Grand Junction couple climbs all of Colorado’s 14ers
Grand Junction Correspondent
GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado – Chris and Alisa West scooted across the “knife edge,” a narrow, exposed 100-foot-long rocky ridge, their legs dangling over an 1,000-foot drop off on either side. A hiker in front of them walked upright across the pointy ledge.
Once across there was still an exposed, steep climb of loose rocks to get to the top of the Colorado 14er called Capital Peak.
“And then you’ve got to come back the same way,” Chris said.
Located in the Elk mountain range outside of Basalt, Capital Peak was one of the most memorable of all the 59 Colorado mountain peaks over 14,000 feet elevation that both Chris, 36, and his wife, Alisa, 35, have climbed.
“To me it was the most difficult and most challenging, physically and mentally,” because of the exposure and 17-mile round-trip hike, Alisa said. “You just don’t look down.”
In fact they had attempted to reach the summit of Capital Peak in 2007, but turned around after making it about halfway up.
“We were exhausted, not feeling good that day,” Alisa said.
In 2008, they returned and succeeded in reaching the summit.
“It was a perfect day, blue sky the whole way,” Chris said.
Alisa and Chris hiked Mt. Sneffels outside of Ouray, Labor Day 2002. It was their first 14er. They’ve hiked it twice since.
“It was kind of like a switch that went on – wow – this is something we need to do more of,” Chris said.
The first time was hard, he said. It had snowed the night before.
The wind was extreme. It was cold.
They were both a little nervous hiking in terrain of that high altitude.
“But we kept putting one foot in front of another,” Chris said. “A lot of people were climbing that day. It helps you to stay motivated.”
They scrambled up a rocky slope to a saddle where there was a gully full of large rocks they then had to climb.
That was the dangerous part, Chris said.
Rocks, “some as big as small cars” sometimes loosen and fall from where people are climbing above.
“We have dodged rocks a few times on other mountains,” he said.
Then there was a notch referred to as the “keyhole” to climb through – the one exposed area on Sneffels, Alisa said.
“Getting through the notch the first time was hard mentally,” Alisa said. “I had a fear of heights. I’m not over it but I have come to a point where I push through it. It doesn’t paralyze me anymore.”
After the notch it’s a few hundred feet scramble to the top of the mountain.
“You get up there and you can see forever,” Alisa said. The summit affords views of Grand Mesa, a little of the Grand Valley, and the Telluride ski area.
After that day they made a conscious decision to hike all of Colorado’s 14ers.
Strapping on headlamps, Alisa and Chris often begin their mountain treks by 4 a.m. Their goal is to reach the summit by 10 a.m. and be back down by noon before the afternoon summer thunderstorms hit.
Several people die hiking in Colorado mountains each year due to lightning and other weather-related accidents.
“We’ve heard stories about hiker’s hair standing on end,” Chris said.
People attempt to outrun a thunderstorm, and run down the wrong direction, or fall, Alisa said.
“The most important thing is the weather. A nice hike can turn into a nightmare,” she said.
They’ve avoided disaster, although once had to jog down a mountain to avoid a thunderstorm that was quickly moving in.
Seeking a road less traveled
There’s some debate as to exactly how many 14ers there are in Colorado. There’s a mountaineering rule that says if a peak above 14,000 feet is connected to another 14,000 peak by a saddle that doesn’t change more than 300 feet in elevation, it’s considered one 14er.
Although some count both peaks as separate 14ers, Chris said.
Thus, the number of Colorado 14ers ranges between 52 and 59, depending on who you ask.
Regardless of the “official” count, Chris and Alisa have summited 59 Colorado peaks over 14,000 feet, the final one four weeks ago when they climbed Blanca Peak, near Alamosa. The mountain is located in the Sangre de Cristo range.
From Blanca Peak, they could view the entire San Luis Valley, Chris said.
When he’s not climbing mountains Chris is a certified public accountant and Alisa is a paralegal. They both grew up in Grand Junction in families that didn’t hike. The couple met in high school and married 15 years ago.
Climbing Colorado 14ers “gets us outside of our box,” Alisa said.
They’ve also climbed mountains outside the United States.
They summited Africa’s highest mountain – Kilimanjaro in 2007.
Five years ago they climbed two volcanoes in Mexico, including the country’s highest peak, Orizaba, at 18,853 feet.
In October, Alisa, Chris and his sister, Jennifer West, are headed to Peru where they are planning a 10-day trek on an alternative off-the-beaten track route to Machu Picchu.
Alisa read about the guided alternative route in a recent National Geographic article. Donkeys will carry most of the food and equipment.
Chris said he likes the crisp air, beautiful scenery, and the challenge of “getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning at high elevation knowing I’m going to spend seven or eight hours pushing my body.”
Alisa adds, “It allows you to be in the moment, just focusing on the beauty, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping the next rock is a good one,” she said.