“Hike Quandary Peak,” they said.
“You’ll see mountain goats,” they said.
What they didn’t say . . . this hike is a bitch.
Chadd and I consider ourselves to be in pretty decent shape. He’s a competitive power lifter who’s in the gym five days a week, and I try to work out at least a few days a week. We’re not overweight and we live a pretty active lifestyle.
We’re also not novice hikers. Our last trip out to Colorado, we hiked Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake, both of which had altitude, rocky terrain and steep inclines.
What we knew going into the hike
So, we decided to tackle our first 14er so we could watch the eclipse from the highest peak around Breckenridge. We understood it would be more difficult than our previous hikes, but we felt up to the challenge after reading reviews on our AllTrails app that said things like:
“It is pretty difficult but anyone can do this if they consider themselves to be in athletic shape.”
“Both me and my girlfriend are flat-landers from Missouri, in decent shape and we started this hike at the crack of dawn 6AM, we cleared the tree line within an hour, reached the summit in about 3 ½ hours.”
“Very doable even for a ‘flatlander’ such as myself with some acclimation.”
You get the gist. Challenging, but it can be done.
Sure, but at what cost to your body? And will you even enjoy it?
I wanted to write this as close to the experience as possible (less than 24 hours later) so I wouldn’t look back with rose-colored glasses. What follows is a very honest and transparent review and guide for those considering Quandary Peak as their first 14er.
What to pack
Many of the reviews we read said to take twice as much food and water as you thought you’d need. So, here’s what we packed:
- 4 – 20 oz. bottles of water
- 1 meal-replacement protein bar
- 1 protein bar
- 6 Graze snacks
- 1 protein cookie
- Bag of sunflower seeds
- 4 – 20 oz. bottles of water
- 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
- 2 pre-packaged cheese sticks
- 2 pre-packaged beef sticks
- 1 package of protein bites
Chadd’s theory was to eat every hour so he would only be burning energy and not muscle as we hiked. I just wanted to avoid hunger. Chadd did eat everything he brought, but I only ate about half of what I brought.
The biggest mistake ended up being the four bottles of water each. Chadd drank three bottles of water, but I only drank one. I had to go to the bathroom by the time we made it to the top, but since there are no facilities I had to wait nearly three more hours until we were back in the parking lot, which caused me to stop drinking my water.
Taking that much water – and the extra clothing we took (more on that below) – meant Chadd hiked with a 30+ pound pack the entire way up and down. We didn’t see anyone else hiking with more than a tiny backpack.
Bottomline: two bottles of water each would have been plenty. Chadd says he didn’t need his third and only drank it because he had it.
We also probably should have left Chadd’s binoculars and bird book and my professional camera at home. We only saw one other person with binoculars and no one else with a camera. I’m still glad I had my camera for my closeups of the chipmunks, pikas, marmots and mountain goats, but the binoculars and bird book added to Chadd’s weight and he didn’t use them.
What to wear
We had been warned that it was chilly at the top, and we were starting at around 43 degrees at the base.
I wore base layer bottoms with thin, water-resistant hiking pants that zip off into shorts over top, a moisture-wicking short-sleeve shirt with a moisture-wicking long-sleeve shirt over it and a waterproof jacket with a light fleece lining. I also had on hiking socks, hiking boots and a winter hat. I had a scarf in our backpack, just in case, but I never used it.
By the time we walked from the parking lot to the trailhead, I’d swapped my winter hat for a moisture-wicking headband, zipped off the bottom part of my hiking pants and tied my jacket around my waist.
Chadd wore a moisture-wicking long-sleeve shirt with a t-shirt over it and a fleece vest. He had on khaki pants, hiking socks and hiking boots on the bottom. He also brought a hooded sweatshirt he never took out of his backpack.
We took our top layers on and off at different points as it got warmer in the sun and then colder higher up. We also brought pretty heavy gloves we took on and off.
