Spencer McKee on a high point along the route to Sunshine Peak (eastern slopes).

Spencer McKee on a high point along the route to 14,001' Sunshine Peak (eastern slopes).

Climbing Colorado's fourteeners can be a great experience, but the extreme location and nature of these hikes can have the adventure quickly headed from good to bad to worse when a few simple factors come into play.

If you're looking to maximize your chances of a successful summit, be careful not to cut corners when it comes to these five things:

1. Stick to the route

The importance of sticking to an established route on a high elevation peak can't be stressed enough. Many times, when deaths and rescues take place on Colorado's mountains, a person purposefully or accidentally traveling off-route is what lands someone in trouble in the first place. Remember, just because traveling in an off-route direction appears to be a feasible option, doesn't mean it is. The established route on the mountain is where it's at for a reason, often due to hiker safety.

In the same way that sticking to the established route is important, route-finding is, as well. Moving off-route unintentionally can result in a very scary and dangerous situation. Because of this, it's important to be diligent while traveling in high elevation terrain, watching out for the correct cairns and pathways. This also makes it important to educate oneself on a route prior to hitting the trail. Watch Youtube videos and analyze images with directional cues. Better yet – print out images with directional cues and bring them with you.

2. Communication is key

Surprise – the middle of the Colorado backcountry doesn't have great cell phone connection. This makes it important to have another means of communication that you can rely on in the event of an emergency.

GPS communication devices are expensive, but should be part of most backcountry adventures. Even a twisted ankle can turn deadly when the elements are involved, making even a seemingly tame adventure something worth taking very seriously.

The standard communication advice used by many Colorado adventurers seems to be the Garmin inReach. Search and rescue teams use it. I use it. Many of my friends use it. It works – plain and simple. And it's great for maintaining a peace of mind and a level head when things start going south.

3. Altitude sickness is lurking

It's easy to assume that being physically fit or frequenting high elevation terrain means that altitude sickness isn't a risk. That's not necessarily the case. There's always a chance that altitude sickness can rear its head.

Speaking from personal experience, I've probably made the walk to 14,000 feet 60-plus times and I'll still get the occasional reminder of how painful altitude sickness symptoms can be.

Because of this, it's important to stay hydrated, fueled, and be careful with consuming too much caffeine. It's also important to note that you shouldn't be drinking only water, you'll need something with electrolytes, too.

When signs of altitude sickness start creeping up, don't keep climbing. Head back down the mountain and shoot for the summit another day. The only real way to stop altitude sickness once it starts is to descend to a lower elevation and that's something that should be taken seriously sooner than later, as symptoms won't typically get better on their own.

4. Weather forecasts don't always hold true

In general, I've found Mountain-Forecast.com to be the most helpful website when it comes to consistently providing a reliable and in-depth forecast for the highest peaks around Colorado. That being said, forecasts tend to constantly change and evolve throughout the day, making it crucial to consistently monitor weather overhead and to avoid taking weather-related risks.

One good example of how weather can quickly complicate a climb is found in a recent rescue on El Diente Peak in southwest Colorado. Thankfully, crews were able to save a hiker with a broken leg near the summit in a safe weather window, but as the crew stated, "luck" was a factor. Even just a 15-minute delay would have prevented their specialized helicopter from playing a role in the mission and who knows what the outcome would be had that been the case.

Climbing in bad weather not only increases the level of risk to the individual that's climbing, but also to search and rescue crews that may have to enter the field when things go wrong. It can be annoying to change plans when the forecast changes, but it's often the safest and most responsible thing to do.

5. Be highly aware of your own ability level

While all fourteener climbs max out at 'class four' or lower, that still means that some climbs can be very intense and extremely strenuous – don't underestimate a climb.

Outside of simply researching a route thoroughly prior to embarking on a trip to a summit, it's also important to be very aware of your own abilities. This will help you avoid a dangerous situation in which you get in over your head.

Obviously, a big motivator behind why many people climb Colorado's fourteeners can be the challenge, which often involves pushing beyond where one has gone before. That being said, practicing skills off the mountain, such as climbing in a gym or running the local trails, can help better prepare you to push a little outside of your comfort zone without pushing outside of your own abilities.

Another plus of off-mountain practice is gaining a better understanding of how your body is operating when it counts. Are you getting dehydrated? Should you tackle this route or that one? Is that slight pain in your foot something you should end the day over?

Many rescues are the result of someone overestimating their own abilities and getting stuck in a hairy situation. The better you understand your own skills and weaknesses, the easier it will be to prevent that from happening.

BONUS: The right gear could save your life

Pack layers for changing weather. Wear a helmet (and the right one) when the terrain warrants doing so. Bring a first aid kit and extra socks. And don't forget the toilet paper. And don't forget, a poncho can always be helpful for water-proofing. If you're not familiar with the 10 essentials, check out this list and make sure you're bringing those along.

What's your tip for climbing a fourteener? Let us know in the comment section below.

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