A Regular Guy’s Guide to Conquering Colorado’s Fourteeners

Official 14er finisher medallion and two hikers.

Of the thousands of named mountains that form the textured landscape of the contiguous United States, only a select few soar 14,000 feet or more into the wild blue yonder. These peaks—commonly referred to as 14ers—pose a lofty goal for some of the country’s most ambitious hikers, including our guest, Michael Berke.

Michael, a Physician Assistant from Aurora, Colorado, completed his first 14er in August of 2015 and has since completed all 58 of the state’s 14ers over a 5 year period. We asked Michael to share some insights into training for and completing these challenging—but rewarding—hikes.

We’ve also added our own tips along the way. Look for these in italics.

Know What You’re Getting Into

Michael climbed his first—and second—14er by accident, an experience he wouldn’t recommend.

What was that first 14er like?

I came out to Colorado, and one of my friends from PA school grew up here. He wanted to do a couple of them: Challenger and Kit Carson.

He tells me it’s going to be a pretty long day. I have no idea, I didn’t do any research, didn’t look up the trail. I just met him and brought a CamelBak with a couple of liters of water, a couple of granola bars.

I ran out of food and water by the time I got to the second peak, which was Kit Carson. I just completely crashed. I had to lie down on the mountain for probably close to an hour. This older couple with hiking experience kindly gave me chocolate and bread and took care of me.

What should have taken 8-10 hours ended up being like a 16-hour day. I got to the end of that, and I was just thinking to myself, I’m like, if I get down from this, I never have to do one of these 14ers again.

How do you recover mentally from an experience like that?

Just like any other endurance activity, the pain wears off. You remember the cool aspect of it: a tiny percentage of people are capable of even trying that. You realize that even though I said a small percentage, that percentage is still all ages, different genders, different skill levels.

And I took it on as a personal challenge. Those two kicked my butt big time. I did two of them. I might as well do all of them now.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

What kind of research should you do beforehand?

For people who are looking to do 14ers or any mountaineering trip, you’re always looking at the weather. The general rule out here is that you want to be coming down from the summit before noon. With the temperature rising and the different pressure of the weather, those thunderstorms can come in incredibly quickly. I wouldn’t do a trip unless there was a 30% chance or less of thunderstorms.

I was also always looking at the routes, considering areas where there could be rock fall from climbers above. I would consider my starting times, making sure that you’re at certain areas, maybe earlier than other people or even after people.

I’d say the weather and then the crux parts of the trips are the things I’d look out for.

Can you hike 14ers alone?

For anything that’s Class 3 or above, I always tried to have a partner.

Getting Your Body Ready

What do you focus on when training for a 14er?

Being out here at altitude is a little bit of a different animal. It’s a different kind of grind throughout the day.

My training was learning how to slow my pace down and learning how to have the hours play out and not get too far ahead, keeping my heart rate down. I started getting to the point where I would keep my heart rate at 150 or lower for as long as I could.

How does the elevation factor into training?

Spending time at altitude makes a big difference. You don’t have to be at 13,000 or 14,000 feet. Spending time on some local trails, maybe learning how to carry a pack, dealing with that weight on you, tolerating a little bit higher altitude. I think those are all things that can help.

Many hikers who aspire to complete 14ers don’t live at or have easy access to high altitudes. For these hikers, it’s crucial to arrive in the best shape possible to mitigate the effects of the altitude—which may require 12-20 weeks of advance training.

Are there any exercises you recommend for someone making a 14er attempt?

I try to lift at least two times a week.

I love squats. I like them because I hate them. I like doing things that are challenging because you go through a mental battle out on the trail.

I haven’t done it in a while, because we don’t go to a gym anymore, but I would do the stair climber all the time. I loved that because it’s the closest thing in a gym that can simulate going up.

I like basic lunges, too.

We recommend adding all of the Fit For Trips Big 5 activities to your training regimen:

  • Walking inclines
  • Walking stairs
  • Walking lunges. (Squats work, too!)
  • Walking far
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

How does HIIT help prepare you for a 14er?

There are times when you’re scrambling over a couple steps and you do need to go quickly for a couple seconds, or you’re hopping from a couple steps and your heart rate does get up. When that happens, I have to stop for a minute and let it come down.

HIIT (high intensity interval training) prepares you for these moments with short bursts of intense exercise, followed by recovery periods. As you do more HIIT, you’ll find that the recovery period after a scramble or a jump takes less and less time.

A commonly performed HIIT modality is the elliptical trainer or air bike. Try pairing 1 minute of intense activity with 1 minute of rest for 10 rounds.

Gearing Up

Does hiking a 14er mean spending a lot on gear?

