While climbing some of the Twilight Peaks, Tim takes in dozens of thirteeners in the Weminuche Wilderness near Durango
Tim and Carrie share a view of the Elk Mountains from Precarious Peak near Crested Butte
Carrie atop an unnamed 13er near San Luis Peak in the San Juan Mountains near Creede
Carrie takes the shot while Tim poses for this dramatic photo of the Needle Mountains
Every summer, it’s estimated that there are more than a quarter million ascents or attempted ascents of Colorado’s high fourteeners (summits that rise more than 14,000 feet above sea level). Taking 55 fourteeners* and dividing that into 250,000 visits, we come up with an average of 4,545 visits per peak annually! Needless to say, that can result in a lot of impact. Perhaps we are loving our mountains to death?
Climbing any of these fourteeners is certainly a worthy goal, but there is an alternative that offers far greater solitude, even more remote and pristine settings, greater challenges, more wildlife, more wildflowers and a near lifetime of mountain adventures: Go climb a thirteener instead. That is, any summit that rises to more than 13,000 feet above sea level. In Colorado, there are 583 “ranked” thirteeners. That’s rougly 11 times as many fourteeners and an excellent way to spread out some of that wear and tear. (And if climbing all the thirteeers is not enough of a lifetime hobby for you, then how about the twelvers? There are only 676 of them! Would you believe that there are people who have climbed all the fourteeners, thirteeners and twelvers?)
The Climbing Cooneys
We, Tim and Carrie the Climbing Cooneys, as we call ourselves, ascended our first thirteener in 1988. We had just finished climbing all of the fourteeners the previous summer and our main climbing partner, a seminary professor named Bob Alden, was already inviting us to keep climbing by joining him on some of the highest 13,000-foot summits. It became Bob’s goal to climb the 200 highest summits in the state and soon, we found ourselves “roped” into the same goal. It wasn’t long before peakbagging was in our blood.
Around January of each new year, we would start planning out what peaks we wanted to visit, and each summer, we would spend numerous weekends and sometimes a week of vacation pursuing our thirteener goals. On August 3, 2013, we stood atop Boreas Mountain along with 20 other friends and relatives to celebrate what had become a lifetime endeavor. We had summited our final thirteeners — a goal that took 25 years to achieve.
What You Need to Do It
“Bagging” a Colorado thirteener does not have to be a pricey hobby. A good pair of hiking boots that can withstand the often sharp rocks of the high peaks are a must — save your feet and consider good boots an investment. At 25 summits per season, and an average of 100 miles or more of hiking, we have found that our boots usually last us three or four seasons.
In addition, a daypack with outer rain protection and perhaps an inner drybag is very useful and will keep contents dry during those inevitable afternoon showers. Other essential items include rain gear, flashlight, map, compass or GPS, sunscreen, coat and gloves, food, water, a basic first-aid kit and perhaps a space blanket or similar item for an emergency stay overnight. Though they may be lower in elevation than a fourteener, a Colorado thirteener can see snow and freezing temperatures even in the middle of the summer.
Climbing most all of Colorado’s thirteeners does not require any special talent either, but unlike the well-trod fourteeners, the majority of these peaks require more off-trail hiking, so good map-reading skills and navigational abilities are a must. Only about a half dozen even have a Class 5 (technical) rating, but there are plenty that offer nice rock-scrambling routes that provide loads of entertainment.
Let Us Paint You a Thirteener Picture
Imagine there’s no other person around for miles while you cool your feet in a teal-colored mountain lake at timberline, surrounded by soaring peaks and a cobalt-blue Colorado sky overhead. Elk bugle in the distance. A colorful palette of wildflowers are nearby. If you’re looking for a wilderness experience, it’s harder and harder to find on a fourteener. But we have sat atop a thirteener completely alone and watched dozens of hikers, looking like an army of little ants, marching to the summit of a distant fourteener across the valley. If you like tranquility, a thirteener is the place to be.
Now you know why we keep coming back. So go climb a mountain — but make it a thirteener instead!
For specific information on Colorado thirteeners, we invite you to peruse climb13ers.com. This growing site is free to the public and presently has more than 300 route descriptions.
Or follow this link to articles written by the Cooneys for “Our Backyard,” a monthly supplement to the Nickads and published by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. And learn more about our adventures at climbingcooneys.com.
* Note: There is a debate about exactly how many fourteeners there are in Colorado. The Colorado Geological Survey says there are 58 peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation. Others use this logic: To qualify, a peak must rise at least 300 feet above the saddle that connects it to the nearest fourteener peak (if another exists nearby). You can make up your own mind!