Highest Ground

By Ted Alan Stedman

Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks offer goal-oriented exhilaration.


Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks hold an almost mythical fascination and admiration. Climbing these 54 peaks, also known as “fourteeners,” represents the state’s quintessential outdoor experience, an elevation celebration no other lower-48 state can claim; sorry California, you’re number two with 13. “We call them the ‘Approachable Everests’,” says Lloyd Athearn of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. “The joy of climbing a big Colorado peak can be a major life achievement for some people.”

No fourteener is “easy,” but some are easier than others. Long days are the norm, and some summit bids are best done with a lower basecamp allowing closer proximity. Roughly 17 peaks are ranked as difficult and carry Class 3 and above technical ascent rankings. Where to start? Having climbed roughly half, including some of the more difficult peaks, here’s my recommendation for your Colorado climbing quest.


For climbers looking at their first summits, the conjoined Grays (14,270 feet) and Torreys (14,267 feet) peaks rise to the top of list on several levels. Being close to Denver, just south of I-70, they’re popular; a comforting aspect for first-timers who aren’t averse to a shared experience. The peaks mark the highest points on the U.S. Continental Divide, and with their connecting saddle, it’s a wonderful two-for-one climb. Ascended together from Stevens Gulch Trailhead, the Class 1 trail toGrays is basic hiking at altitude. After gaining its summit, there’s a brief descent north to the .8-mile saddle and a Class 2 hike on boulder debris to Torreys’ summit. Round trip/elevation: 9 miles/3,600 feet.


This Class 1 and 2 four-pack in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range south of Breckenridge is another example of geologic serendipity, allowing entry-level climbers to confidently summit Mt. Lincoln (14,286 feet), Mt. Cameron (14,238 feet), Mt. Bross (14,172 feet) and Mt. Democrat (14,148 feet) in a single trip. The easiest, most common way to climb all the peaks begins at Kite Lake Trailhead and ascends the rocky switchbacks on Democrat’s East Ridge Route, followed by a decent east to the broad saddle between Democrat and Cameron. After gaining these summits, descend southeast to the saddle between Cameron and Bross for a relatively leisurely stroll up the gentle incline to Bross’s summit. Round trip/elevation: 7 miles/3,600 feet


Welcome to what many consider Colorado’s most spectacular fourteener. A long, deep couloir on the east face and a perpendicular ledge toward the top hold snow well beyond winter and appear as the peak’s namesake cross. The irony is that Mt. of the Holy Cross (14,005 feet) is somewhat hidden from view by surrounding mountains, adding allure. The Class 2 nature of this day-long climb requires rigorous boulder hopping and negotiating steep, uneven terrain, but little in the way of exposure (i.e., vertical terrain where you can fall). The easiest route from the Halfmoon Trailhead starts out as a 1.7-mile forested hike to the switchbacks on the west ridge, and then a long ascent over huge talus blocks comprising the north ridge to the final summit block. Round trip/elevation: 12 miles/5,625 feet.


Longs Peak (14,255 feet) dominates the northern Front Range with sheer mass and an immense vertical east face. Thousands TM1attempt to gain the summit each year. Despite its popularity, it is not a peak to be taken lightly. The standard Class 3 Keyhole II route is usually started in the pre-dawn hours—full moon nights border on festive—so
climbers can safely descend before the onset of afternoon thunderstorms that can turn portions of the steep route into a deadly bobsled run. From the Longs Peak Trailhead west of CO-7, a six-mile hike leads to the jumbled Boulder Field at 12,760 feet, and then to the famed Keyhole consisting of a huge overhanging rock slab. Crossing through the Keyhole, enter into a vertical world of Class 3 terrain demanding handholds for upward elevation gain. You’ll traverse an exposed western face of slabs to the 13,300-foot Trough, a long couloir leading to the wildly exposed Narrows ledge. This airy catwalk deposits climbers to the steep final section named Homestretch, where handholds and jams in vertical cracks lead to Longs’ broad, hard-won summit. Round trip/elevation: 15 miles/5,000 feet.