Over the last week I had the pleasure of spending five days working on Mount Bierstadt. Throughout the week I got to talk to a myriad hikers of different ages, abilities and places. They all had one thing in common though: They were “going to the top.”
When folks pass our worksite in the morning they’re usually in a pretty good mood. However, on their way down about half don’t look nearly as happy. This isn’t because they didn’t get the summit experience they desired, it’s because their bodies become so fatigued that they begin to “bonk.” Bonking is when your body is suffering from insufficient nutrition; when hiking you’ll generally get very fatigued, have less than desirable footing and feel physically terrible. It seems that this exhaustion puts a damper on most people’s day.
I’d like to take a minute to talk about some ways that folks can improve their Fourteener experience. There are a few things to consider: hydration, electrolytes, exposure, altitude, boots and timing.
Hydration is crucial to your body’s performance. Dehydration weakens your body and expedites the onset of things like exhaustion and altitude sickness. I strongly recommend that hikers carry at least three liters of water when bagging a Fourteener like Bierstadt.
Electrolytes help your muscles function. If you’re experiencing muscle cramps or fatigue, it is likely due to a lack of electrolytes. There are lots of options for the modern hiker when looking for electrolytes. Honeystinger, Clif, Gu, and Power Bar all market products that are in a gel-like form. These products will replenish sodium, potassium and other important nutrients. I’m not advocating these specific products, but it is important to keep your electrolyte levels balanced with your water intake.
Fourteeners are pretty tall mountains. At 14,000 feet your body is only receiving a fraction of the oxygen that it enjoys at sea level. Because of the lack of oxygen, many hikers will find that their muscles fatigue faster and their lungs aren’t as effective. For the average hiker these things are to be expected. Take your time, take lots of breaks and keep your nutrition up. However, if you ever feel light headed or nauseous, it’s time to turn around. We are lucky to have such easy access to 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. But just because it’s a relatively short drive does not mean that it isn’t still 14,000 feet. Altitude sickness is not something to mess with and descent is the best solution.
Exposure is a big issue at 14,000 feet. The suns UV rays are significantly stronger at that altitude. Because of that, your body is more prone to sunburn. Long-term implications aside, sunburn increases your chances of becoming dehydrated and suffering from a variety of ailments. So please, wear long sleeves or sunscreen.
As we get into the summer and start seeing afternoon thunderstorms, timing is very important. Most high altitude hikers will do an “alpine start.” Basically, this means leaving the trailhead early enough that you’re off the summit by noon. How early this makes your departure depends on the trail and how much time you want on the summit. But it’s considered a best practice to be back below tree line by 1:30 or 2 p.m. to avoid lightning risks. This is early, but some of the best sunrises I’ve seen have been in the high alpine. Bring breakfast or some tea on the trail and enjoy the adventure!
My last point is a bit of a rant by trail workers: please wear boots. At the end of the day your feet won’t hurt as much and you’ll also be able to stay on the trail. Many of the trails on our 14,000-foot peaks receive a considerable amount of use, and because of this they are frequently rocky or muddy. It’s important to stay on the trail, regardless of its quality. Going off-trail creates what we refer to as “braiding” where there will be multiple trails in the same area. This increases the damage to the environment and makes the trail itself less aesthetically pleasing.
I understand that some people don’t want to get muddy and you think that your personal body weight is not likely to cause significant damage. However, the alpine tundra on the Fourteeners is extremely fragile. As few as five-to-ten footsteps can kill some plants. Please remember that for a mountain like Bierstadt that sees more than 2,000 hikers a week, each footprint off-trail decreases the mountain’s ability to retain its sediment during a significant rain event, among other things. This means a lesser quality trail for everyone who follows you.
Please, to lessen your impact and maintain the experience for those that follow you, embrace the mud and rocks in the trail and avoid walking on the sides. You’ll have the gratitude of all of us here at the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.