On the first day of fall, I found myself climbing my first 14er in a very long time. It was epic. Needless to say, my calves are still sore.
Uniquely painful muscles were just one thing I wished I’d recalled about high-altitude hiking before tackling Grays and Torreys peaks last month. Climbing rock-strewn mountains like Colorado’s iconic 14,000-foot summits can take time to plan. And I’m not the best when it comes to scheduling adventure.
That’s why I jumped at the opportunity when Merrell invited a few lucky souls to famous 14ers Grays and Torreys, providing everything we’d need to get up: gear, transportation, and even a guide and trainer to get us fit and knowledgeable.
Our Colorado-based adventure guide and 14er guru, Jason Antin, prepped us well. He was especially patient with the New Yorkers who wanted to drill down on the likelihood of dying if they came down with altitude sickness.
I know he’s a pro because not one member of our 22-person group had to turn back.
Tips for Climbing a 14er
Still, once I got partway through climbing, a few important tips for climbing a 14er came flashing back to me. Keep these in mind, whether you’re preparing for a 14er for the first time or the 10th.
1. Keep your hands warm.
And that’s coming from someone who tends to sweat profusely at the extremities. Usually, warmth from my core radiates outward. Not so much anywhere above the tree line.
On a September morning in Colorado at 11,280 feet, temps are in the 50s at best. When you’re up 3,600 feet higher, it’s more like 30 degrees.
So don’t overlook those digits. You need gloves that can fight cold and wind while still allowing you to whip out your camera, water, snacks, and accessories at a second’s notice.
I had some, but they weren’t enough. Next time, I’m going to invest in a warmer, windproof pair of gloves like these from The North Face. They’re still breathable enough for heavy huffing.
Antin likes Outdoor Research gloves with Gore Windstopper. “If my hands are cold, I’m not having fun,” he said. “So I go for beefier gloves as an insurance policy.” Sometimes he throws in some old but lightweight Gore-Tex mitts in the bottom of the pack as a second layer.
“Let’s put it this way: You’re not going to sweat through your gloves in a 14er environment,” he said.
2. Outfit your feet.
While clothing is important on a 14er to keep comfortable, nothing does more work than your feet. Good footwear is critical to reaching the summit.
Start with a great sock. Good socks protect your feet from blisters, keep them dry, and help fend off the cold. They’re worth a little investment. Most of our crew wore Merrell’s Merino Hiker Crew Socks.
For shoes, you want a good sole with traction fitting for the terrain. Many of our crew used Women’s Chameleon Mid 7 Waterproof boot. A few of us used to mountain trails did just fine in the brand’s nimble MQM approach shoes.
I tried the MQM Flex. It comes in a Gore-Tex version too. I felt like my ankles were strong enough to test these low hikers even on this 14er’s rocky surface and steep grade. The flexible midsole gave me the freedom I needed to scramble around while the MQM’s tough lug stuck well on scree but busted through rocks like a champ.
3. A low-grade headache is common.
And I’m not talking about a pounding, pulsing one that gets worse as you go higher. That, dangerously, is the most common sign of altitude sickness. There are actually three levels of severity. And it can get really scary really fast.
Antin assured us that a steady, low-grade “pressure” headache is to be expected when hiking up high, even for people like me who live at altitude. A majority of us felt this slight physical discomfort until we descended from the hike, the best solution for most effects of altitude sickness.
There’s science to why our heads hurt more at 8,000 feet and above. Basically, with less oxygen in the air, your whole body is working harder. There’s more pressure, more demand on your capillaries, and that can show up as a mild headache.
“You’re already requesting extra from your body hiking uphill, and altitude is not making that any easier,” said Antin, who is Wilderness EMT certified. “Your body is working overtime to recover, but recovery is extremely delayed because of the environment.”
The key is knowing the pain threshold for what’s normal and what you can do to try to best alleviate your head woes. Staying solidly hydrated is priority No. 1. That’s critical, said Antin, because the signs of dehydration mimic those of altitude sickness. You want to rule that out by keeping the fluids flowing.
Controlling your breathing and heart rate is priority No. 2. That’s probably going to mean slowing down or stopping more frequently. “Everyone will experience some symptoms of altitude,” said Antin. “When those first come on, by lowering your output level, there’s a good chance those will subside.”
