8 Things I Learned from Finishing Colorado's Fourteeners

In Colorado there are 58 named mountains above 14,000 feet. They are known as the “Colorado Fourteeners” or 14ers. I hiked to the top of my first 14er (Mount Massive—the second highest in the state) at 12 years old in 2000/01 with my dad. I finished my last 14er in 2019 at the age of 31 on Crestone Peak also with my dad.

In total, my dad and I climbed about half of Colorado’s 14ers together. I don’t entirely know what possessed me to say “yes” to my dad’s suggestion that I go hiking with him in Colorado, but it was a choice that probably changed my life.

Now I have to admit it wasn’t always a rosy beginning. And really it wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I really got the bug for high elevation hiking and climbing.
Instead of reciting long narratives on each mountain or highlighting a few of my favorites I thought I would reflect on the experience as a whole and what I learned about life, climbing, friendships, and relationships in my nineteen years of hiking to Colorado’s highest points.

#1 It’s the journey, not the destination.

Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you are climbing it.  -Andy Rooney

Albeit a cliche way to start this list, it’s entirely true in my 14ers journey. Some of my saddest moments on climbing trips have been the summit! Because the journey to the top is what is most memorable, not necessarily the top in itself. I don’t actually recall the terrain or views on top of most 14ers. But I can recite stories for hours about the approach, the nights in camp, the food before and after the hike. In our selfie, Instagram-fueled world of “look at me” and “look where I am” the journey to getting to these places is often lost. Don’t forget to enjoy the middle bits, because the middle bits are even more important as the ending. This is true in life and climbing! Don’t get so blinded by the end goal that you forget to enjoy the ride. It’s a breathtaking, dizzying and crazy ride (of life) we’re all on. Take a few moments to revel in it.

#2 Taco Bell is not an approach hike meal. But I still love Taco Bell.

This may seem obvious to some, but my dad and I once ate Taco Bell about two hours before starting an approach hike to El Diente Peak. Let’s just say the toilet paper didn’t last long.

#3 You can’t grow if you don’t push your boundaries.

I remember there were a few mountains that I always assumed I would never climb when I first started getting serious about doing most/all of the 14ers. The skills and confidence to climb them seemed like something impossible to acquire. And yet, mountain by mountain, my skillset, experiences, and confidence grew. Before you knew it, I was summitting the mountains I once only dreamed about.

In life, it’s important  to push ourselves outside our comfort zone. We grow by attempting what  we think we can’t accomplish.
Who knows? You just might surprise yourself.

#4 It takes a village.

There is no such thing as a self-made man. You will reach your goals only with the help of others. -George Shinn

While I have had numerous climbing partners on the 14ers including friends, acquaintances, and strangers I met on the trails, my dad and I climbed half of the 14ers together. If you are going to do something great in life — you need a team of people that support you and believe what you believe. I found that in my dad. And although we didn’t always agree on the mountain or off it, we had the same goal and the same drive (okay..stubbornness) to succeed in our crazy quest to stand on top of each mountain. Climbing often focuses far too much on individual successes (“firsts” or “youngest”) but totally misses the fact that no one climbs alone. Be it porters, partners, or your deep-seated inspiration for climbing in the first place, it’s unlikely you got there by yourself.

#5 Don’t forget your food.

Just a few years ago, with about 80 14er summits between the two of us, my dad and I realized about an hour outside of camp that we had forgotten our day’s food in the bag hung in the tree to keep it away from possible bears. Don’t do that.

#6 Stay in the moment. Don’t lose where you are.

I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is. - Alan Watts

This is not only good safety advice but also philosophical advice. The adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” is would also be apt here. Climbing is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Not a single world-class (or unknown) mountaineer went straight to summiting Everest. What matters is small steps—both in life and on the mountain. Don’t get hung up on what’s ahead and don’t worry about what you left behind. The summit waits and the steps you have taken are already past. You will get there eventually. Focus on where you are in the moment. The current step is what is most important; you can’t be worried about 15 steps later otherwise you will never get there (because your ass is now falling down the mountain because you lost focus on the present).

#7 You should do your business before you leave treeline.

Treeline is the point in which trees are no longer able to grow because of the climate, soil conditions, and steep slopes. Trees also provide good privacy and cover for the delicate business of #2s in nature. Don’t wait too long or those trees just might disappear a little too soon.

#8 Climb with your heart.

Everything you gain in life will rot and fall apart, and all that will be left of you is what was in your heart. -Jim Carrey

Climb for the right reasons. Remember the right things: people and not objects, journeys and not summits, sunrises and not the time you had to wake up. Your heart can be filled with time spent on mountains. Let it be filled.

As a journalist-turned-designer, the driving interest in my work is to unify the ethical and documentary obligations of journalism (storytelling) and its common ground with the projective, forward-thinking obligations of the design fields (futuretelling)."

Jonathan Knight