Life & Style
Hiking Above 14,000 Feet
By Ryan J. Beard
Sep 20, 2012 - 10:51:36 AM

COLORADO—Sunscreen, check. Water, check. Hiking boots, check. Rain coat, check. Sweater, check. Dog booties, check. Cliff bars, check. Camera, check.

I continue to pack my back pack at 4:30 a.m. as I get ready to head out the door on an early fall morning. Dew is on my windshield, and I realized winter is creeping around the corner, “only a few more weeks left to hike above tree line,” I tell myself.  I meet my friend and his black lab Opie, already bright eyed and ready to go on this early morning.

My friend and I chug coffee as we head out of Denver and towards the mountains, preparing for one of the last long hikes of the season. We make our way towards Leadville, two hours away at the base of the Sawatch Mountain Range just above 10,000 feet.

The Sawatch Range is home to the two tallest peaks in Colorado, Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert. We plan on summiting Elbert this afternoon. We pass through Leadville, and approach Elbert and Massive, daunting looking as they pierce the crisp and thin mountain air above 14,000 feet. At 7:15 we arrive at the trailhead at 10,040 feet. In three long hours we will hopefully have climbed nearly 4,400 feet.


We start below tree line and switchback up steep terrain under lodgepole pine. An hour and a half later we reach tree line at 11,900 feet and we finally can see the summit of Elbert. Already exhausted, the task seems impossible, but we trudge on, yearning for the summit and its magnificent views.

At 13,000 feet, the altitude begins to take its effect. My head feels light, my legs more wobbly and my mind drifts and wanders. My friend and I set small goals, “Let's make it to that next ridge 200 yards away, then we’ll take another short break.” We continue to set small goals, breaking up the remainder of the mountain into shorter, more reasonable segments. Two hours after emerging out of tree line, we approach the summit at 14,433 feet. I stand on top of Mount Elbert, gaze over Leadville to the north, and Mt. Massive to the west.

Snow has already capped some of the mountains. The wind whips without hesitation at this altitude, and the sky fades from light to dark blue. We take in the views we have earned after 3 and half hours of uphill hiking for over an hour while enjoying lunch before heading back down. “Until the next fourteener” I tell my self as I leave the summit. Two hours later we arrive back at the car, exhausted but accomplished.


As fall arrives, there is only so much more time to hike in the Rocky Mountains or Sierra Nevada’s, so get out there, enjoy the cooler weather and the changing trees because ski season is right around the corner!

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