A chance conversation in 2018 with a coworker led to a pursuit that local resident Dale McCutcheon could never have imagined.
Earlier that year McCutcheon had heard of the concept of climbing “fourteeners” from a coworker who had visited Colorado the previous summer to climb. The term fourteeners refers to mountains above 14,000 feet in elevation. Colorado has more peaks than any other state at 54.
McCutcheon explained, “Just as there are people into fishing or golf, there is an active community who involve themselves in climbing 14,000 foot mountains. Since Colorado has so many of them, there are thousands of people who live there or visit the state with this activity as their main point of interest.”
McCutcheon was an experienced hiker at the time, having hiked thousands of miles in various states, including much of the famed Appalachian Trail. So, in 2009, at the age of 61, McCutcheon decided to give fourteener activity a try. He flew to Denver and drove to Grays Peak, about 40 miles west, the closest mountain of that elevation.
“I chose Grays as a starting point because it had a reputation as a fairly easy climb according to fourteener standards, not that any of them can be easy,” he noted.
The first one was the toughest. “If you have never been at higher elevations, over 10,000 feet, you can’t understand how difficult it is to breathe there. The level of oxygen in the air is far less than at low elevations. You end up having to stop every 50 feet or so to catch your breath.”
This lack of oxygen is one of the major obstacles for people attempting to climb to these heights. A condition termed hypoxia, defined as lack of oxygen entering the body, is quite common, especially for visitors arriving from lower elevation.
“The general recommendation for visitors is to spend a few days in Colorado to gradually acclimate to higher elevations before trying their first fourteener.” McCutcheon noted.
Other dangers await the climber as well. A number of people are seriously injured or die each year from falls, five deaths have occurred on just one peak over the last three months. Lightning is another hazard, since a common weather pattern in the state includes afternoon thunderstorms. Another danger is hypothermia, a potentially deadly condition caused by low temperatures. The extreme weather variations at the peaks are a major concern. McCutcheon commented, “I have encountered snowstorms with as much as three inches of snow in July on these mountains. So, you do have to fully prepare, including carrying emergency supplies in your backpack, and warm clothing.”
McCutcheon was successful in his first attempt and became immediately “hooked” on the activity. “You really have to experience the incredible views from atop these peaks to appreciate them. No picture can fully capture this.”
McCutcheon went on to do five other fourteeners his first visit. Since then, he has returned to the state four other times and has accumulated a total of 30 summits in all.
This year, for his 70th birthday, McCutcheon set a goal of ascending Mt. Elbert, the second highest mountain in the lower 48 states.
“I had done Elbert before, but that was seven years ago, and at this age your level of fitness can drop quickly. So I was a bit unsure if I could do it,” he commented.
But, after summiting a few other fourteeners in the are,a he visited Elbert on July 22, his birthday. He was successful.
“At the age of 70, the peaks do present more of a challenge,” McCutcheon said, “but the weather was beautiful, so conditions were almost perfect with little wind and no rain or snow.”
McCutcheon hopes to return to the Rocky Mountains as long as he can maintain his health. “I would like to do a fourteener at the age of eighty but that might be a bit much to hope for.”