The first Fourteener | SummitDaily.com
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The first Fourteener

Bibb Underwood

Will I ever be smart enough to separate a challenge from a foolhardy, idiotic, ridiculous, dangerous, crazy, falling-down-stupid idea?

There are 54 mountains in Colorado that rise above 14,000 feet, and several are nearby. One of them is Quandary Peak, which rises 14,267 feet above sea level. It is considered one of the easier-to-climb “Fourteeners,” as the locals refer to them.

Recently, my brother-in-law, Chuck, 53, and his wife, Lynn, visited us in Summit County.

Chuck is a physician. He is one of those rare professionals who practices what he preaches. Like many physicians, he is extremely focused and delights in challenges.

Since we summer at Silverthorne, he became fascinated with doing a Fourteener.

Quandary Peak was most the most accessible. It rises above Colorado Highway 9 between Breckenridge and Hoosier Pass. The summit can be seen from several vantage points, and it is imposing to a flatlander such as me. Chuck comes from North Carolina, where he lives at sea level.

It is a given that one must acclimate to the Colorado altitude. It is a further given that one requires from two weeks to a month to breathe freely in the light air.

During the first seven days of Chuck and Lynn’s visit, we did several fairly easy and well-known hikes in the area, none of which went above 12,000 feet. Each time we went out, he talked about Quandary and how it seemed possible that he and I could do it. In my defense, in the four years of coming here, I have never tried a Fourteener. But what one will do when one’s testosterone is challenged belies all common sense.

Seven days after his arrival (nine days for me, age 71), we found ourselves at the Quandary Peak trailhead.

The trail begins at about 11,100 feet. It rises rather steeply into the National Forest. Initially, the path is smooth and shaded. The cool temperature and the smooth path were seductive as we started out at a crisp and confident clip. It took about 15 minutes before I had to signal to Chuck I needed a breather.

We reached tree line at roughly 12,000 feet, after about an hour and a couple more breathers. The guide book says, “(One will) confront the huge ridge that runs up Quandary’s spine. S Get ready for a long, steep haul.”

“Long” and “steep” do not begin to describe what we are talking about here. The book goes on, “Then the trail will labor its way through talus, sometimes disappearing. Don’t worry S”

Some explanations are in order here. Long means that from the beginning of that huge ridge, other climbers only halfway up the ridge look like ants crawling over boulders of rock candy. Steep means that to see the top of the ridge, one must crane his or her neck back to the point of vertigo. Talus is a ground covering of rocks ranging from the size of marbles that roll under your feet, to boulders that scrape your shins and twist your ankles.

We reached the talus after about an hour on the trail. Had we known what lay ahead, we might have turned around, gone home and lied to our wives.

Our pace slowed considerably as the rocks made it necessary to carefully plan every footfall. The incline seemed comparable to that of the Washington Monument. And oxygen became a real issue. At the end of our second hour, we had slipped and slid and crawled our way to a small saddle, about 100 yards across.

We still had two-thirds of the ridge to negotiate.

The next hour was more of the same. Only more so. All that keeps one going is the determination not to turn back.

To digress for a moment, Federal Aviation Regulations say that at altitudes between 12,000 and 14,000 feet, people need supplemental oxygen to perform adequately if exposed for more than 30 minutes.

At 10,000 feet hemoglobin (processes oxygen) carrying red blood cells is reduced from a normal 97 percent to about 80 percent. Hypoxia occurs under these conditions, leading to a breakdown of mental and physical processes. And you probably won’t even know it.

Symptoms of hypoxia are nausea, blurred vision, faster breathing rate, euphoria, loss of judgment and coordination. We both became nauseated. Our fourth hour was spent putting one foot in front of the other. We walked about 20 steps and took a break.

A 100-yard blanket of snow formed the “red carpet” to the summit. It is surreally majestic and gives one a genuine sense of owning the mountain.

From the summit, we could see Pikes Peak 150 miles away. The views were a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The writer, a primary resident of San Marcos, Texas, lives part time in Summit County. He can be reached at

bibbunderwood@yahoo.com.


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