Most people who hike 14ers are your everyday person, your weekend warrior. A lot of the stuff I had was just the REI Co-op-brand stuff that is reasonably affordable. Don’t need anything fancy.

What are three pieces of gear you wouldn’t hike a 14er without?

Any kind of trekking poles. It’s not so much for going up—it’s for balance and taking some of that weight off of your knees and your joints when you’re coming down, stepping down every rock.

The one piece that I discovered and evolved to really like is my main layer: an Arc’teryx Atom jacket. It’s a lightweight jacket. That’s probably one piece I wouldn’t do any climb without.

Route finding is huge. When I was doing my winter 14er, I was by myself. I went up on the standard winter route. Instead of coming down the same way, I started coming down and there was a big slope that you could see footprints going across. It was a dumb choice of mine to follow that path instead of going on the right path. I had a Garmin inReach with me, so I was prepared. If I didn’t have inReach, though, I really would have feared for my life because I could have lost my footing and slipped off the mountain into the snow.

Eating and Drinking

How do you handle breakfast before you set out?

I was eating, honestly, as much as I could stomach in the morning. I would do oatmeal or peanut butter bagels in the car ride.

But I tried to not be on a full stomach right before I’d start. I’d try to have everything down at least an hour and a half to 2 hours before I’d start.

How much water do you usually bring?

If I know it’s going to be a long day (eight hours or more), I typically have four liters of water. I fill up my CamelBak, which is three liters of water. And I always bring my Nalgene, which is another liter.

Water filters are now so small, so easily portable. When you’re out in Colorado, you’re always going to be near a higher alpine lake. I always bring a water filter too. That way, I’m not depending on that water lasting me the whole day.

Hydration Tip: The Galpin Equation can help you determine how much water to carry on your hike.

Your bodyweight in pounds ÷ 30 = the # of ounces you should ingest per 15 minutes of exertion
(E.g., 215 lbs. ÷ 30 = 7 oz. every 15 minutes)

Most hydration bladders are labeled in liters, usually between 2 and 3 liters. 1 liter is about 34 ounces. For your reference, the standard wide-mouth Nalgene bottles hold 32 ounces of liquid.

If it’s hot out, double your intake to replace the water lost to sweat. As Michael suggested, carry a water filter if you anticipate needing more than 4 liters. Check maps to locate accessible water sources on your route.

What’s the best way to stay hydrated on a 14er?

When I feel like my heart rate is going up or I need a breath, I take a drink. I’m always drinking throughout the day. You’re always slowly hydrating.

I’ll put some kind of electrolyte drink in my Nalgene, whether it’s Nuun tablets or some kind of powder, then the rest of my bottles and pack reservoir will be water.

How do you balance exertion and food?

Every hour, I would stop and do something from a food standpoint, whether it’s a bag of nuts, a granola bar, a gel. If you do that every hour, you’re going to stay on top of it to the point where you don’t feel like you’re bonking.

It’s hard to make yourself stop when you’re in a good rhythm or you still have a long way to go. It’s a long day, and you’re not going to make or break anything by extending 2 hours or 3 hours to eat.

Nutrition Tip: Shoot for 200+ calories per hour to maintain a consistent energy level.

What do you eat on a 14er?

I’ve always had a really hard time with PowerBars and Clif bars. Your heart rate gets up, you’re breathing heavy. I think it’s really hard to chew and metabolize those.

I started bringing real food, like chocolate bars, chips, salty snacks, things like that. I like the Uncrustables PB&J sandwiches.

I found that, when I could get real food in me, I seemed to do a lot better. It’s one thing to just be stomaching calories. It’s another thing to feel like you’re enjoying them.

What about after?

I really like ice cream after I finish. That would always make me feel a lot better. I got done with some of these climbs and I would feel so sick just from the altitude, just from going too fast, having my heart rate up. I’d feel like I was boxed up. Ice cream helped.

Final Thoughts on Fourteeners

These peaks are all very doable. You don’t need any rock-climbing experience. If you’re willing to put one foot in front of another and be out there in nature, you’ll bag every summit. Whether it takes one time or a couple of times, you’ll get there.

Key Takeaways

  1. Review the weather forecast beforehand.
  2. Bring a partner—especially on Class 3s and above.
  3. Know your route and bring a resource to double-check along the way.
  4. Start getting acclimated to the elevation as soon as you can.
  5. Make time to eat throughout the hike.

Fit For Trips: Fourteeners

If you’re interested in conquering your first 14er or looking to boost your fitness to knock out your next one, schedule a complimentary fitness consultation with Fit For Trips founder Marcus Shapiro.

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