Altitude Attacks: Oxygen, Sympathy Run Thin at 14,000 Feet

One of my friends told me that she usually starts to “feel it” around 13,000 feet.

Mountain goats at Quandary Peak.

We were about a mile into the three to four mile ascent, and we had just come across a pack of mountain goats on the snow-covered rocks. The dog chased them as far as he could over the ridge, stopping when the pitch became too intimidating, looking down at the goats that now stood comfortably on the side of the mountain.

I inhaled deeply. We were around 10,000 feet and I knew the air was thin, but I felt like a million bucks – the blue sky, fluffy clouds, wildlife, and distant peaks distracting me from the stress on my body. In a few minutes this would all change – this was no ordinary hill.

Classified as a fourteener, a mountain over 14,000 ft, Quandary Peak is located just outside of Breckenridge (80 miles from Denver). There are approximately 70 fourteeners in the lower 48 states, and 53 of them are in Colorado (numbers may vary depending upon source as each uses slightly different qualification criteria). It’s a thing around here, for sure. People keep track of how many they’ve hiked, and when you tell someone you’ve hiked your first they are genuinely congratulatory.

I wrote in a recent feature that Denver’s urban/outdoor combination attracts an active and athletic population, and now I’m starting to wonder if that might have been an understatement. Those used to living at sea level who consider themselves to be in good shape are in for a surprise – the altitude has a way of humbling visitors. Myself included.

On top of the world at Quandary Peak.

I’ll give credit to the Coloradans: Despite being incredibly fit and physically capable, they carry a tremendous amount of respect for the elements and how dangerous these beautiful environments can be. Staying on the trail is an extremely good idea, and hiking without ample food and water is downright foolish. It’s a good thing I was going with locals, because I was prepared to set off with nothing more than the water in my Camelback.

Let’s put this all in perspective: When I went skydiving over Santa Barbara last year, I jumped out of a plane that was cruising at 13,000 ft. That’s stunning to me, and probably explains why I had to stop every five to ten minutes to catch my breath once we hit 12,000 ft. Even though it’s only a class 1, the hike to Quandary Peak is all uphill, from the first step to the last. As you ascend the terrain changes from covered paths to exposed rock fields, and you go from simply walking up hill to now stepping up and climbing loose rocks. Stair-stepping, if you will.

Spouts of dizziness and a thumping heart forced me to stop and regroup frequently once we hit the final mile – something I simply had to get used to and accept. While initially frustrated, I did begin to appreciate the way taking a seat brought the surroundings to my complete attention. I can’t imagine it’s an unlikely scenario for one to put their head down and charge up the mountain and allow the workout to drown out the scenery.

Arriving at the top of Quandary Peak was by no means anti-climatic – just take a look at the photos. The sight lines exploded and people were drinking beer, hanging out (my sorry ass stuck with coconut water). It was really the nonchalance that impressed me, that made me shake my head and laugh. You know, climb 14,000 ft, have a beer, climb down. Whatever.

Check out Colorado Fourteeners for more information on Quandary Peak (and others). Here are the photos of our journey to 14,265 feet:

Yours truly enjoying lunch at the top of Quandary Peak.



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