Overall, it was warmer than we thought it would be, but it made sense to be prepared and it did get chilly and windy toward the top. One thing we are glad we brought: sunscreen. We had a beautiful, clear day and the sun was on us most of the day because you clear the tree line fast.
Two other things I would note here. First, hiking boots are a must. I wore tennis shoes to both Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake because my old hiking boots were hurting me, and I did just fine. I would not have been fine on this hike. You need the ankle stability, hard soles and grip as you climb over the rocks on the steep inclines.
I also repeatedly applauded and thanked myself for the hiking poles I bought just before our trip. I’ve never used them in the past, but for some reason I felt like I might want them. And boy did they come in handy. I’m 5’3”, and they really helped me get up and down some of the bigger rocks, and they were probably even more useful on the descent to keep from sliding down the steep, rocky terrain.
What to expect
When I say this hike was the most difficult physical activity I’ve ever done in my life, it’s no understatement. Between the altitude (probably enhanced by the fact that we live on an island at sea level and had only been in Colorado for 16 hours when we hit the trailhead), the steep inclines it takes to get you to the top (3,336 feet in elevation per the AllTrails app – although when I recorded our ascent, it showed we gained 4,659 feet), the 6.2 miles each way and the rocky terrain, this hike makes Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake look like a walk in the park.
It was mentally tough, because as you clear the tree line, you think you see the peak you’re working toward. It looks far, steep and rocky, but you tell yourself you can do it.
Except that isn’t the peak you’re headed to at all. That first peak leads you across a fairly flat, rocky pass that takes you to the real peak. The first peak gets you to just over 13,000 feet, and it was a strenuous hike to that point. I had read the last 1,000 feet was steep and rocky, and as we were coming up to the first peak I thought that’s what we’d just gone through.
Then Chadd pointed up at a much larger mountain in front of us and to the tiny ant-like humans at the top and told me that’s where we were headed.
I think my exact words were, “You’ve got to be f*cking kidding me.” And honestly, I’m not a gratuitous curser.
You get just a few minutes of “rest” as you walk across the somewhat flat – but rocky – pass, and it’s here that we saw mountain goats both on our ascent and descent. Every photo I’d ever seen of Quandary Peak had the goats, so I was going to be pretty disappointed if I didn’t see one, but we saw quite a few.
Part of me wanted to quit here (and, if I’m being honest, several times on the way up to this point as I scrambled up the steep rocks). It was nearly 14,000 feet – higher than I’d ever been before. I’d checked the mountain goat off my list. And that final ascent looked like a nightmare.
With my right hip flexor already tweaked, my calves screaming and my constant need to stop and catch my breath, it really didn’t seem possible that I could make it to the top.
But, I’d come too far to quit. I have a serious distaste for quitting anything – even a bad book or movie. And I already knew I was never coming up this mountain again, so it was now or never.
The final push to the top is as steep and rocky as you can imagine anything being. The closer you get to the top, it’s less trail and more just choosing which rocks you’d rather climb over. For me, there was a lot of stopping to catch my breath and let my aching legs rest if only for a minute.
It took exactly five hours from the time we left the car to climb atop the peak. Far more than the three hours I’d planned on based on many of the reviews I read.
And it wasn’t like most hikes where the trip back down is fast and easy. From a fitness perspective, climbing up was tougher, but from a balance and impact perspective it was much harder going down. If it had rained, even just a little, I have no idea how we’d have made it down without breaking an ankle on the steep, slippery rocks.
Our total time from getting out of the car at 7:30 a.m. to making it back was 8:35:36.
What I really thought about it
And at the end of the day, I can say I made it. I’m not sure I’d ever wanted anything to be over more in my entire life. The views were beautiful, but I’m not sure I can honestly say they were worth it. We’ve seen some pretty amazing views with far less work.
But, it’s an accomplishment I’ll always have. I’ve hiked a 14er.
And I never need to hike another one again!