2017 Lessons Learned



Well, I guess the seasons over.  I hiked 35 unique 14ers and 2 13ers since June of this year, bringing my total 14er count to 47 (including repeats).  I also made several failed attempts of 14ers and successful summits of peaks at 8K, 9K, 10K, and 11K not included in these numbers.

When I started this last June I had a goal of hiking eleven 14ers this year.  I more than tripled that goal.  Not because I intended to, but because it became really fun:  mountaineering became a passion, a lifestyle, and very, very addicting. 

Most trails took 3-5
hours to drive to, approximately 10 hours to hike, and 3-5 hours to drive
That’s a lot of solo time to think:  I loved every minute of it!

I’ve learned a lot too.  So much I could easily write a book.  Obviously I’m not done learning:  Mountaineering is full of continuous learning,
improvement, and reevaluating.

I wouldn’t be exaggerating to tell you my whole world view has changed this summer.  We all hear or read certain words and immediately a picture comes to mind of what that word means.  We have an association with that word.  For example, what do you see in your mind when you hear the word gully, traverse, junction, self arrest, spur, couloir, glissade,  basin, post hole, head wall, saddle, pitch,  scramble, ridge, cornice, crevasse, chute, narrow, soft, hard, rock wall, scree, river crossing, switchbacks, talus, summer storm, exposure, approach, cairn, chimney, timberline, gain the summit or take the ridge?

Previous to this 14er endeavor I had visions in my head to fill all these words and phrases, but in this past
climbing season these visions have changed.
Drastically.  They’ve come to life and taken on a world of their own.  Now when I see the word ‘basin’ in my head it’s not a drawing on a map, but a full scale area of drainage and rolling hills spanning multiple football fields in length, covered in tundra and alpine flowers. A ‘gully’ is a 4 letter word (more on that later) and ‘exposure’ is something dangerous that could include drastic changes in weather or falling to my death.  When I hear the phrase ‘take the ridge’ I see a long narrow mountaintop with steep drops on either side I’m supposed to navigate around towers or rock to get to the summit I wish to climb.  I can envision in my mind vividly what each of these words means as an experience, and these experiences have changed me. 

I’ll continue to learn, and I’ve learned more than I could ever put into words here, but I’ll give you some of the highlights in no particular order: 

Climbing is not the same as Hiking.
There is a huge difference between hiking and climbing (and between different types of climbing).  All 14ers include a hike, but not all include a climb. I’d say most climbs begin with Difficult Class 2 and include Class 3 and above.  A climb requires putting away the camera and using all four appendages to scale a mountain.  There were times this caught me off guard, even with proper planning.  In essence, climbing is mountaineering, and hiking is just that (hiking).  

Hiking /Climbing /Mountaineering takes planning:
Successful summits don’t just happen.  Driving directions, routes, GPS coordinates, weather, dates, time, ability, etc. all need to be taken care of before the hike actually takes place.  Of course, you can just try to do all this on the fly, but I can guarantee you something will go wrong.  Things go wrong with even the best of plans, but when you plan you give yourself a bigger degree of success. 

When you plug in the coordinates into your GPS and it brings you 200 feet but 10 driving miles away from the trailhead where you no longer have access to cellular data and the GPS keeps unsuccessfully trying to reroute but you HAVE NO DATA and you arrive in the dark it can be daunting, but if you have a printed map available that can get you where you’re supposed to go you’ll appreciate your planning. This happened to me so many times this summer I’ve lost count.  

There were several times I found out hours before a hike my booked schedule was now free and I was able to go.  If I hadn’t already pre-planned routes, driving directions, etc. I would have missed out on a hike because they take a while to plan.  Several times weather derailed my plans at the last minute. Because I’d put together dozens of potential trips I just switched to an area with more favorable weather.  Mountaineering takes planning.  Plan.

Hike when you can (see above). 

It’s not always easy to get up at 2am and drive 4 hours to a trailhead, but I’ve never regretted a hike.  If I slept in on all the days I wanted to instead of hiking I would have missed dozens of amazing experiences, all for sleep.  You can tell people about your dreams or your accomplishments.  As far as I’m concerned, sleep when the weather is bad, hike when you can.

Difficult Class 2 means gully

I hate gullies.  I used to think a gully was a beautiful canyon full of lush landscape, trees, waterfalls, and streams (hello, Fern Gully?) but they’re not.  Gullies are alleys eroded by water and snow.  They’re usually narrow and steep, formed by loose rock and sand, extremely difficult to find traction on to climb, and the only route up the mountain due to steep rocks on all sides. 

