A number. Fourteen. Could be anything. A reference to people, place or thing. On a recent weekend, I focused on the number fourteen, as in 14,000 feet. As in hiking one of Colorado’s Fourteeners, one of 53 peaks in Colorado that make the list of the highest mountains in the state.
Many a time have most of us gazed at the snow-capped peaks and admired their stately magnificence. Many a guide book has been written about them. All are there to be climbed, some easy, some hard. Me, I’ve visited the top of 6, all fairly easy. A small portion of the total, but none-the-less a motivating experience for me. The hard ones require technical climbing skills that are not a part of my training and experience. I have no goal to conquer all 53 (other lists count 54). I admire those who have. I think that’s a success worth speaking of, something to be highly proud of. It speaks not only to a person’s athletic skill, but also their personality of goal setting and persistence.
The most recent check mark on the list of 6 was Handies Peak near Lake City. Handies is 14,058 feet, the 40th tallest of the 53, and the 42nd tallest in the United States, and 56th in North America. The highest in Colorado being Mount Elbert, near Leadville, rising to 14,440 feet, and the lowest being Sunshine, also near Lake City, at 14,007 feet.
Of them all, ranked from easiest to hardest, Handies is often listed as the easiest of all. (Don’t reveal that to my ego). The trail is indeed mostly a dirt tail, listed as 5.75 miles round trip and 2,500 feet in elevation gain. The first third is a mild but steady incline, the middle third has an increasing uphill grade with switchbacks, and the last third is a well-defined dirt trail but steep. There is one rocky but solid stretch. I took three hours one-way, due to frequent stops. With the hiking I do for the fishing I do, I could have pushed harder, but took my time as I didn’t see the need as I was by myself.
Although by myself, I was not alone. Even on this early fall day, well past the summer tourist season, there were a dozen or more other parties of one to three people. I had an early start, but yet some were already coming down as I was going up. Same in reverse, as there were some coming up as I was going down. At the top, where there is some room, but not a lot of space, there was one large group of ten or so that had pre-planned their photo shoot with a hand-painted sign with the name of the peak and the date. In a way, it was crowded.
Handies is accessed out of Lake City, up the four-wheel drive road west towards Cinnamon Pass. As four-wheel drive roads go, this one is relatively mild. Many everyday SUV’s with a higher clearance than a regular car can navigate the rocky road. Slow but not difficult. Before reaching the pass, a side road takes a short, one mile dead end to American Basin, which is the trailhead. One could also come from the west, starting out of Silverton or Ouray over Cinnamon or Engineer Pass.
The other 5 on my list include Mount Sneffels (twice), Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, Redcloud, and Sunshine. Maybe I’ll get to another one, maybe not. I’m not so young anymore! But I do think it would be cool to add Mount Elbert to the list only because it is the tallest. If it were a technical climb as some others, I would say no thanks, but it is also a relatively easy hike, it just has more elevation gain. So maybe next summer.
In a linguistic stretch, I could add two more, saying I have been to the top of Mount Evans and Pikes Peak, both fourteeners. That would actually give me 8. The stretch is that yes, I and many others have been to the top of those two, but by auto. You can drive to near the top of those two, finishing with a short hike. Mount Evans is said to be the highest paved road in North America.
Just for covering the spectrum, Capitol Peak near Aspen is rated as the hardest. Also, there is a second list totaling 58 fourteeners. The additional five peaks are indeed over 14,000 feet, but they are considered sub-peaks of an adjacent, higher 14’er. By some standards, being so close to another 14’er, they don’t qualify as separate peaks.
The high peaks define Colorado. Provide its uniqueness. The peaks are visually pleasant. Physically, they cause weather, force seasonal change, and accumulate snow and water. Agriculture and recreation alike are governed by the seasons of the peaks. A summer hike to completely experience their magnitude seems an easy choice. Rocky Mountain High in Colorado!
Joel L. Evans is an avid fisherman, outdoor writer and photographer, who has explored Western Colorado for decades.