Driving along Colorado 9 near Breckenridge, Colorado, a sign points out a scenic view of Quandary Peak (14,265 ft.). It was around 6:30 am when my mom, brother and I drove by the sign and a soft pink light illuminated the mountain. Being the only peak above 14,000 ft. in the Tenmile Range, it looms high above, seeming completely unattainable. A few minutes later we arrived at the trailhead to begin our journey up one of Colorado’s “beginner” 14er’s. I say “beginner” because all of these mountains are a challenging climb, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a super experienced hiker to summit one. A “beginner” mountain like Quandary will be a class 1 trail, meaning there is no need for scrambling or climbing along the way. However all of these trails have a significant elevation gain associated and are at a higher elevation than most people, especially those from out of town, are used to hiking.
The trail starts at an elevation of 10,800 ft. The trees tower above and the ground is dotted with Indian paintbrush and Aster flowers. The first hour of the hike is spent in this lush forest terrain. Eventually the trees get shorter and shorter, and then disappear completely. I highly recommend finding a nice tree for a bathroom break before this point. The trail begins to steepen and become rockier with each meticulous step. It’s as if you are climbing up a stairmaster until you get to the crest of the East Ridge. By now the day is warming up, there is no more tree cover and the air is getting thinner. After spending a summer in the dense humid air of Boston, the crisp mountain air felt invigorating and refreshing. In this more alpine terrain, we spotted two mountain goats and several pikas, which are alpine version of chipmunks famous for their chirping sound.
From the ridge there is a view of the summit and what is left to climb, still about 2,000 ft. of elevation to gain. Continuing on to the highest point on the ridge, the trail flattens out a bit until it again ascends straight up for the final push. This was by far the most challenging section of the trail. This last 1,000 ft. of elevation is a gruelingly steep climb; by now the air is thin and breathing is much more difficult. Every 20 steps I had to stop to catch my breath and give me legs a break. The people who were on the way down kept assuring me I was “almost there” it’s “just a little further.”
Finally I see the peak and push myself up the last few feet. Looking back at the view from the trail all day, I was amazed at the view on the other side of the mountain to the West. It was a perfect day, not a cloud in the sky and the Mosquito Range was in perfect view. Thousands of feet above tree line and all there is to see are peaks and peaks and peaks and the Rocky Mountains seem never ending. Being above 14,000 ft., completely exposed to the elements, is a feeling like none other; it’s the middle of summer but it’s freezing, the wind is blowing fiercely and there is no sign of urban life. Standing on a summit provides a feeling of accomplishment as well as sparking the desire to do another challenging climb to recapture this insatiable feeling. Nothing is more rewarding than standing on the top of a mountain, which from the highway had seemed completely out of reach. It creates such a high that you may find yourself standing at the top, picking out which peak you want to climb next.