The more challenging ones encompass an entire mountainside.  They are difficult to climb up, but even more difficult to climb down, as your center of gravity is off and slipping and sliding hundreds of yards to your death or grave bodily injury is a serious possibility.  In my opinion, gullies are more dangerous and difficult to climb than a Class 3, and a route that includes a gully is one I try to avoid if at all possible. Wear a helmet and microspikes whether or not there’s snow/ice.

Listen to others

Ask for advice from others who’ve summited a mountain you’ve yet to summit.  I’ve never understood why some people just don’t want to take advice?  Everyone has something you can learn from.  As far as
I’m concerned, I want to be as prepared as possible when out there dozens or hundreds of miles from civilization (read: help is far away).
  It’s great to know if there’s a false summit or difficult area that has a trick to get around.  Ask hikers hiking down the mountain while you’re hiking up about conditions (etc.) and truly listen to their responses.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hiking down a mountain due to weather and tried to warn people hiking up. No one has ever taken my advice, and I know for a fact several of them ended up getting caught in hailstorms above treeline.

Everyone has different comfort levels / risk tolerances. Know yours. 

When getting advice from others keep this in mind. Challenge yourself, but don’t be stupid. I’ve taken several routes I know I wouldn’t have completed if I’d been with others because I have a higher risk tolerance than most people.  We would have turned back and I wouldn’t have summited.  I’ve also taken alternate routes when the one in front of me was too difficult.  The bottom line is if you don’t feel comfortable don’t do it just because someone else has. 

Climbing time and pace don’t correlate to distance.  

Just because you can hike 20 miles in a day near your home doesn’t mean you can hike a 20 mile 14er in the same amount of time.  A general rule of thumb for hiking is 2mph, but this varies widely depending on ability, experience, weather, carrying weight, and terrain.  Just because you hiked a 7 mile class 1 14er in 3 hours does not mean you can hike a 7 mile class 2 14er in 3 hours.  Look at elevation gain and difficulty of terrain before setting out, and remember climbing takes longer than hiking.  Think about it:  Can you climb up a mile worth of rocks in the same amount of time it would take you to walk the same distance?  Probably not.  This corresponds with 14ers too, and learning your speed comes with experience. 

Keep your pack packed. 

This also goes hand in hand with planning.  If you never unpack your gear you’ll never need to re-pack it.  I always keep my microspikes, sunscreen, gloves, hat, compass, emergency first aid kit, matches, whistle, etc. in my hiking pack.  When I get back from a hike I refill my water bladder and replace my bandana (and wash the old one).  I never need to wonder where my gear is or if I have it because I always keep it in my pack. This saves me the time and hassle of prepping the night before, and wondering where stuff is. 

Have the proper gear. 

This is very important.  You shouldn’t just head out on a hike up a 14er with just tennis shoes and a water bottle (although trust me, I’ve seen many people do just this).  Know what the 10 essentials are and bring them.  Use a water bladder instead of a water bottle.  Get a good pair of hiking boots, trekking poles, a helmet, microspikes, and all weather jacket.  It’s amazing what a difference good shoes and microspikes can make on a trail with just a little bit of snow/ice.  If the weather/terrain calls for it, invest in crampons, climbing gloves, and an ice axe (and learn how to use them properly before needing them).  It’s extremely frustrating to hike in 10 miles and have less than 1 mile left to the summit, only to have to turn back because you don’t have crampons and you can’t hike any further without them. 

Learn to layer. 

The weather on the mountains is unpredictable and changes quickly.  I’ve never regretted bringing my snow jacket on every hike I’ve been on, even in the summer. And in case this is new to you, NO COTTON!  (this means no jeans, cotton socks, cotton t-shirts, cotton gloves, etc.).  In case you’re unsure of how to layer, here’s a photo:



Learn how to eat. 

I don’t get hungry on the trail as a rule, but every so often the hike takes longer than anticipated and I’m glad I pack food no matter what.  While on the trail don’t go for foods that are overly ‘healthy’.  During the hike is when you need protein/calories to keep going!
Lightweight foods that are high in calories work best.  I like to make homemade beef jerky and bring
that with me as a snack, along with some dehydrated bananas and peanuts.
  When hiking long distances remember the weight to calorie ratio:  I’d rather bring along and eat two Reese’s Peanut Butter cups than an apple (even though it’s “healthier” the apple weighs a lot and doesn’t give you the calories you
need to keep you going).

Hike Early. 

We’ve all heard to hike early to avoid summer storms, but there are realistically many more reasons to do so than just the stormy and unpredictable summer weather. 

