Lessons Learned, Part 1: My First Fourteener

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Trip Report
Colorado, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Nov 24, 2003
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Lessons Learned, Part 1: My First Fourteener
Created On: Mar 26, 2006
Last Edited On: Mar 26, 2006


Brad's Mountaineering Homepage
Grays Peak, 14,278 ft.
Class 1, with snow and ice
Distance (round-trip): 11 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,950 feet

The view that inspired it all
My love for the outdoors stemmed from Pennsylvania, where I had spent all my life through high school. Now in Colorado for the first time, I was eager to explore the Rockies. Unfortunately, I arrived in November, a less than ideal time to be introduced to mountaineering. I had been in the state for two weeks, and the temperature was in the fifties in Denver, so I figured it would be nice in the mountains. I had been out exploring some places along I-70 on November 15, and had happened upon a dirt road leading from Bakerville. I had hiked this for a short time until I came to the awesome view of Torreys Peak. This was the kind of stuff I was looking for!

Returning home that evening, I looked up a topographical map of the area, and noticed a trail leading all the way to Grays Peak's summit. This was Torreys' nearby and slightly higher neighbor, so I decided I would give it a try. I had never heard the term fourteeners, nor had I any idea how tough this would be for me.

On November 24, 2003, I set out alone from what I would later find is the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead. My jeep had made it up the snow-covered road to that point, but I did not want to push my luck any further. I admired the spectacular scenery as I hiked the road to its end at the Stevens Gulch Trailhead. Then, awed by the views opening up of Grays and Torreys peaks, I continued upward on the Grays Peak Trail. The following is part of my original write-up of this experience:

Trip Report

Stevens Gulch
The trail eventually angled up onto the side of Kelso Mountain, then pulled south onto the spine of a ridge leading toward Grays Peak. It was here I began having doubts about making it to the top. I had already been hiking almost three hours, and the top just seemed to not be getting any closer. If I was to make it out before dark, I would have to move quickly, and in all honesty I was only slowing down. The extreme winds made it difficult to even stand at times, and not being used to the elevation I was getting a bad headache and dizziness was starting to overtake me. Still, I was so close. And even though my legs were feeling like jelly on top of all this, I decided (probably against better judgment) to keep at it.

I figured once I finally got onto the main ridge I did not have far to go. But things only got worse. I had encountered plenty of snow drifts which made my walking difficult, but the problem here went from drifts to ice. The trail was so icy I could hardly find any place to get any sort of footing. This resulted in numerous slips and falls, which at that elevation with steep drop-offs below, is not a good thing. Every step I seriously considered turning back, especially as the day waned closer and closer to darkness.

First View of Grays Peak
The trail zigzagged back and forth over the rocky terrain to avoid its steepness. Even as my eyes were stinging from the wind and I was getting to the point of not enjoying the hike, I could not help but admire the beauty of Torreys Peak, directly across from me, and all the distant peaks which began coming into view. I took a number of pictures with a disposable camera, and also took a good bit of video footage of this hike.

It is a good thing, too, because by the time I actually got to my destination I could not fully appreciate its beauty without something to record the moment. Granted, a video of the scenery will probably not do it true justice, but I am sure I will be able to enjoy it more than I did at that moment when I finally reached the top.

Looking Back Down
I was actually surprised when I got to the summit; after all those hours of hiking, I thought I may never get there. But, as expected, it was extremely windy and I was already very sore and cold from the hike to the top. So, after all that I stayed only about five minutes. It was the most incredible view of God’s earth that I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, but unfortunately the main thing on my mind at the time was getting back out of the mountain alive and in one piece. Darkness, frostbite/hypothermia, the slippery ice and snow, and even wild animals all had their place in my imagination, and I was already in a bit of bad shape as far as physically after that strenuous hike to the apex.

Even at that, I was excited to be standing at the highest point I had ever been above sea level (outside of a plane), 14,270 feet! On top of that, I was standing on the top of the Continental Divide. The Continental Divide and the Grays Peak Trail continued across a saddle to Torreys Peak, directly across from me. That is only 3 feet less in elevation, at 14,267. All in all, what a view! As it was a pretty much totally clear day, I could see seemingly forever. And even though Torreys Peak was right across the way, there was no way I was going over there. I was already about as beat as any hike I’d ever taken, and it was only half over!

Summit View: Sea of Mountains
The downhill, as in many hikes, was for the most part more difficult than the uphill. This difficulty was amplified by the slippery ice and hard snow, and the farther I went the more I realized how physically exhausted I was. My legs were aching ceaselessly, and my body was gradually recovering from the elevation experience. Fortunately, the wind slacked a little for my descent into the darkness.

Even once I got to the dirt road, the hike did not seem to get any easier. It was dark then, and the mile and a half descent was filled with slips and slides. Amazingly, I didn’t twist an ankle, but I certainly gave my ankles and feet (not to mention knees) a good workout. When all was said and done, I had hiked 11 miles (1.5 each way on the road, and 4 each way on the Grays Peak Trail), and it was the most difficult and challenging hike I had ever done.

I sat in the Jeep and warmed up a few minutes before doing the drive out, which thankfully was not as much of a challenge as I anticipated. It was 1800; I had been hiking almost seven hours. And I could feel every bit of it.

Lessons Learned

1. Tell someone where I am going!
First of all, I did not tell anyone where I was going. That has never happened again.

2. Start early!
I could have made the summit and gotten out of the mountains before dark had I listened to this simple rule. In summer of course, it is important to beat the thunderstorms as well.

3. Go with someone else, preferrably someone more experienced.
I went alone. As inexperienced as I was, and as much as the altitude affected me, this was a bad idea.

4. Know the weather forecast of the mountains.
I planned my trip by Denver weather. It was November, and the weather at 14,000 feet was certainly not comparable to that!

5. Take extra clothing.
I did not wear nearly enough clothing. A shirt, sweatshirt and jacket was all I took with me. The wind bit right through it all.

6. Turn around when necessary!
I should have turned around when the altitude began affecting me and I realized I was going to not beat sunset. Pressing on for the summit can not only be stupid, it can be dangerous.

7. Take a flashlight!
Duh! I had underestimated the time I would need and therefore thought I would not need a light. I ended up walking out in the dark.

Thankfully, I did not go out to the mountains the rest of the winter. I had had enough of an introduction. I did begin researching the internet and learning about the mountains of Colorado, so I was a little better prepared for next time...


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Kruck - Oct 9, 2006 8:29 pm - Voted 8/10

Well said

A good primer on what not to do, reminiscent of the Berenstain Bears. You are lucky you did not hurt yourself, but your trip sounds like more "on the job" training than most people get all year.

A good report for rookie Rocky hikers (myself included) to ponder.

Brad Snider

Brad Snider - Oct 9, 2006 10:37 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Well said

Thanks for the comment. My first few climbs in Colorado, I fit the bill among the stereotypical "having-no-idea-what-I'm-doing-tourists" that are often so maligned for their ignorance in approaching these gigantic mountains. I am not proud of my mistakes and my neglect to do proper research before these trips, but as so many people I just did not realize what I was getting myself into. Three years later, I am not by any means experienced, but I definitely do not make the same mistakes I used to make. I have climbed/hiked with many veteran mountaineers and have tried to glean whatever information I could along the way. Yes, I was lucky I did not hurt myself, and I hope to do my part to help keep others from making the same mistakes.

Viewing: 1-2 of 2