And No. 3 is removing or adding accessories that will cut down on other headache-inducing issues: a too-tight hat, not wearing sunglasses, or a bad combination of the two around the temples, to name a few.
For this trip, emerging sunglasses brand Goodr kept things light in more ways than one with its playful take on colors, including my favorite yellow hue: Swedish meatball hangout.
4. So many potty stops.
We were all — both flatlanders and highlanders — a little overzealous about hydrating properly the night before and the day of the 14er. We knew it was one of the only things in our control. So, darn it, we dominated that hydration bladder. And then our bladders dominated us.
That’s partly because increased urination is a side effect of going higher. Excessive peeing is a response to hypoxia, when your body puts out more bicarbonate to make breathing easier.
So urinating a lot at altitude is normal, Antin confirmed, but no less distracting. Yet it’s also a great indicator of issues: If you aren’t urinating much more than normal while hiking a 14er, you might be dehydrated. And, remember, those symptoms can get mixed up with others related to high altitude alone.
On this day, we stayed well hydrated with Osprey water bladders tucked inside our backpacks. The long sipping tubes offered easy access to water anytime. The problem was that most of us felt a full bladder building all … day … long. That led to some serious (and not so serious) logistical issues, especially for the female hikers. See, above treeline, there are no trees.
So we built rock-cairn potties. We discussed arm-locking human curtains for the most desperate at any one given time. We peeked around every stony corner for the right angle to drop trou without the rest of the hikers — and, mind you, there was a steady stream — getting a view they didn’t want.
The best way to balance your hydration on a 14er is to drink water steadily, add some electrolytes later on, and don’t forget to eat real food. We used Clif Blok chews to sustain ourselves on our 14er.
But remember, you’re burning hundreds of calories per hour and your body needs fuel. For example, Antin, a former football player, eats 200 calories per hour for his nearly 200 pounds of body weight.
Other than that, good luck finding a remote rock stop.
5. Soak in the summit.
Sure, just getting to the top of the mountain is most of the journey when climbing a 14er because it takes the most effort. And you can count it in miles. But relishing the feeling of summiting as long as possible is part of the experience too. There are pictures to take, big views to jaw drop, life to ponder, friends to make, and Jerky to eat.
For virgin 14er hikers, it’s not typically a tag-and-go moment. That means you want to be well prepared to hang out and take in the tippy top. I learned a few helpful ways to make these precious moments last longer and mean more, even when the wind is whipping and the goosebumps are growing.
First, put on all your layers. You can always shed them later, but add everything you need to stay warm when you suddenly go from moving with great effort to standing still. On the top of Grays and Torreys, I needed everything Merrell let us try: a wicking T-shirt as a baselayer, a breathable technical long-sleeve, a pullover fleece for added warmth, a micro-lite puffy vest, and a hefty shell to block the elements.
That’s five layers, folks. And that was under a cloudless Colorado sky in September.
If you can spare it, pack in a mini camp stove. I must say Antin’s idea to carry one for us resulted in one of the best moments of the day: Finally, warm hands. And those hands were holding a steaming anti-inflammatory turmeric-based brew called Golden Root. That was a golden moment. And there was whiskey. That helped too.
For one to two people, Antin recommends the 1-liter MSR Reactor. He used it on Denali. “It’s designed so well that it does a remarkably better job containing flame and exchanging heat,” he said.
His other trick is boiling some orange-flavored Gatorade in the morning before the 14er and keeping it toasty for the summit in a YETI 36-ounce Rambler thermos. Some days its tomato soup spiked with cayenne.
Also, cover your bum, where you’ll quickly lose heat, by sitting on your pack or pulling out a cheap but effective S.O.L space blanket, which Antin buys for all his adventures. And look for a natural windbreak to hunker down for lunch. I promise, without wind for a topping, our Nutella and banana wraps tasted like a gift from the gods.
Last, take some moments to capture it all on digital recall. But don’t forget to look — with your eyeballs — at all this natural beauty.
You may never see this view again. And savoring the memory of climbing a 14er could last a lifetime. Hey, I’m only a few weeks out, but I can get to that very high, very happy place any time I like.