  • You’re generally more rested earlier in the day 

  • In the summer while it’s cold in the morning you’ll warm up fast once you start hiking and it won’t be quite so hot above treeline if you get there earlier in the day.

  • If something goes wrong you’ll have more time in the daylight to problem solve

  • You avoid the crowds and actually get a spot at the trailhead to park your vehicle

  • Colorado sunrises are amazing.  Be where you can appreciate them (above or as close to treeline as possible)

  • If you finish early you’ll have time to celebrate by resting your feet in a stream or head to town for a beer

Making it up is optional, making it down is mandatory. 

We’ve all heard this phrase dozens of times, but it’s much more difficult to implement than to say.  Nothing hurts more than turning back on a summit, but know your abilities, and make a plan before you ever get into that place where you need to make the decision to turn back.   This includes time limits (I need to be at my halfway point by x time to summit today) and weather restrictions (if I hear thunder I’m turning back versus if I hear thunder 3 miles away I’m turning back versus if I’m above/below treeline and hear thunder I’m turning back, etc.).  If the terrain is above your abilities or you don’t feel comfortable, know to turn back.  The mountain will be there tomorrow, next week, and next year.  Make sure you’re there to see it.

Easy and close to Denver means crowded. 

Think Mt Evans, Mt Bierdstadt, Quandry Peak, etc. If it’s a class 1 or 2 and less than 8 miles of hiking distance expect to hike with dozens (if not hundreds) of your favorite hiking buddies no matter what day of the year it is.  This means limited parking at the trailhead, crowds, fewer animal sightings, blaring music from someone hiking with speakers, hikers that smell like marijuana, seeing people peeing above treeline and summit photos with people you don’t know in the background.  Sometimes the drive away from town is worth it. 

The mountain is bigger than it looks, and smaller too. 

Study your maps and do your research and things will still surprise you.  The mountain looks different from far away than it does up close.  Sometimes the challenges are bigger than they appear, but often smaller as well.  There have been several places that from afar looked impassable, but once I was closer I could see a navigable path. Take the trek one step at a time, and don’t give up or make up your mind until you get there. 

If you don’t try you’ll never know. 

I got this advice from my 14 year old while going back and forth over whether or not to hike on a particular day when all my information was giving me a 50/50 chance of summiting.  When in doubt, go.  You can always turn back if you need to, but you’ll wonder forever if you never try.

Weather forecasts are wrong, but check them anyway

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve checked and checked and checked the forecast for a particular area only to have it completely different once there. Sometimes this worked out in my favor (anticipated 30+mph winds that never materialized) but often it didn’t (the only cloud in the sky was directly
above the peak I intended to hike, and it was filled with ice and wind).
  On the other hand, it’s nice to know when it’s expected to thunder and lightning all day or if the wind speeds are
anticipated to be above 50mph.
  Knowing there’s a 50% chance of hail at noon helps you to make an informed decision about whether or not to continue your hike when you see clouds forming overhead, or even in determining which hike you should take that day. 

If there’s water, there’s ice.
Especially when it’s dark, just assume everything wet is really ice and can cause you to slip and fall.  Proceed with caution. 

Ladies:  Never let anyone tell you a tampon is unnecessary weight.
Never, ever ever.  Altitude does weird things to your body, and those around you as well.  You might not need it, but you’d be surprised how often you might just meet someone along the trail who does and make a friend.   They don’t weigh enough to outweigh the benefits of having one with you, and they can double as emergency first aid supplies (a quick google search can answer any questions).

Carry a bandana (or two).   Seriously, these are lifesavers!  There are hundreds of ways to use a bandana, not to mention for blowing your nose, for use instead of toilet paper (this is why I said two), or to immobilize an injured appendage.   Ladies, also see note above and infer. 

Ladies, learn how to pee above treeline. 

For guys this is a no-brainer, but for women it can become an issue, as many hikes continue for miles above treeline and if you’re drinking water you’ll need to pee (and there’s no place to hide).
Here’s a hint:  Find a place to sit and use your jacket to cover your lap. Problem solved!

Learn how to blow your nose without a tissue/bandana/etc. 

It’s gross, but along with a trusty chapstik will save your nose/upper lip from getting raw (basically you just plug one nostril with your thumb and blow really hard).  Also, don’t do this in the company of others (once again, it’s gross). 

Bring along a GPS and a topo map: 

And know how to use them!  Social trails abound in popular areas and the real trail can get muddied.  A GPS is no good if you don’t know how to use one, and a topo map and compass are as well. Practice before you need them on easier hikes closer to home.  They can both really save you if you get
lost/stuck on the trail.

