High Altitude Hacks: Hiking 14ers

high altitude

“In the mountaineering parlance of the Western United States, a [14er] is a mountain peak with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet (4267 meters). There are 96 [14ers] in the United States, all west of the Mississipi River. Colorado has the most (53) of any single state; California is in second place with 12.” (Wikipedia, 2017) 

When hiking a peak or long trail, preparation is key. Most 14ers can be done in a day (8 hours or less). There are a few tips that will make your trek more sufferable beyond the obvious – water, conditioning, protection, gear, etc. My top 3 hacks when hiking 14ers:

Hack #1: Ginkgo Biloba

The need to acclimate escapes most peak baggers – especially the weekend warriors from the lower altitudes (aka flatlanders). Who has time to spend a day or two getting our bodies acclimated? Not me. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) affects a small portion of the population. Although rare, when it hits you or someone in your group, it makes a good day turn terrifying.

With AMS, the first thing to do is to recognize the symptoms – nausea, lots of it. You might mistake it for food poisoning or drinking too much. Once you get below 10,000 feet, the symptoms will go away.

I had a friend get AMS on a summit attempt of Blanca Peak (Sangre de Cristo range, Colorado) at Lake Como base camp (more like a pond actually). My poor buddy retched outside our tent all night long through intermittent rain. It was one of his worst nights. We didn’t sleep a lick either. Had we diagnosed AMS correctly, we all would have been better off.

To avoid this from ruining your summit attempt, buy some ginkgo biloba. Begin taking it up to a couple days before and during your hike above 10,000 feet. Studies show that 80mg taken in a 12-hour period, 24 hours before the ascent helps prevent AMS. Bottles come in different doses and are available over the counter with the vitamins/supplements. I took two, 60mg pills in the morning and night, starting 2 days prior and continuing on summit day(s). Be sure to drink lots of water.

Ginkgo biloba is one of these ancient Chinese herbs with a slew of benefits. It helps increase blood flow in the brain. For you, it’s an insurance policy against AMS.

Hack #2: The Rest Step

Experienced mountain climbers have long known about the rest step. It is a walking technique that when executed properly will save some energy in the form of reduced muscle exertion.

It is used only in steep inclines and perfect for climbing 14ers. When hiking uphill, the idea is to resist the natural tendency to keep in a constant walking motion. Rather, pause for just a brief moment while locking the knee and back leg. This respite distributes the weight on your skeletal system and less on your leg muscles. Here’s a short vid on the technique: https://youtu.be/mb-YXVliAfw.

Hack #3: The Cold Soak

After a long day of hiking up a 14er, your leg muscles and joints are shot. They are swollen from activity and the beating they took – the constant pounding supporting your sorry shell of your former, once energetic self.

This is my favorite hack. Before you leave that morning, put a 6-pack of your favourite beers in the ice-cold stream found somewhere near your base camp or car parking lot. You may want to hide it from would-be brew bandits.

When you finish your hike, fetch your beverage stash in the cold stream. Promptly remove your boots and socks and replace the beers with your legs – the colder the stream, the better. Be sure to get your joints (ankles and knees) fully submerged.

Professional sports teams spend tens of thousands of dollars on fancy ice baths for their athletes. This does the same thing and it is free, with a better view. The cold will reduce inflammation quickly. This removes pain and cuts your recovery in half, if not more. You’ll be ready to take on another peak the next day – maybe. To alleviate the stinging sensation caused by the frigid waters, concentrate on drinking your beer – you deserve it. Good job!


Thanks to Bill Long for contributing this post. To check out more of Bills’ advice and adventures, and to grab one of his awesome t-shirts, visit allpeak.net. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @allpeak. 

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