OURAY — “Man, that’s the biggest day I’ve had in a while,” Bean Bowers said after dropping his backpack at the Bilk Creek Basin trailhead in the heart of the San Juan Mountain Range.
The comment might have originated from any one of the dozen men trading sturdy hiking shoes for flip-flops at the trail’s eastern terminus. Already nursing sore muscles and swollen feet from the previous day’s climb of nearby 14,150- foot Mount Sneffels, the group followed up with an early summer ascent of 14,017-foot Wilson Peak over a less-traveled route spanning nearly 15 miles and 5,000 vertical feet.
So the words carried an additional element of satisfaction coming from Bowers, a mountain guide by trade working with the Ouray- based and highly regarded San Juan Mountain Guides. Reaching the summit of one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks is always gratifying. But sharing the associated sting of 10 hours on the trail with a hardened pro somehow sweetens the deal.
“For a lot of the peaks in our area, it’s pretty common for people to get a guide,” said Clint Cook, who owns and operates San Juan Mountain Guides with his wife, Ryan. “As people start getting down ‘The List’ to the last seven or eight technical ones, it’s a pretty big step up. The Wilsons, El Diente, Wetterhorn, Crestone and some of the peaks in the Aspen area definitely offer some exposed scrambling. They aren’t just hikes.”
“The List,” as most Colorado outdoors types are aware, refers to the elite peaks of the Rocky Mountain chain rising above 14,000 feet. By most accounts — including the U.S. Geological Survey and the Colorado Mountain Club — there are 54 such mountains within Colorado’s borders, interspersed among more than 1,500 points rising above 12,000 feet and 637 separate summits higher than 13,000 feet.
Colorado is the undeniable apex of America, containing nearly 80 percent of the 68 fourteeners in the contiguous United States.
California rankssecond with 13. Washington offers 14,411-foot Mount Rainier.
Mountains, of course, constitute only a portion of Colorado’s diverse geography, but since Zebulon Pike’s 1806 attempt at achieving the first recorded summit of the fourteener near Colorado Springs bearing his name, it has been the snowcapped Rockies that first come to mind whenever the state is mentioned. And now that the vast majority of the mountain snowpack has melted, the season for fourteener climbing is in its prime.
“June through September is pretty much the prime season,” said Cook, a year-round guide who is among the few Americans to have achieved full international certification through the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA). “Once we get into the main summer season, we stay pretty busy every day. It’s as popular now for people to climb all those fourteeners as it has ever been, really.”
Reasons for climbing mountains are as varied as the peaks themselves. For some, it’s the challenge of achieving a set goal — be it a single summit or 54 of them. Others are focused on the fitness found through mountaineering. Still more are drawn to the isolation and allure of nature, with almost all the state’s fourteeners residing within established Wilderness Areas.
“I think a huge part of the appeal is that it’s such a great way to be a part of the natural environment, to get away from the hassles of everyday life,” Cook said. “It’s a great relief for the average person in society, and it offers both a physical and mental challenge.”
The fourteeners sprawling the state vary considerably.
Ranging from Colorado’s highest mountain range — the Sawatch Range concentrated in Lake and Chaffee counties — to the technically challenging Sangre de Cristo Range spanning the New Mexico border and the Elk Mountains near Aspen, all offer their own personalities.
Yet it may be the steep and dramatic San Juans bulging into the southwestern portion of the state that offer the greatest appeal to fourteener seekers. Second only to the Sawatch Range in concentration of the state’s tallest peaks, the San Juan Range offers an entire season’s worth of mountain climbing in relatively close proximity.
Among the most alluring summits is Mount Sneffels, accessed via the Yankee Boy Basin, just south of Ouray. Sometimes called the “Queen of the San Juans,” Sneffels’ towering summit stands prominent among the grandiose alpine walls greeting visitors approaching the range from the north. A 6-mile, round-trip route can typically be completed in less than six hours and can include some moderately difficult scrambling near the summit, varying with route selection.
“This is one of the classic fourteeners,” guide Cory Jackson said. “It’s a pretty chossy ridge, so it’s fairly hands-on. But you don’t get climbs like this in a lot of places.”
The reward for those who complete the scramble to the summit is a rarified view of surrounding San Juan peaks including Tea Kettle, Dallas and Kismet, valley views of the stunning Blue Lakes and the Telluride ski area.
Wilson Peak — not to be confused with nearby Mount Wilson, another fourteener — offers a stout follow-up hike. The iconic peak featured on the Coors Light beer label is best approached from the Bilk Creek Basin near Telluride, since the traditional (and much shorter) route in the Silver Pick Basin has been closed to public access by a private landowner.
As a result, the lengthy trail sees somewhat light travel through a more pristine basin below Lizard Head Peak, but is probably best approached as an overnight trip.
“Bilk Creek is a bit longer but a lot more scenic,” said Cook, who once led actor Tom Cruise to the Wilson Peak summit. “It doesn’t take triathlete fitness or anything like that. Climbing fourteeners is a pretty open activity for people who can walk for a few hours. More than anything it just takes a good head, taking it slow and knowing your own personal boundaries. A good sense of adventure and positive attitude are most important.”