“The steps seemed to get bigger as we ascended. You would think just walking uphill would be easy, but it’s not. The incline of the trail pushes back on my calves and knees. My breathing quickens, and I try calming it with a slow inhale, exhale rhythm. The backpack I’m carrying with water, a few snacks, and first aide stuff feels like 50 pounds on my shoulder muscles. I drag my feet just a little too long and nearly stumble over a rock. The top looks so close. I can see it. I can see people scanning the horizon. I wish I could hop, skip and whaala…be there, but that’s not the point of hiking a mountain. If I just wanted the view from a mountain peak, I could fly. No, the point is to appreciate its grandness and the human ability to summit a beastly rock structure. So I step on, and on until I reach a point where steps are no longer the viable option. Now my whole body is involved in the climb as I grab on to boulders with my hands and gingerly step to the next platform. They call it the free climb section. I feel a bit like a billy goat although they are much more graceful. The last platform is a long stretch, but I’m determined because I can see the summit close by now. The last few steps are simpler than the beginning of the trail and I almost feel cheated. Then I look up and see the view, a view I earned with my own power. All the pain vanishes and I’m happy, proud, and buzzing at the summit of Mt. Crested Butte.”
Mt Crested Butte peak lies at 12,162 feet of elevation. It is no small mountain, but in comparison to the other peaks in Colorado it has some growing to do. The base of Mt Crested Butte starts at 9,380 ft, making the ascend a gain of 2,782 ft. Not too shabby, right? Wrong. According to Gerry Roach, the Colorado standard for climbing a peak must include an elevation gain of no less than 3,000 ft. I guess I will have to start from town next time.
So when is a peak climbed?
The Colorado natives have two basic rules:
- the peak must be reached under your own power
- you must gain a certain elevation (3,000ft)
Hiking in the mountains of Colorado has been a past time for many generations to enjoy and explore. It’s a fun challenge, good workout, and healthy for the soul. In Colorado, however, it is taken very seriously. In a state that has 53 peaks of over 14,000 ft, competition for sumitting peaks runs high. Everyone loves boasting about the number of 14ers they have conquered. Hence the introduction of defining when a peak is climbed. Cheaters are deemed weak in the eyes of true mt climbers, and their poor excuse for half a climb won’t cut it with the big dogs.
The Rocky Mountains are a fascinating place to hike and explore. The mountain chain runs directly through the middle of Colorado and can be seen for miles throughout the rest of the state. The 14ers make a scalene triangle shape as they stretch from Estes Park area down to San Luis, over to Telluride, and back up to Estes. These massive peaks are where some of the best skiing is but also the best challenges for hikers.
The Colorado area of 14ers is broken into the following 7 ranges: Front Range, Ten Mile Mosquito Range, Elk Mt Range, San Juan Range, Sawatch Range, and Sangre de Cristo Range.
The experts of the mountains have climbed, conquered, studied, and written about all of these peaks in the 14,000 area. There are several books such as Gerry Roach’s, “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs” that give people like me, the untrained mountaineer, a guide for climbing these giants. In his book, Gerry breaks down the differences between different hiking routes and climbs, and explains the different rating systems that are in place.
Most people immediately ask how big is the mountain, meaning what is the peak elevation. As states earlier, Mt Elbert is the highest 14er in Co at 14,433 ft, so the difference between any one peak is only about 433 ft or less. Any summit at that point deserves a congratulations, but it isn’t always about the elevation. R-points is a system put into place that compares overall toughness of the climb to the top. It takes into factor the peak elevation, the length of approach, plus the climb elevation gain, distance, and technical difficulty. There are some peaks that have any easy access trail nearly all the way to the top, and there are some that you may need an ice axe and crampons if you want to summit the peak.
For example the top five Peaks with the most R-points are under the Elevation of 14,433 ft, but the elevation gain is in the 5,000’s and the technical difficulty for finishing is extremely high.
In comparison Mt Elbert only has 402 R-points and a gain of 4,193 ft. So even though it is the highest peak in Colorado, it does not get to claim its title as toughest rock to climb.
Another way the experts explain difficulty to us rookies is by the class system. Usually in combination with the R- points, the class shows routes based on difficulty of free-climbing and rock pitch. The scale of classes goes from 1 to 4 and then class 5 is broken into 5.0- 5.10. Many experts combine some of the classes as they vary only slightly, but it should be an obvious warning to any new climber if they see a class 5 or higher because those get into some very technical finishes.
Each mountain has various routes to the top, and as you can see in the chart on the side, the same mountain can have a route classified as a 3 and 5.5 depending on which way you go. It is always recommended to check out the maps, routes, and ratings before going on any hiking or climbing adventure. Even the smallest of the 14ers in Colorado can lead you into some tricky and possibly dangerous situations.
Class 1: Grays Peak, Mount Elbert, Pikes Peak, Quandary Peak
Class 3: Kit Carson Peak, Longs Peak, Wilson Peak, Crestone Needle
Class 5.5: Third Flatiron, Longs Peak, Boulder Canyon Dome
Class 5.10: Sunlight Spire
The 14ers of Colorado are one of the many beauties this area holds. The next time you are in need of a challenge in your life come to the Rockies. They will humble you, amaze you, and give you a new perspective. Plus, it’s always a great workout even if you only make it 2,782 ft to the top of Mt Crested Butte. Come enjoy the view!
Resource: “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs” by Gerry Roach, Third Edition; 2011