Since graduating high school I’ve tried to summit at least one 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado, also known as a 14er, once per summer. This weekend I reached a major milestone in reaching the top of all the designated “easy” ones.
With the exceptions of San Luis Peak and the privately owned Culebra Peak, Hinsdale County’s Handies Peak was the last of Class 1 and Class 2 mountains I had on my immediate radar. There are two different popular rating systems. The class system goes up to five, while mountaineering guide Gerry Roach uses his own numerical system, dubbed Roach Points. For example, 14ers.com lists Mount Sherman as the easiest Class 1 and Roach clocks it at 135 Roach Points.
Subjective difficulty ratings never align 100 percent but it’s the best way to get a feel for a hike and plan accordingly. It’s important to know that just because a mountain is taller with a higher elevation gain and longer trail doesn’t mean it’s more difficult than another. There are 12,000- and 13,000-foot mountains that are tougher than 14ers. Online Handies is two notches above Sherman, while Roach has it at 96 points at the bottom. Of the ones I’ve done, I personally believe Mount Sherman is the easiest.
On Saturday my parents and I left our motel in Lake City at approximately 6:12 in the morning. The moon was still in the sky as we headed toward Lake San Cristobal. I knew it was going to be a wonderful hike when Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and The Animal’s “House of the Rising Sun” played as the early light hit golden aspens on the San Juans.
At 7:40 a.m. we parked the jeep at the trailhead and stared in awe at the photogenic American Basin. With only five other vehicles there, it was the most desolate lot I’ve seen in the middle of the woods. About an hour later the shy summit of Handies came clearly into view. I could see five people ahead on switchbacks with a group of three starting to catch up behind. Including us, I saw no more than roughly 25 people and two dogs the whole day I was there.
San Luis is supposed to be even more remote, which is why I have no plans to do it. While crowds can be annoying, there’s safety in numbers. Following a conga line of folks makes the trail stand out and there’s a lower chance of getting lost. If you do happen to take a wrong path or injure yourself, asking another hiker for aide is only possible if there’s someone there. On the busier mountains you’re never truly hiking alone.
To compare, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimates that Mount Elbert sees 25,000-30,000 visitors a year while no more than 5,000 go to Handies. In second place, the Grays and Torreys Peaks get 20,000-25,000 people. Mounts Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross—which are four neighboring peaks that can be summited in one day as the DeCaLiBron—have 15,000-20,000 annual hikers.
After gaining 2,448 vertical feet my dad and I stood 14,048 feet in the air at 11:16. We made the final push towards the exposed peak as quickly as possible while a group of ominous clouds loomed over the horizon. Our plan was split away from my mom, not linger at the summit, and head down while she attempts it right behind us. Due to Colorado’s propensity of afternoon thunderstorms, we almost always have noon as our hard cutoff time. She wanted to reach the top, but was fine without making it to the true summit in the name of safety.
Yet just 10 minutes later my mom made it to the top. We quickly took some panoramic shots and selfies with our sign, skipped the celebratory lunch of a stroopwafel and headed towards the car.
The trip down was initially a little tricky and the race against the clock didn’t help, but it wasn’t the worst descent I’ve done. That award goes to Bross. The trail was so steep and the ground was so loose that it’s like trying to walk down a slide covered in marbles.
If you’re wondering why my 14er count is different than yours, that’s because I’m counting Cameron. Officially, most people don’t rank it because it rises no more than 157 feet from the saddle that connects it to Lincoln. Yet I argue that it’s a named peak and it still took effort to get there. Also, it’s called the DeCaLiBron, not DeLiBron.
Our 5.5-mile round trip loop concluded as we reached the parking lot at 1:52 p.m. Once I was in the jeep and took off my hiking shoes I had that stroopwafel. It was worth the wait.
I probably won’t summit all 54 14ers, especially the really difficult and technical ones that require rope and special gear. I’ve lived in Alamosa long enough to know better than attempt Little Bear Peak. However, that won’t stop me from seeing as much of the peaks as possible. According to Roach, next up is Mount Sneffels.