A Beginner’s Guide to Climbing Colorado’s Rooftop
My 11-year-old daughter Hadley has always been a strong hiker, but I was surprised when she announced she wanted a climb a fourteener last summer.
I was a bit worried about her readiness but mostly about my own. I’ve “bagged” a dozen of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot-plus peaks, but it has been several years since my last climb. In the interim, I’ve grown dazzlingly wiser, impressively slower and more cognizant of my own mortality because, if you’ve ever climbed a fourteener, you know there are moments when you feel like you’re going to die (or that death might be more enjoyable than this).
Most mountaineering enthusiasts recommend starting with Mt. Bierstadt or Grays Peak, but we opted to hike 14,036 Mount Sherman. There are no easy fourteeners (with the exception of driving to the top of Mount Evans and Pikes Peak in your air-conditioned car). The pitch isn’t the only factor that makes them tough, it’s the altitude. The barometric pressure decreases when you climb. That causes air to expand in volume and to decrease the amount of air you take in on each breath.
There are two standard routes up Mount Sherman; we chose the route accessed via the Southwest Ridge from Fourmile Creek outside of Fairplay. The hike is 5.25 miles round-trip from the gate, but parking along the road is minimal and our 9 a.m. (relatively late) arrival forced us to park a mile away, adding another mile and prompting me to seriously consider the virtues of hitchhiking.
My husband Jamie, Hadley and I have very different hiking styles. He is more of a sprint-and-stop kind of guy while I am slow and steady with minimal breaks. Hadley is somewhere in between.
We started at about 11,500 feet, so there was no time to acclimate to the altitude.
Hadley and I slugged along the windy rock-strewn road past Dauntless and Hilltop mines, gasping for air, but after 20 minutes we were breathing more regularly as the trail narrowed. Despite the commanding views at the top, I am not partial to fourteeners for their beauty. Part of the reason is that you are doing the brunt of the climb above treeline and, call me crazy, but there is little innate beauty about rocks, particularly when that is all you see for hours on end!
However, when we arrived at the snowfields, I was missing those rocks.
We generally carry an altimeter but it wasn’t needed on Mount Sherman—the summit is in view for most of the hike. (If you’re not familiar with altimeters, they help you ascertain your elevation and avoid something agonizing that is called false summits: thinking you reached the top, only to find the real summit taunting you in the distance. For further clarification: Baby keeps you up for first six months of her life. Finally sleeps through the night. Parent thinks: Wow, baby slept through the night! I have arrived! Next night: Baby wakes up every hour. False summit.)
There were a number of families hiking with elementary-school-aged children but very few made it past 12,500 feet and many looked downright miserable. (Soapbox: Do not ever climb fourteeners with a baby in a backpack. We always take an ibuprofen preventatively when we begin hiking and again at the first sign of an altitude-induced headache. Just imagine how much worse it is for a little one who can’t voice how the altitude is impacting them.)
As we hiked to the saddle between 13,748-foot Mount Sheridan and Mount Sherman, Leadville and Turquoise Lake gleamed in the background ensconced by an army of 13,000 and 14,000-foot giants.
At that point, Hadley got summer fever and boldly forged forward up the most difficult part of the climb: a narrow ledge of scree. I got an illness of a different kind: altitude sickness. Jamie—knowing he will be stuck with me long after his daughter flies the coop—wisely stayed back with me to ensure I didn’t become one with the glacier-scoured valley below.
When we reached the summit, we joined an elite club of folks whose altitude sickness made them forget the misery of the climb as we marveled at the 360-degree views of the Mosquito Range’s craggy peaks, aspen groves, boreal forests and profusions of wildflowers as chirping pikas played peek-a-boo in the rocks.
Hadley’s biggest advice for climbing your first fourteener? “Don’t die.”