Taking Extreme Mountaineering to the Next Level

While Colorado’s peaks 14,000 feet above sea level can all be climbed without ropes, there are many difficult 14ers that pose many challenges to the mountaineer.  Of Colorado’s 55 14ers, more than half can be climbed without much difficulty at all.  The trails are extremely well marked, and there is little technical challenge.  However, even these “easy” peaks require many miles and several thousand feet of elevation gain.  There are a few choice 14ers, about 10 in all, that pose much greater difficulties with everything from route finding to negotiating extreme exposure. 

Here is a list and small description of some of Colorado’s most difficult 14ers:

1.  Pyramid

Pyramid Peak is located in the Elk range surrounding Aspen, Colorado, which has been aptly described as “red, rugged, and rotten.”  Pyramid, along with the more well-known Maroon Bells, is among the most beautiful mountains in the world, but as anyone knows who has climbed in the Elks, these mountains all have extreme exposure and loose rock to boot.  When climbing in the Elks (and, really, any of the mountains on this list), it is highly recommended that you wear a helmet while hiking.  Rocks, especially in the Elks, have a tendency to dislodge themselves and fall far below.  A helmet is a small and smart piece of mind to have when traveling up any of these peaks. 

The climb to the top of Pyramid is only two miles, but over those two miles you will ascend over four thousand vertical feet.  Over this extremely steep hike, you will encounter much of the loose red rock described above while attempting to negotiate cliffs.  Route finding is key and some class four moves are necessary to attain the summit of Pyramid. 

2.  Little Bear

Located in the sleepy San Luis Valley which houses the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Little Bear is much more rugged than it initially looks.  The hike to Little Bear starts near the San Luis valley floor and works its was up a valley toward beautiful Lake Como.  From the lake, things start to get a little bit more complicated.  Again, route finding is difficult, cliffs surround, and loose rock remains a constant threat.  The crux of Little Bear is the infamous “hourglass,” which is essentially a steep rock chute that leads up towards to the summit of the peak.  The area above the hourglass is full of loose rock.  If this rock is kicked loose, it will descend directly into the gully. 

Maroon Bells - Some of the most difficult 14ers in ColoradoCredit: Garrett Adrian Photo

3.  The Bells

The Maroon Bells just outside of Aspen are the most photographed peaks in Colorado.  While they are two of the most beautiful peaks in Colorado, they are also two of the most difficult peaks in Colorado.  As with Pyramid above, the “Bells” are in the Elk range, which consists of red, loose rock.  Both North Maroon and Maroon Peak are full of this loose rock that can easily be dislodged as you route find your way over difficult cliffs.  When climbed separately, North Maroon provides more of a challenge simply because route finding is much more difficult on the peak. Maroon Peak is by no means “easy” either, as route finding is also difficult as you stand atop some precarious cliffs.  Most deaths on the “Deadly Bells,” as they are often called, occur on the climb between the two mountains.  This traverse is extremely exposed and certainly necessitates the use of a rope for safety.  

4.  Capitol

Capitol Peak is in the same mountain range as Pyramid and the Bells but is a few valleys further west.  The summit of Capitol is in view during the entire approach hike, making this one of the most magnificent hikes of any of Colorado’s 14ers.  Once you gain the ridge between Capitol and its surrounding peaks, the climb becomes significantly more difficult.  Class 3 and 4 moves are required up to the infamous “Knife Edge,” which is exactly as it sounds.  Large rocks form what is essentially a knife with extreme exposure on either side of the ridge.  This is considered the crux of the climb and it is often where those afraid of heights turn back. 

5.  Wilson Peak

Deep in the heart of the San Juans, Wilson Peak gives hikers another formidable challenge.  Again, class 3 and 4 moves are necessary to reach the summit of this Colorado high peak.  The crux of the climb is just a few short feet away from the top of the peak, but one false move could leave a hiker falling far to the valley below.  On Wilson and especially any mountains in the San Juans, hikers must carefully gauge impending weather in this the wettest region of the state. 

Crestone Needle at SunriseCredit: Garrett Adrian Photo

6.  The Crestones

Located in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, the Crestones are the two most visible and well-known peaks for hundreds of miles.  They have been termed the Tetons of Colorado and with good reason.  Their cut, sheer faces mimic that of the famous Wyoming Peaks.  Like many of the peaks on this list, the Crestones have extreme exposure to cliffs and some difficult route finding.  However, the Crestones have generally solid rock, which makes negotiating your route slightly easier.  Crestone Needle is considered the more difficult of the two peaks, but, similar to the Maroon Bells, the traverse between the two peaks is where the majority of deaths occur on these mountains.  If you want to summit both mountains in the same day, be sure to bring along your rope and climbing gear. 

Class 4 Summit Block on Sunlight PeakCredit: Garrett Adrian Photo

7.  Sunlight

Sunlight and its surrounding peaks can be reached via the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.  From the railroad station, hikers will ascend the gorgeous Chicago Basin valley towards this three different peaks above 14,000 feet.  Sunlight is probably the most difficult of the peaks and it necessitates some difficult moves at the very summit block.  The highest point of Sunlight is essentially a large boulder with large cliffs on every side.  While this may not be the most difficult 14er on the list, the move to get to the top of the peak has left many sure hikers with weak legs. 

8.  Kit Carson

Located just a mountain away from Crestone Peak, Kit Carson presents another formidable challenge to any hiker who wants to reach its summit.  Like the Crestones, rock on Kit Carson is quite solid, but the steep gullies that lead to the top of the peak must be carefully negotiated for a successful ascent.  During the decent, hikers must take care to retrace their exact steps back to camp.  Getting off trail on Kit Carson can be especially treacherous. 

The Narrows on Longs PeakCredit: Garrett Adrian Photo

9.  Longs Peak

Located along the Front Range in Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak is one of the most often climbed and famous of Colorado’s 14ers.  While this climb is not nearly as difficult as some of the others in this list, it is a classic Colorado Peak that has some definite challenges.  Route finding is rather easy on the peak, since on any given summer’s day you are probably sharing the mountain with hundreds of other people.  After reaching the “Keyhole,” things start to get a little more difficult.  Hikers first negotiate the Ledges and then must ascend the Trough.  The rock is generally stable and red and yellow painted bulls-eyes mark the trail.  At this point, there is some exposure that may frighten the weak of heart.  From the Trough, hikers will cross the Narrows, where the path is narrow and a cliff falls almost immediately to the valley below.  After the Narrows, you will ascend the Homestretch, which is a series of solid rock at about a 45-degree angle leading up to the summit of Longs.  Again, Longs is not an extremely difficult mountain, but danger is definitely still present.  It is not uncommon to hear of a climber’s death on this peak, so definitely do not underestimate this classic Colorado climb.  

The Knife Edge on Capitol Peak in Colorado