When planning for the next Summits On The Air (SOTA) hike, I want to understand the difficulty of the climb. The main things to evaluate are the length of the hike (horizontal distance), the vertical (elevation) gain and other contributing factors.
Most of the SOTA summits in Colorado have a simple profile: pretty much uphill on the way to the summit and then mostly downhill on the way back to the trailhead. Yes, there may be flat sections and sometimes there will be a downhill section or two on the ascent, which means you give back some elevation gain only to regain it later. Usually, we think of going downhill as “easy” but if you have sensitive knees or other joints, you may disagree.
The first question is how far do I need to hike? Clearly, hiking 10 miles is a lot harder than hiking 1 mile, all other things being equal. However, I usually find the vertical gain to be more important. (Typically, the horizontal distance of a SOTA hike is within my capabilities and the vertical gain is my real concern.) I also do a back-of-the-envelope calculation on slope. My benchmark for slope is 1000 vertical feet in one mile, which is an uphill slope that will get my heart pumping but is not too difficult (corresponds to ~20% slope). Anything steeper than that starts to feel more challenging. A slope less than that is easier. Be careful with average calculations. You might find that a particular trail is flat for 3 miles and then gains all of the vertical in the last mile. Having a good topographical map is a must for understanding the route. I generally use GAIA GPS, an online mapping website and smartphone app.
Certainly the condition of the trail and its inherent terrain are an important factor to consider. The SOTA hikes I do are typically Class 1, 2 or 3. I don’t do summits that require ropes or technical climbing.
Difficulty ratings from 14ers.com
Class 1. Easy hiking – usually on a good trail.
Let’s take a look at some specific summits as examples.
Note: there are often multiple routes to the same summit, so don’t use this information for trip planning. Do your homework.
Mt Herman (W0C/FR-063): a bit steep in spots but typical of many SOTA hikes: 1000 feet vertical gain in about one mile, right at my benchmark of 1000 feet vertical per mile. I consider that an easy hike.
Genesee Mountain (W0C/FR-194): is one of the easiest and enjoyable SOTA summits in Colorado, only 0.7 miles and 300 vertical feet. The average slope is 430 feet per mile, so not very steep at all.
Mt Sherman (W0C/SR-061): is considered to be one of the easiest fourteeners, but it is still a fourteener: 2100 feet vertical gain in 2.6 miles (807 feet per mile).
Mount Elbert (W0C/SR-001): A more challenging (middle of the road?) fourteener with 4700 feet vertical gain over 4.75 miles). The average slope is 1000 feet per mile so it’s not that steep but 4700 vertical feet will definitely wear me out.
Not to be overlooked, the condition of the route can make a big difference. Often, there is no established trail to a SOTA summit, which means you’ll need to hike offtrail or “bushwack”. If the ground is uncluttered and the trees well-spaced, bushwacking can be easy. On the other hand, if there is a lot of downed timber, you have to climb over and around obstacles to get to the summit. Some summits have willows or other scrub brush that gets in the way. Intense bushwacking can make a huge difference, making the hike more difficult by a factor of two (or more). Many times, I’ve looked at the route to a summit on a topographical map, judged it to be not so bad and later discovered that it requires serious bushwacking. Hikes like that really help me to appreciate a well-designed and maintained trail.
High altitude and the resulting lack of oxygen contribute to the difficulty of the climb. This is going to vary considerably between individuals. Almost everyone feels the effects at 14,000 feet but at lower elevations individual performance will vary dramatically. Normally, I don’t have an issue at 10,000 feet, notice some effect at 12,000 feet and I’m definitely huffing and puffing above 13k.
Finally, weather can play a big role in increasing the difficulty of a hike. In the winter, it is common to use snowshoes when deep snow is present on the route. The snowshoes tend to sink into the snow with each step, causing more effort to be expended hiking the route. Ice can also be present requiring microspikes or other traction devices.
So that’s a quick look at how I judge the difficulty of a SOTA hike. The SOTA database often has trip reports from other SOTA activators, which can be extremely helpful. It is always great to learn from the experiences of other folks.
73 Bob K0NR