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- 14er Beginner Guide Part 6 -

Know When to Turn Back | Avoiding 14er Summit Fever

Despite all the right research, gear, and experience, the mountains can still wreak havoc on your plans. Weather patterns can change, altitude sickness can strike, and people quickly become exhausted hiking at such a high altitude. However, due to numerous psychological traps, it is easy to ignore hazards in an all-out bid to reach the top – a phenomenon known as ‘summit fever.’ Here’s a few tips on recognizing when to turn back, plus advice on dealing with the urge to the summit.

Travel in a Group with Open Dialouge and Plans

The best defense against summit fever is the assistance of climbing partners. We are better at recognizing cognitive bias in others than we are in ourselves, so two heads are better than one. The best group size of all is three. When you get four or more, it gets harder to make group decisions and have discussions.
Make a plan as a group, including details like your turn-around time, risk tolerance, and talk through any concerns. Ensure you stick to the level of the least experienced member, and emphasize open dialogue: People should feel comfortable speaking up if they are not feeling well or cannot continue.
Once on the mountain with a group, stay together as a group. Many, if not most, search and rescue missions begin when a single member of a group separates to go add something to the itinerary or to turn back early. Stick together, as it significantly reduces your risk of serious injury or death. 

Watch for Weather: Turn Back for Storms

Thunderstorms are all but guaranteed during the summer months in Colorado. As the sun warms the mountains, they heat the air above them, creating massive circulation cycles that generate powerful storms. Being above treeline when these storms strike puts you at significant risk of being struck by lightning. Storms can form quickly, as early as 9 am, requiring constant vigilance. Being caught in a lightning storm is a terrifying experience you don’t want to try. 
Start your climb early to be back down to the treeline by noon or 1 pm. Take time on your ascent to periodically scan the entire sky for signs of thunderstorm formation. Watch for puffy clouds that are growing upwards vertically, as well as distant storms and rain. Storms within visible distance suggests storms could form whee you are – they could be just beyond the peak you are climbing. So take care and be ready to bail quickly. If you hear thunder you are within range of lightning, so descend immediately. You are safest back in your vehicle, so do not stop once back below the tre line.

Don't Push Too Hard: Turn Back if Exhausted

Climbing a mountain is exhausting. I won’t argue with that. However, in some cases, it can cause actual physical exhaustion, a medical condition that can pose serious risks. A simple test for exhaustion involves letting someone stop hiking to rest for 10-15 minutes. If their pulse and breathing don’t settle down in this time period, they are likely pushing themselves too hard. Additionally, symptoms of dehydration like mental confusion, headaches, and nausea may suggest you need prolonged rest.

Many athletes who become exhausted on a 14er try to push through the pain. However, the low level of oxygen found at 14,000 feet makes it harder for the body to recover. When you run out of energy and finally decide you need rescue, you are even deeper into the mountains. Continuing while exhausted is a bad idea, as it leaves you with no margin for error if something goes wrong. You can’t run from a lightning storm if you can barely stand!

Can't Think Straight? Turn Back for Altitude Sickness

Many hikers at 14,000 feet experience mild altitude sickness – a mild headache, extra fatigue, and a bit of nausea are typical. However, when these symptoms advance to those of moderate acute mountain sickness, it is time to descend. These symptoms include:

  • Worsening fatigue,
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Coordination problems and difficulty walking.
  • Severe headache,
  • Nausea and vomiting,
  • Confusion and mild mental disability.

The effects of AMS often begin to subside within 1,000 feet or so. Continue to descend until they begin to lessen in severity.

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Running Behind: Turn Back if Late

During most climbs, you experience a multitude of little mistakes that, don’t make much impact on their own. Going back for your shoes 15 minutes into the drive – searching for the trailhead when your GPS dies. Over the course of the day these delays add up, often slowly and imperceptibly, until you’re 800 feet below the summit and your alarm goes off – you’ve reached your turn-around time.

The turn-around time is a critical moment during most climbs – climbing beyond it is often the first in a series of mistakes that lead to accidents on the mountain.  When the weather appears amazing, conditions are good, and the team feels strong, the allure of the summit is often too much to withstand. However, it is critical that you do. Climbing at night poses significant risk to you, along with subjecting you to unknown weather hazards. More time spent at high altitudes can also weaken your decision-making, leading to further risk-taking down the line.

Set a firm turn-around time as a team, and turn back when you reach it. The mountain will be there another day. 

Conditions Not Great? Turn Back!

Even with solid research, you may encounter something in the mountains you were not prepared for. Snowfields and ice are not uncommon in June and July, and stream crosssings become bloated and more difficult during perriods of high run off. When snow is on the trail it may be hard and supportive, or wet and waist-deep. When you encounter conditions you are not comfortable with, do not subjct yourself to hell. Head back to the trailhead to try again when conditions are better or you have the right gear to handle them. 

Know When to Turn Back: A Review

Let’s review the most important things to consider about knowing when to turn back on a 14er hike or climb:

  • Bring a buddy to help with decision-making. Three is the ideal group size.
  • Watch for deteriorating weather and turn back for storms.
  • When altitude sickness progresses, turn back.
  • If you are physically exhausted, turn back.
  • If you cannot manage the conditions safely, turn back.
  • Stay together: If one person must turn back, everyone should go together.

I hope you feel more prepared to hike your first Colorado fourteener! If you want to learn more and receive personalized coaching, consider signing up for my online course for beginners below.

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Become a subscriber to download my free 14er planner. It lists all 58 peaks in the perfect climbing order. Get it now & start planning!