Determining what constitutes a fourteener —written as 14er—depends on who you talk to. The Colorado Geological Survey defines a 14er as a mountain peak of at least 14,000 feet in elevation. Others only count peaks that also rise 300 feet above the saddle connecting it to the nearest 14er. (Yeah that sounds confusing to me, too.)
Colorado has more 14ers than any other state: 58 or 53, depending on how you count them. Some are considered ‘easy’ climbs, while others are treacherous, Free-Solo-style ascents.
In 2015, a climber named Andrew Hamilton broke the world record for the fastest consecutive ascent of all 58 peaks. He summited ALL OF THEM in nine days, 21 hours, and 51 minutes. When I heard this, I refused to believe it but apparently it’s true.
My 14er goals weren’t quite so lofty—I was just hoping to climb one, and an easy one at that. Jared and I picked Quandary Peak, a fifteen-minute drive from Breckenridge. Its east ridge ascent regularly appears on lists of the best 14ers for beginners, thanks to an easy-to-follow trail that requires stamina but no technical skills.
About Quandary Peak
Quandary is 14,271 feet high, and the hike has an elevation gain of 3,300 feet. From the trailhead it’s 6.7 miles out and back, though my watch tracked a total of 8.4 miles from the car park.
The East Ridge Trail is ranked as a Class 1, the easiest of the five hiking classifications (but that doesn’t mean it’s easy). With a Class 1, hikers won’t need to scramble over rocks or use their hands to cover any terrain.
Though there’s no rock scrambling, the trail is very rocky for most of the way—there’s a reason this is mountain goat territory. Be prepared for the false summit, a rise that blocks your initial views of the actual summit.
What Gear to Bring
Our gear list is pretty standard; one thing you could add is a headlamp, if you plan to start your hike in the dark.
Hiking boots: I usually hike in Merrell trail running shoes, but recently upgraded to a pair of boots, purchased in excellent condition for $37 from the REI used gear website. It was a good decision, due to the rocky trail underfoot.
Hiking poles: Don’t knock them till you’ve tried them! We have a pair of poles and used one each, which was extremely helpful as the hike became more difficult
Hydration backpack: I hike with this 18L pack and have been happy with it.
Snacks: We packed a stash of Larabars, Bobo bars, and Clif bars, along with a single-serving sachet of what was essentially powdered Gatorade.
Darn Tough socks: I mentioned in a previous post that I splurged on a pair of socks. At $18 a pair, these wool socks are pricey but quick-drying and soft. Most importantly, they prevented an existing heel blister from getting worse, for which I am eternally grateful.
Sun protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, and loose-fitting long sleeves are essentials when you’re closer to the sun than ever.
Layers: We hiked Quandary the first week of August, and it was a beautiful sunny day. I wore 3/4 leggings, tank top, long-sleeved shirt, and a thin hoodie. I also had gloves, ear warmers, and a hiking scarf.
Watch: I love tracking my workouts, so I wore the Apple watch and used the hiking feature in the workout app.
Oxygen: Jared got a small bottle of oxygen as a promotion at work, so we took a few puffs towards the top, when the altitude was really wearing us down. I edited an article about thrombosis and altitude a few months ago and the story really stuck with me—I don’t know if the oxygen helped us, but it didn’t hurt.
This hike was hard. Between the altitude, the rocks, and the steep stretch to the summit, it was no easy feat. We hit the trail at 5:40am, hit the summit three hours later, and finished at 11:00am, for a total of 5 hours 20 minutes.
When we arrived, the sun was just coming up and the parking lot was already full—this is a popular hike, so start early! It’s smart to be on your way back down before any afternoon storms roll in. You’re exposed above the tree line for most of the hike, so be lightning-aware and don’t hesitate to turn back if the weather looks ominous.
We spotted our first mountain goats at the false summit, a grassy hill just before the hike gets real. The goats kept a keen eye on the hikers (both human and canine), but didn’t get too close.
As we sat in the meadow, chomping on Larabars and sucking down water, I noticed the actual summit.
“Wait, are we going all the way up there?” I asked.
Yes. Yes we were.
The final summit was tough. Stopping-every-thirty-seconds tough. My watch constantly asked if I was done with my workout, because I was moving so slowly it assumed I had given up.
Just before the summit I reached a wide patch of snow, which blocked my view of what was on the other side. I imagined a dramatic drop-off, and my fear of heights kicked in.
“I can’t do it,” I mouthed to Jared, frozen in place.
“It’s flat up here,” he said. “Just get over the snow and you’ll be fine.”
One step at a time, I pep-talked myself across the snow and towards the summit, relieved to see that there was more space up there (and more people!) than I’d thought. But still, it was literally breathtaking to stand on the peak, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains.
On the way back down, I felt waves of pity for the hikers on their way up. Some of them were already struggling, while others seemed to have no idea what was in store.
But, when we made it back to the car, pulled off our shoes and peeled off our socks, the feeling of accomplishment was hard to beat.
Using Breckenridge as a Base
We stayed at the Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge. When we checked in, the lobby was empty and the song ‘Hotel California’ was playing, which felt like a weird warning sign, but it turned out fine.
The hotel was a ten-minute walk to town, and the room was comfortable. I especially appreciated soaking in the outdoor hot tubs when we returned after Quandary.
On Sunday morning we snuck in a visit to the very cool Isak Heartstone, a fifteen-foot troll made of reclaimed wood by Danish artist Thomas Dambo.
I’d never been to Breckenridge before, so I was happy with where we stayed. But, if we came back to the area I’d probably stay in nearby Frisco. It’s a pretty mountain town, quieter than the tourist zone of Breckenridge.
Our first fourteener was a success, but it was definitely harder than I expected. We’re both reasonably fit, but this knocked us for a loop. Before Quandary, we thought we’d do another 14er later in the month; after, we decided that one 14er each summer is more realistic.
Have you ever hiked a 14er? I’d love to hear about it!