Mountaineering Safety

Just because a crowd of people can march to the summit of Quandary Peak on a summer Saturday, it doesn’t mean that they are all safe.

Altitude sickness, dehydration, and fast-building storms are the most common problems. Get in shape and start early for each trip.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been half way down a 14er and passed hikers that were determined to get to the summit, even with huge thunderclouds brewing above.

Here are some basic points on mountaineering preparation and safety:

Preparing for the Trip

  • Consider taking a mountaineering class. If you don’t want to take a class, travel with experienced hikers.
  • General mountaineering classes are offered throughout the country and at the Colorado Mountain Club -
  • Make sure you are in the proper physical conditioning to make the trip.
  • Travel with experienced people.
  • Acquire the appropriate maps.
  • Plan for an early start - especially in thunderstorm season. I usually plan for a start early enough to get me below tree line by noon (on the descent). For a day hike that requires 10 - 15 miles roundtrip, consider hitting the trail a couple of hours before sunrise.
  • Check with the local U.S. Forest Service for road closures and trailhead information.
  • Bring a compass and/or GPS and know how to use them.
  • DO This, 
    • Check the weather forecast and change the day of the trip if the weather is not going to cooperate.
  • Tell someone the following:Research the route (maps and other descriptions) thoroughly so you know a lot about the terrain and landmarks before you even get there. Studying topo maps can really help.
    • When you are leaving
    • Where you are staying/camping
    • When and where you are hiking
    • When you plan to return
    • Oxygen (Life Saver, literally!, weightless)
    • For winter travel, check with local resources on the current avalanche danger. Pack the necessary gear for avalanche safety.

Altitude Sickness - The Only Remedy 

(Oxygen Life Saver, literally!, weightless)


  • Buy a book on mountaineering that covers altitude sickness. It is a common problem on 14ers - especially for people that come from much lower elevations.
  • Know when to spot the symptoms (in you and your partners).
  • Turn back if necessary. The best remedy is to get to lower elevation ASAP.

Bring the Proper Gear and Supplies

Unless you are planning a roped, technical climb, the following list includes most of the gear you'll need: 

Main Gear:
  • Water (plenty of water)
  • Oxygen (Life Saver, literally!, weightless)
  • Food
  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Synthetic shirts
  • Synthetic long underwear
  • Fleece or Wind-Block jacket
  • Waterproof shell/jacket
  • Nylon shorts
  • Hiking pants
  • Hiking boots / scrambling shoes
  • Hiking socks
  • Watch
  • Pack (that fits the hike/climb)
  • Headlamp
  • Sunglasses
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Water bladder or bottles
  • Compass
  • GPS
  • Maps
  • Tape
  • Whistle
  • Matches/lighter
  • 30spf+ sunscreen
  • TP (in ziploc bag)
  • Trash Bag
  • Cell phone
  • Extra batteries
  • Emergency supplies, including a first aid kit
  • SPOT or other personal locator device
  • Climbing helmet
  • Optional: Trekking poles
  • Optional: Water filter
  • Optional: Satellite Phone (expensive but extremely valuable in an emergency)
Colder Weather and Snow Climbing:
  • Waterproof shell
  • Waterproof pants
  • Mountaineering boots
  • Mountain axe
  • Snowshoes
  • Crampons
  • Gaiters (ankle or knee-high)
  • Winter hat
  • Ski goggles
  • Balaclava or fleece face mask
  • Avalanche beacons
  • Avalanche probe
  • Shovel
Gear for Overnight Summer Trips:
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Pack cover
  • Waterproof bag/sack to hang food in tree
  • Small rope to hang food
  • Stove
  • Fuel
  • Water filter
  • Paper towels
Backcountry Ski Gear:
  • AT/Tele skis / bindings
  • AT/Tele boots
  • Ski poles
  • Climbing skins
  • Climbing skin wax

Know Your Limitations

  • Get in shape in the off-season. Even the easiest 14er routes require proper conditioning.
  • Not everyone is fit enough for every hike. Understand when your body is telling you to turn back.
  • Make sure you have the proper skills to tackle the route. Many 14er routes can turn from easy hiking to technical climbing in a hurry.
  • Make sure all of the people in your group have the proper skills for the route.
  • Turn back if necessary.
  • Skiing/boarding a 14er is much different than visiting the ski area. It takes a certain set of skills to climb and ski in the backcountry and terrain can be steep, dangerous, and difficult to ski. On many routes, a fall could be fatal.

Safe Trekking

  • Start early.
  • If you are going to travel in winter, learn about avalanche safety. In winter, avalanche danger is always present.
  •  Click Here for the Colorado Avalanche Info Center
  • Pay attention at all times.
  • The altitude may impair your judgment, so it is very important to stay alert.
  • Keep a safe distance from other hikers.
  • Travel quietly.
  • If you are climbing a steep slope or gully, be careful not to send debris down on other climbers.
  • Watch for animals - cougars, bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots, deer, elk, and more...
  • Don’t wander off into the wilderness. If you get hurt, you may never be found.
  • Frozen lakes are not always safe.
  • Bring a cell phone or satellite phone.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Pack Oxygen.

Watch the Weather

  • Pick up a book on weather so you know how to "read" the sky and predict weather as best as possible.
  • Check the weather forecast the night before your trip.
  • Dark, brewing clouds are bad.
  • During summer, lightning is your main problem on a 14er. Start early and turn back if a thunderstorm is brewing.
  • A barometer is very helpful. Many new GPS units or hand-held weather stations will give you barometric information. Rapidly dropping barometric pressure is usually a sign of adverse weather to come.

Safety and Joining a pro club may be a great first step!