The Colorado Rockies contain almost all the tallest mountains in the continental U.S.
The ones over 13,000 feet high are referred to as thirteeners, and the 58 that are over 14,000 feet are fourteeners. You would have to go to Alaska to find one over 15,000 feet.
Fourteeners and Colorado
Fourteeners are a big deal in Colorado. They are promoted as a wonderful outdoor experience and they are. However, they are serious back-country exertions that must be climbed with preparation, the right equipment, fitness, and attention to weather to name a few precautions. Some of the relatively less challenging 14ers have become tremendously popular to hike. Pikes Peak, located outside of Colorado Springs, is the second most-visited mountain in the world (second only to Mt. Fuji in Japan). That doesn’t mean so many people are actually climbing it as there is a road and a train to the top.
Fourteeners are superlative displays of the essence of mountains. They insert themselves into the sky that is normally the domain of just the weather. They are out of touch of human development or habitation, and there is something mystical about them despite their origins: they are just rock leftover from glaciers carving away the softer parts of massive land upheavals millions of years ago. The glaciers were the artists and the mountains are the sculptures they have left for us to cherish.
The Weather Up High
It has long been known that ascending in elevation in many ways is the equivalent of heading closer to the North or South poles. The weather, plants and animals are more like what is encountered in regions quite a bit further north. Perhaps it is the mechanics of altitude change that is part of the mystery of these tall mountains. Up high, the snow starts earlier in the fall and lasts later into the summer. Temperature drops as elevation increases. Western dry air loses 5.5 degrees of temperature per 1000 feet of elevation gain. Winds increase, sometimes ferociously, at altitude. There is nothing to stop them so the jet stream in the higher altitudes can rage with fury. The winds can be well in excess of hurricane force, although thankfully not always. Jet streams are narrow, horizontal bands of strong, mainly westerly (west to east) air currents encircling the globe several miles above the earth. Weather patterns including temperature and precipitation are related closely to the position, strength and orientation of the jet stream.
The combination of temperature, wind, and snow getting more severe as altitude increases have a big effect on what grows. At 9000 feet, Lodgepole pines are mixed with groves of Aspen trees. Another 1500 feet up and the Aspen and pines disappear while the spruce trees take over. At 10,500 feet the spruce trees are large and majestic, but they start shrinking in size starting at about 11,400 feet. By 11,600 feet the trees become miniatures before disappearing. I knew one person who came to Colorado to collect these miniature spruces as starters for his Bonsai tree collection.
By 11,800 feet, all trees are gone, and the views open to expansive vistas. In Colorado that is what we call timberline or tree-line. Tree-line is an altitude above which only shorter, tougher plant life survives; much further north, the tree-line is much lower. Above the tree-line, there are willow bushes with tough, gnarled branches and light green, leathery leaves. They are not only tough, but they are tough to bushwhack through as they grab at your clothes or bare legs making you wish you had picked a different route. By about 12,300 feet the bush is gone as well, and the only vegetation left are tiny flowers, thistles and small plants that hide in rock crevasses.
In addition to weather, avalanches also factor in shaping the tree-line. As grades steepen and snow deepens higher up, avalanches become more severe. They destroy trees.
There are recommended routes up the named 14ers. Sometimes there is a worn path, especially at lower levels, but even those paths often disappear above tree-line as the route gets rockier. The mountains are not static: they change. Water freezing and thawing widens cracks and dislodges rocks and boulders. A big rock can dislodge and will follow gravity downhill causing a rockslide, changing the shape of the mountain.
To me, every mountain has a unique personality, like people.
I have loved researching them, climbing them and writing about them.
If you feel the urge to climb a fourteener in the Rockies, or if you have done a few and wonder what the next one ought to be, see my stories on all 58 of them at www.rickcrandall.net. There you will find picture essays on the best route, specific challenges to watch out for, the colorful nearby old Colorado towns, and the lore and naming of each mountain.
That is a good place to research them – or just to read some good picture stories and climb them vicariously with me.