Rocky Mountain High: Climbing Colorado’s Fourteeners

 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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 is important to pace 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.

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.

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 choose to stay in Beaver Creek, quaffing brews and whacking golf balls. Instead, if you’re up for the challenge, it is highly recommended to give this fourteener a shot!

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