There are pivotal firsts in everyone’s life – many that we share, like a first home, first child, first funeral. And then there are the firsts that are less common, and maybe even unexpected, like my first 14er (14,000+ foot mountain) in September of 2017. I had no idea what I was getting into when my friend Stacie offered that we should do the Quandary Peak hike on a girls Colorado trip a few years ago. But I was up for a new challenge and if she thought we could do it, I trusted it would be fine. Everything was fine. Just fine. And my life was forever changed.
Preparing for my first 14er
I’m a researcher and like to know everything I possibly can about things that I am involved in, so I did not come at this lightly. I researched how to prepare for your first 14er, I researched Quandary Peak trail reviews on my AllTrails app and 14ers.com. I researched essential 14er day hiking gear and everything in between. I had been on plenty of Colorado ski trips and never had an issue with altitude sickness. I once trained for a marathon and ran it (at sea level in Disney World, 11 years prior). We were hiking regularly, I was doing some lifting and cross training now and then. I was prepared and confident.
Quandary Peak Hike: the beginning
We arrived in the parking lot between 6 – 6:30 on a Saturday and got one of the last parking spots. A few steps into the steep, rocky, rooted trail into the forest, I was huffing and puffing and my legs were burning. This trail is a little over 7 miles round trip and gains 3,300 feet, and it hit hard right from the start! I’m sure the bit of wine with the girls the day before didn’t help, but we legit reigned ourselves in because we knew we had this big day ahead of us.
Outside of the physical struggle, it was a beautiful place. The beginning of Quandary Peak hike meanders through the timber as you make your way torward the treeline. There are places where the trees begin to thin a bit and you can see the beautiful views around. We were able to watch the sun come up behind a neighboring peak (Hoosier Ridge possibly?) and began to see back down to the road where we began. But no matter how far we’d gone and how out of breath I was, the peak always seemed so far away. In many places, you couldn’t even see it for the trees or the ridge we had to climb just to get to the final peak ascent.
Above the tree line on Quandary Peak
Once we cleared the trees, the trail became ever more rocky, and we began a never ending series of steep steps made from the rock that curled back and forth up the side of the ridge. I recall most averaged about 12 inches, but some were 18 and some were 24, and some maybe even bigger, with no consistency between them. Some were shallow, some were deep, and some had slippery tiny pebbles on them. I realized here why many people used trekking poles (that’s an affiliate link on which I can make a commission for sale – I now use these exact poles religiously!) but I did not have them on this hike.
It took forever. We had a group of six women, so when one of us wanted to take a break, everyone took a break. This did not bode well for our speed to the Quandary Peak summit! The mountain weather is unpredictable from noon on, so the goal was to be at summit and well below the tree line on our descent before any potential afternoon storm might hit. But despite that knowledge, our legs and lungs could only move so fast.
The rock steps took about 47 million hours to scale, and when we finally came to the 13,000 foot ridge before the final ascent, I got a second wind. I found my way in the front of our group with Stacie, our fearless leader that moved swiftly and without complaint like a true mountain goat. We walked the ridge together and began the final ascent up the massive rocky peak. I shot a windy video while walking behind her, and later used a still from that video for a pencil drawing of her heading toward the peak as a birthday gift. She and I share December birthdays and have often talked about how our birthdays have always felt less special because of the holidays, so I wanted to make her a special gift to remind her how amazing she is. Like my previous post and the horse sketch, I was not practicing much art at the time; this was drawn in a random sketchbook and with pencils from my college art supply box.
The final ascent of Quandary Peak hike
What appeared to be seemingly a straight shot, was made up of a barely there trail that zig zagged through the rocks to the summit. For the first part of it, I was right there with Stacie. But as the trail got steeper and rockier, every step got slower and took more effort to lift and maintain my balance. I am not exaggerating to say that many times I counted 5 or 10 steps before I had to stop and rest. Stacie and I got further apart, and my friends Heather and her sister Jennifer caught up with me, and we supported each other along the way for a bit but again became separated as they moved quicker and I continued to slow, wondering if I would make it to the top.
