the Grand Slam two years ago at the age of 48. “The 14ers are pure mental.” 

Like so many other climbers, Susan’s venture into the Grand Slam started as an unlikely lark and ended as a compulsion. “Friends asked me if I wanted to climb Pike’s Peak and I thought they were joking. I didn’t even know it could be climbed. But once I got up, I started ticking these mountains off the list one by one. I’d been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 35 years and I couldn’t give them up for my kids. But I gave them up for the mountains.”  

Of course, this being Colorado, there are more than enough people who are willing to up the ante. Why merely walk up all the 14ers when you can climb them in antique climbing gear; with your toddler on your back; with skis for fast descents; on a unicycle; in winter; in a week (though many have tried, the current record is 11 days) and in one notable case, in nothing at all? The variations are as limited as one’s imagination and checking out community websites like 14ers.com or 14ersworld.com, it’s obvious that Colorado’s Grand Slammers are a no-limits bunch.  

“14ers are the most interesting, fun and sometimes weirdest people I’ve ever met,” said Aubrey Laurence, 37, a graphic designer who just spent three years of weekends doing all the 14ers with his wife, Jen. “But there’s a strong sense of community and we’ll drop everything for each other.” 

I was first introduced to the 14ers universe on a hike up Mount Ebert (14,443 ft), two hours’ drive from the Four Seasons resort in Vail, Colorado. I felt rather intimidated climbing this, Colorado’s tallest peak, until after having zigzagged up through grassy slopes I finally reached the living room-sized summit plateau to find…a couple of bicyclists who had carried their rides up. By the time they had launched on their bikes into a whooping descent to the valley, I had decided that climbing Colorado’s other 14ers would be a breeze.  

A decade later, I’m still only at seven.  And although each 14er has its own set of challenges, one thing I’m sure of: Mount Elbert was the easiest of the lot.  

No matter where in the planet I have climb I am always drawn back to the worldly diversity of Colorado’s 14ers.The Elk Range, south of Aspen, reminds me so much of the Alps that when I ascended the heart-fluttering Knife Ridge up Capital Peak (14,130 ft) I would have yodeled had I been either more shameless or alone. I have seen visions of the Himalayas in the Sangre De Christo Range in the South Central Colorado, where a dozen Buddhist monasteries decorate the lower slopes of Crestone Peak (14,294 ft), which I hiked up to gape over a desert plain redolent of Tibet. And here atop a two-hour ascent of the steep trough that ascends from the Keyhole to the shoulder of Longs Peak (14,255), I look into the round snowcapped peaks of the Mummy Range and the prairie curving into the horizon and imagine I’m standing in the Andes. 

But ultimately, the 14ers provide the Grand Tour of Colorado. “I grew up in Colorado, but the 14ers brought me to towns and back roads that I never knew existed,” said Frank Konsella, who has done the Grand Slam twice—first by foot and then with skis for descents. “ In fact, some mountains aren’t even accessible by road.”

Three 14ers, Sunlight Peak (14,059 ft), Windom Peak (14,082 ft), and Mount Eolus (14,083 ft), are so remote that climbers usually get to them via the steam train plying the route between Durango and Silverton. Others 14ers, like Longs Peak or Ebert, have paved roads right to the trailhead, or, in the case of Pikes Peak (14,115) and Mount Evans (14,264 ft) right to the summit. Frank got at least one big payback for all his travels: On a ski descent of Castle’s Peak he met Brittany Walker, the second woman to ski down all the 14ers. They’re getting married in June.

 “Finishing changed my life,” said Aubrey Laurence. “There are a lot of grey areas we all deal with day to day. But climbing the 14ers is so concrete. It was better than completing college.” 

It’s a sentiment echoed by many Grand Slammers. It’s as if between the vagaries and banalities of existence the 14ers provide a splendid obstacle course into the ethereal while producing results so solid that they are, literally, marked in stone. 

Kristin and I approach the crux of our climb up Longs: The Narrows.  A ledge the length of two boxcars, the Narrows lives so well up to its name that at certain points we squeeze against the mountain wall and side step to avoid a sheer drop into oblivion. Technically, it’s not hard, but psychologically…just don’t look down.

“The summit is just up there,” I keep telling Kristin, pointing directly above us. This time I’m not lying.  Even those of us who choose to walk up the 14ers fully clothed and without unicycles need to keep our wits about us. At least one climber a year is killed on Longs alone.

“I faced so many weird accidents that I’d sometimes be amazed to be sitting back in the office on Monday morning,” said Aubrey. Closest call? “I guess the basketball-sized falling boulder that almost took my head off on North Maroon sticks out.” 

Having sweated though The Narrows, Kristin and I scramble up The Homestretch, a gently sloping sheer rock face that ends on Long’s summit plateau.  I flop over the plateau first. It’s surprisingly flat up here, about the size of two football fields. The brightness of the unobstructed horizon recharges the core of my brain.

“Almost there,” I yell down but Kristin looks at me with well-earned disbelief. But once she gets to the plateau realizes that the only thing above her is a very big sky she straightens up as if just having been let out of a cage. 

If I’m worried about having pushed too hard a kiss lets me know I haven’t. Then she scans around and sets her eyes on another 14er in the horizon. “Is that Mount Evans?”

For a split second I can almost see the number 57 flash across her eyes. 

 

TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED

Check out 14ers community websites like www.14ers.com <http://www.14ers.com>  or hiking-colorado-14er.meetup.com for maps, trip reports and forums for meeting up with other climbers of every skill level for trips up the peaks—whether on foot or unicycle. 

Get a pre-dawn start to ensure you’re off the summit before the traditional midday thunderclouds—lightening kills several climbers a year in Colorado.  

Almost everyone gets stomach and head aches at 14,000 feet. Bring plenty of liquids and food to counter the altitude. 

Layering is key. Wear windproofs, waterproofs and fleece against the elements. And don’t forget a brimmed hat and sunscreen—the atmosphere is thin up there.

                                                                             By Finn-Olaf Jones                                                      

   
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