Don’t expect an engraved invitation. 

What this basically means is don’t expect a trailhead sign to indicate where the trail starts, or even signs along the way indicating which direction to take at a junction.  While there are many trailheads with amazing signs indicating you’re at the right trailhead and where the trail begins, this is often not the case for 14ers.   Several times I’ve parked (in the dark) at the end of the route and supposed beginning of the trailhead,  not able to see where the trail actually begins, or even a sign indicating I’m at a trailhead.  Often times you’ll come to an area where several trails intersect and there’s no signage.  This is where having a GPS comes in handy. 

Don’t expect a trail. 

Unless you’re hiking a class 1, there won’t be a trail to the summit. There will be some route finding involved as well as hiking over rocks (etc.) with no established trail.  I’m not sure why this as a surprise to me, but it was in the beginning.  For some reason I thought I was owed a trail while hiking, but 14ers are a different game and considered difficult and a hallenge for a reason.  Learn to use a map and compass and develop some route finding skills. 

Sometimes the obvious route is the actual route

One time I was hiking and met several people along the way.  We all knew the cutoff for the peak was
difficult to find, and somewhere in-between two points.
  I happened to see a cairn wrapped in pink
electric tape, and suggested that was the route to take.
  Everyone else agreed that was too obvious,
and probably there to indicate the mine behind it.
  Nope, the pink tape indicated the correct trail.  GPS was helpful here as well. 

Just because they’re close to each other doesn’t mean they’re the same. 

Each 14er is unique, and just because two 14ers are a couple of miles apart or in the same range or ‘connected’  doesn’t mean their routes are similar.  Sure, the views, animals, flowers, and stability of ground will be similar, but look at their class rankings:  A 2 class can be very different from a class 3, even in the same range. 

Buy a 4WD vehicle with clearance. 

Extra points if you can sleep in the back.  If you’re serious about hiking all 14ers you’re going to need a 4WD with clearance; either that or you’ll need to love hiking an extra 15 miles to get to the trailhead.  Many trailheads to 14ers are at the end of serious 4WD roads. If you can’t afford to buy one make friends with someone who has one, or rent one for the weekend. 

13er doesn’t mean easier. 

Think about it, a 13er could be one foot shy from being a 14er and is still referred to as a 13er (13,999).  They’re just as difficult, and often more so because they don’t have established trails and aren’t as frequented by other hikers.  Don’t judge.

The way the mountain is facing is important for snow/ice reasons.
Routes facing the west and south clear of snow and ice much faster than routes facing the east and north due to length of exposure to sun and ability to melt snow and ice. Do your research, know which way your route is facing, and plan appropriately. 
I’ve hiked mountains where one side of the mountain was completely clear of snow (the side you could see from the road), and as soon as I got to the inside hiking area it was like a snow globe. 

Weather changes class. 

A class 1 hike can easily become a class 2 climb or above in snow.  Wind, snow, ice, etc.  can drastically change the difficulty of the climb.  Know your abilities and be prepared. 

Don’t hike to get in shape.  Get in shape to hike. 

The hike will be a lot more enjoyable if you’re physically up to the challenge.  Breathing above treeline is a lot different than breathing below it. When you go above treeline, it’s like you can suddenly feel that the air is thinner. You get tired quicker and it’s harder to breathe as well as you do in lower altitude. Being physically fit makes this transition easier.  Use the winter months to work out and build up your endurance.  You’ll thank yourself for this later.

It hurts just as much not to hike as to hike.
Sometimes you need to make the call not to hike, and that has to be ok.  Personally, right now, I’m itching to go hiking this weekend, but the weather isn’t cooperating and I’ve already made other plans. I’m a nervous ball of energy that’s struggling to find an outlet, so I’m going to use this weekend to catch up on sleep, and to plan future hikes.  Be prepared for times when hiking isn’t possible, and ways to be ‘ok’ with it. 

Every hike/peak/summit has a story:
Yours.  After a while they’ll all run together and you’ll forget things.  Write them down as soon as possible after your hike. Take pictures.  Talk about your experiences and share your stories.  If you don’t, you’ll wish you did…

Author: Laura M Clark

Laura has summited over 500 peaks above 13,000' solo, including being the first woman to solo summit all of the Colorado 14ers, as well as the centennials. After each hike, she writes trip reports for each one and publishes them on her blog, which is read by fans all over the world. Author of Wild Wanderer: Summiting Colorado’s 200 Highest Peaks, which is available to purchase on Amazon.

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