At some point while I was resting on a rock, contemplating quitting, a fit fellow moving quickly up the trail stopped to ask if I was okay. I just complained mildly with a forced smile, to which he replied “This is a gift to be here. Your body is amazing, and your mind can push through. Here you can transcend your troubles and do amazing things that so many can’t/won’t ever do. Smile and take one step at a time!” I also learned in our brief conversation that he was an ultramarathoner and this was his “recovery day” from a recent race, but regardless, he words spoke truth. I dug deep to find the strength, and the gratitude, to continue a few steps at a time.
The weather was growing colder and windier as I slowly made my way up the mountainside by myself. My cell got random service and I received texts from my friends that had passed me that they were at the top but could see snow storms looming in the distance, headed our way and to HURRY. I had no hurry in my legs but I also didn’t have any quit. With lots of breaks and lots of tears, I would keep going. I finally crested close enough to the top that my friends could see me, and they cheered me on to the main part of the summit at 14,265 feet. My tears unleashed and my breathe lost all control and I hyperventilated for a bit out of sheer emotional overwhelm.
What goes up must come down
I wish we had more time to celebrate, but once up top, I could see the storms coming. We got a text from the two behind us that they reached 14,000 feet and decided that was sufficient, so they were headed down and would see us at the car. We began our descent as light snow began to fall.
Even though the descent was easier on the lungs, my legs were shot, and the snow made the rocks a little more slippery. We tried to move as quickly as possible while balancing the need for safety, but the going was slow. The storms caught up with us while we were still well above the treeline, and things got sketchy. The snow turned into to sideways blowing sleet, which stung our faces and hands. I had thin running gloves that offered little warmth, and some forgot to pack gloves at all and were wearing spare pairs of socks on their hands for protection. Visibility was low and steps were treacherous on the rocks, so a few times we ducked down alongside the cairns (piles of rocks along the trail to help with wayfinding) for protection from the elements. We discussed our terror and wondering if we should wait it out or keep going, with fear that things could accumulate quickly as we waited. We opted to face it and continue downward.
It was the longest, most stressful hike down. We did eventually reach the treeline, at which point, the clouds cleared and the sun came out. It was like a completely different day. We were exhausted physically and emotionally, but relieved to find our way down on a dry dirt path among the trees. The impact on my knees and toes of so many steps downhill was painful and I was really wishing I had trekking poles. My feet were throbbing. It still took forever and a day, but we found our way to the car in the parking lot where our two friends were napping on the pavement waiting for us.
We drove silently back to Breckenridge for our post-workout meal at Kenosha Steakhouse. I don’t remember what I had to eat or drink because I couldn’t taste it. I was spent. I couldn’t tell you what the rest of that day pertained of – a nap? Some hot tub time? Who cooked dinner? I don’t know, I was in an other-worldly daze from what we had experienced. I swear I had walked to the moon and back. And I was pretty sure I would never do it again.
I was wrong.
Quandary Peak trail review
My official Quandary Peak hike review for a first 14er is ehhhh……you gotta start somewhere? The facts: the trailhead was easily accessible by paved roads just outside of Breckenridge. There were lots of other people and patchy but decent cell service so safety never felt like an issue. The trail was clearly marked and while almost constantly steep, I never felt too exposed. There was nothing technical – the only physical requirements to reach the summit were to put one foot in front of the other and breathe, even though those basic movements felt next to impossible at some points. Our time on the Quandary Peak trail from start to finish was around 8 hours – pretty dang slow but that’s what happens with a large group of beginners that wants to stay together and takes lots of breaks!
No really though, even though I said I’d never do one again, I came back to do the same Quandary Peak hike with my husband the following summer, and we kicked it’s ass (and shaved several hours off my first summit time, completing in around 5 hours round trip). And I’ve done several more since. While it is rumored to be one of the easiest 14ers, I’d still wager it’s one of the hardest I’ve done even with a handful more that are officially ranked higher on the difficulty scale. But mentality and experience are everything, as well as the open-mindedness to take in all that the mountains have to teach you. Quandary Peak will forever be a special place for me, and one that truly challenged me, revealed in me things I needed to learn, and helped me find my confidence and appreciation for my body and soul and what I’m capable of.
For more 14er reviews, check out my Humboldt Peak summit attempt!
Below is some of my favorite 14er hiking gear – these are affiliate links for which I can make a commission if you make a purchase through these links – I appreciate your support of my writing/sharing and I will only recommend products that I use and love!