At 5 in the morning, the Colorado mountain resort of Beaver Creek is eerily still. Windows remain dark, shops are still closed and only starry reflections dance on the skating rink ice. Even Starbucks is padlocked shut, much to the disappointment of those gathered at the Hiking Center. Four vacationing souls have cut short their sweet dreams to pursue another sort of dream. They are off to climb a “fourteener.”

“We’ll stop for coffee at a bakery in Leadville,” promises trip leader Nate Goldberg.

Nate runs the hiking program at Beaver Creek, the upscale ski resort a dozen miles west of Vail. To provide residents and guests with summertime activities, he and his crew lead hikes ranging from one-hour strolls to all-day mountain climbs.

Wednesday is Fourteener Adventure Day, and this week’s objective is Mount Elbert. Peaking 14,433 feet above sea level, it stands as the loftiest summit in Colorado and second highest in the Lower 48. Only California’s Mount Whitney at 14,494 feet tops it.

The trail to the top starts from a gravel parking lot at 10,060 feet. There, Nate opens a cooler filled with granola bars, bottled water and Gatorade. He invites everyone to dig in.

Nate and his assistant, Matthew Cull, distribute metal hiking poles and help each participant adjust them to the appropriate length. At 7:15 a.m. the climbers, who range in age from 19 to 54, hoist their packs.

“Head ’em up! Move ’em out!” shouts Matthew.

The rounded hulk of Mount Elbert looms over the parking lot, seemingly close yet far away. The route to its summit is not difficult, but it does require negotiating 4.5 miles of trail with a 4,400 vertical-foot climb. That’s more than the summit day on Everest.

“On the trail, pay attention to your feet,” warns Nate. “If you start to feel a hot spot or burning sensation, let us know and we’ll either duct tape it or apply Compeed, which goes right over blisters.”

No one reports any problems with footwear, much of which was provided by the Hiking Center. The fee covers guides and transportation plus loaner boots, packs, poles and parkas.

The first part of the trip heads through the forest, passing the remains of a miner’s cabin and sluice ditch. The trail is wide and, while not too steep, it progresses steadily upward. Because afternoon thunderstorms are the norm, Nate figures the climbers need to ascend 1,000 feet of altitude per hour.

“I pretty much tell people we have a turn-around time of high noon, give or take 30 minutes.”

Whether for the accomplishment or the view, summiting a fourteener is a goal of many hiking enthusiasts.

Timberline arrives with the suddenness of a clear-cut. First there is forest and then there is none. The summit, still a vertical half-mile above, shines bald as a rapper’s pate. It’s 8:55 in the morning and the group stops to hit the bars – granola and energy bars, that is.

“As we start to get up in altitude, you might feel like your respiration is picking up,” says Nate. “The key is deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Draw breaths in and slowly exhale.”

He explains the importance of pacing oneself in the thin air of altitude. Like the tortoise and the hare, some folks go out fast and become too exhausted to make the summit. Wiser climbers start slowly and keep a steady pace, taking only short, standup breathers.

“I see my body as a symphony orchestra with my brain serving as conductor,” says Jim. “Right now it’s playing a Strauss waltz. On the summit, I suspect we’re going to have the ‘William Tell Overture.'”

The path to Colorado’s high point ascends the mountain’s broad northeast ridge in a steady, unrelenting grind. Up here, the higher one gets, the slower one goes. At 14,000 feet, the air pressure and its available oxygen has dropped to nearly half that of sea level.

Like diesel trucks in low gear, the climbers grunt up the final slopes. The slow pace allows ample time for enjoying the yellow alpine sunflowers and purple sky pilots that bloom between the rocks. At 12:11 p.m., the climb ends. There is no more uphill to be found.

“Way to go! Good job! Outstanding!” Nate and Matthew congratulate everyone. “Now, we’ve got to feel the love of the mountain.” The group forms a circle, and with poles pointed toward the center, they start tapping the metal shafts together. It sounds like a hail storm pounding a tin roof. Everyone then finds a soft rock to sit on. Boots are loosened, water gulped and lunches devoured. It’s past noon and nary a cloud can be seen.

“Normally we would leave by now,” says Nate, “but because of the good weather, I’ll give us some flexi-time today.”

The added minutes allow more time to savor the setting. Snow-streaked mountains appear to stretch in every direction, their gray and white summits springing from a blanket of forest-green. Ridges fall to valleys and creeks tumble to lakes. Scanning the far horizon, Matthew and Nate identify at least 30 of the state’s 54 fourteeners.

For many, the value of the view is worth the cost of the climb. For others, it’s the satisfaction of the accomplishment. One could have stayed in Beaver Creek, quaffing brews and whacking golf balls. Instead, these folks chose to challenge themselves with a muscle-tiring slog.

Half the journey is the way down. In preparation, Nate suggests everyone remove boots, pull socks snug and tighten lower laces to keep the front of the foot from slipping. He shows how to lengthen hiking poles and use them for the descent. At 1 p.m., it’s time to depart. “Head ’em up! Move ’em out!” shouts Matthew.

For many, the value of the view is worth the cost of the climb. For others, it’s the satisfaction of the accomplishment. One could have stayed in Beaver Creek, quaffing brews and whacking golf balls. Instead, these folks chose to challenge themselves with a muscle-tiring slog.

If You Go

When to go: Although intrepid climbers will tackle the fourteeners year-round, most ascents take place during the summer season, which begins in late June and extends into late September. The Beaver Creek Hiking Center generally schedules climbs from around Independence Day through Labor Day, with private trips available through the third week in September.

The Fourteener climbs: The Beaver Creek Hiking Center typically offers guided climbs of a number of different fourteeners in the Sawatch Range. All are technically easy climbs of varying lengths. Reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance, and a minimum of two sign-ups are required. Climbs are normally held on Wednesdays. The Hiking Center offers daily hikes ranging from one-hour loops to challenging ascents.

For more information, call (970) 754-4636 or go to

Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora. Visit his website,