First of all, if you are unfamiliar with the term “14er” let me educate you for a moment. The word 14er in hiking parlance refers to a 14,000ft mountain; these are the tallest mountains in the continental United States (Alaska has some monsters that exceed this height). The tallest fourteener in the U.S. is Mt. Whitney in California at a massive 14,505 ft. My favorite state, Colorado, hosts anywhere from 53 to 59 fourteeners (depending on how you classify them) and hiking these bad boys are a major pastime in this state.
Hiking a 14er first showed up on my radar in 9th grade. My dad had moved to Fort Collins, Colorado and was dating a woman who had attempted to hike up the legendary Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. He relayed the tale of having to wake up early EARLY in the morning to battle the altitude and afternoon thunderstorms. Instantly I knew that I had to do this. I set a life goal of: hike all of Colorado’s 14ers.
Since that day, I have summited eight of them. While hiking I’ve created unforgettable memories, faced immense self-doubt, confronted fear of heights, and experienced failure. These mountains have been incredibly exhilarating and have taught me life lessons. The top of a 14er is the happiest place on earth for me.
Why hike them?
To understand that your body can do amazing things
Hiking a 14,000ft mountain is NOT easy. Even the “easiest” 14ers are incredibly draining and tiresome. By the time you reach the summit you are light-headed, dehydrated, your body probably feels shattered…and you still have to go all the way back down! By the end of the day you are physically drained. You feel the effects of altitude with a headache pounding worse with each heartbeat. You feel like puking your granola bars and dried pineapple back up. It’s like the worst hangover you ever experienced (especially when you are coming from the “flatlands” like I usually am). BUT you now understand that you can do it. You have the capability to keep pushing forward when every muscle fiber is telling you to quit, when your lungs are screaming at you to stop.
My wife has climbed five 14ers with me. (We ate our frozen wedding cake on our first anniversary on top of Mt. Democrat.) She has compared climbing 14ers to childbirth: during the process of hiking up the mountain, you are miserable and tired and just want it to be over with. You might even yell out that you’re never going to hike up a mountain again, or make the comment “you did this to me!” to your hiking partner. But when you get to the top and see that gorgeous view, you forget about all that pain you went through to get to the top, and you start thinking about the next one you’re going to climb.
I’ve learned the most important life lesson while hiking up these mountains. They have shown me that everything in life is impermanent, even pain, and by focusing on putting one foot in front of the other you WILL go beyond your discomfort and reach your goals.
See the world from a different vantage point
There is something so incredibly peaceful about being on the top of a mountain, feeling the wind in your hair, looking over miles and miles of this beautiful world – an experience that can change your perspectives.
I’ve used hiking to meditate on certain problems I have had in my life. Whether the problems are big or small, I’ve always come out of the hike with a new understanding. A mixture of mountain air, evergreen smells, breathtaking views (literally!), and lack of oxygen have been my therapy.
Setting a goal and accomplishing it
A mountain is a goal that is different from other life goals. It’s tangible. It’s right there. You can actually see it.
It’s different than saying “I want to run a marathon” or “eat healthy”; these are great goals, but I can’t look out my window every morning and say “Welp, there’s my goal. Better get to work so I can accomplish it.” If you are out of shape and you set a goal of hiking up a mountain, you can use the visual of it to inspire you every day. Don’t feel like working out? Put a picture of the mountain on your desktop or (if you’re lucky enough to live by it) stare at the damn thing! Imagining yourself on top of it can be a major motivator.
At some point while hiking, you will begin to bonk. You will hit your wall and feel like quitting. The cure for this negative mental state: just look up in front of you. See that point up the hill in the distance? That’s your goal; you can see it in front of you. Keep going and you will get there, give up and you won’t get there. Mountains make it that simple.
(Minus false summits… points on the mountain that you assume to be the top, then you get there and realize there is a lot more hiking to go.)
Because it’s there
This is the famous response George Mallory gave in 1924 to the question, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” While many people have criticized his answer as being cocky and arrogant, I think it is a badass answer. To be content with life and to climb something just for the sake of climbing it is something a Bigfoot would do.
Beer and Pizza taste that much better!
In all reality, beer and pizza mixed with exhaustion and a sense of accomplishment might be my real motivation to keep hiking these mountains.