Like many pursuits, it depends on who you ask. Some of the 58 Colorado 14ers -- peaks higher than 14,000 feet -- can be climbed in three or four hours by the average person, and require little more than a long walk on a well-established trail. Others are decidedly more difficult. This is what makes the idea to climb in Colorado so alluring to so many people. There are summits for everyone. Even those who have climbed them all argue endlessly about which was the toughest. There are five, however, that cause climbers' palms to perspire more than most: Capitol Peak, Little Bear Peak, Sunlight Peak, Mt. Wilson and the Maroon Bells.
Each of these mountains has killed, and hardly a year passes when Little Bear and the Maroon Bells don't claim a life. Ask any accomplished Colorado mountaineer what's the hardest 14er in the state, and they'll almost certainly name one these deadly five. The final move to Sunlight's summit requires a tough move where a slip could mean a fall of more than 1,000 feet; standing atop Capitol means a 17-mile day and crossing the treacherous Knife Edge ridge; Little Bear's Hourglass gully is a veritable bowling alley of tumbling basketball-sized rocks; the Maroon Bells are a crumbling heap of insidious foot and hand holds; and Mt. Wilson is a perfect mix of all of the above.
Capitol, most climbers and would-be climbers likely would agree, is the scariest of the 14ers. And for one reason: the Knife Edge. The Knife Edge is an aptly named ridge high on the mountain with drops of 1,000 or 2,000 feet on either side. A slip would equal a freefall of four or five seconds before your body crashed to the valley floor below, and the margin for error is nonexistent. That said, only two climbers on record have ever fallen to their death from the Knife Edge, dating back to the 1950s. Little Bear, Mt. Wilson and the Maroon Bells each killed that many in the summer of 2010 alone. Sunlight Peak is in the same boat. The summit is hopelessly exposed, and gaining it necessitates a stop -- or a jump for shorter people -- over thousands of feet of air. But despite the pure terror such a move evokes, it's rare to hear of a death on Sunlight.
The Maroon Bells, like Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Peak, are well-known and iconic. They're a pair of symmetrical red peaks near Aspen that are the most frequently photographed mountains in Colorado. Their beauty and approachability are what make them such a deadly prize. They're attempted by dozens of inexperienced hikers every day in the summer, many of whom are attempting their first 14er. In climbing as in all things, a little practice can go a long way. Finding the safest route and the most secure handholds are skills only acquired by spending hours upon hours in the alpine. If the Bells were ugly, or not so close to one of Colorado's premiere tourist destinations, they likely wouldn't be considered deadly at all.
Little Bear and Mt. Wilson are much more isolated, and kill more seasoned climbers. When you combine the mileage, the danger of rockfall, the exposure and their deadly reputations, these two are probably tied for the most difficult 14ers to climb in Colorado. Just thinking about them is making my hands sweat.