The Next Big Adventure: Fourteener Project

I write a lot about what I do for adventures on this blog. Recently, that’s included hiking Mt. Whitney, and a lot of training hikes in preparation fro that adventure. I’m switching a bit here, to talk about how our daughter planned her first Fourteener ascent, a trip to Mt. Yale.

Adventure Backstory

For her 10th birthday this summer, our eldest daughter asked for two things: to go on a backpacking trip and to climb a fourteener. We are a hike-happy family, and find “experience” gifting to be the best gifts ever, so celebrating a milestone with a hike or camping trip is a favorite “gift” of ours. What was surprising, perhaps a silly surprise, is that our daughter is getting old enough to plan and help execute her own trips. 

We readily agreed to these birthday requests, with the caveat that she lead most of the planning. As the summer progressed (and as I trained to hike Mt. Whitney), her goals grew. By the time August rolled around, she planned to hike 14 individual 14ers by the time she’s 14. We broadened this to include being 14 (so, before she turns 15!) and she drew up a graph plotting out how many mountains she’d need to climb each year to reach her goal. 

Chicago Basin Backpacking

For the backpacking trip, our two daughters joined forces and decided to hike into the Chicago Basin in the San Juan Mountains with their dad. (I stayed home with the toddler for a very pleasant weekend of cuddles.) They rode the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway from Durango, but got off at Needleton (rather than going all the way to Silverton). They spent 3 days backpacking, exploring, and hiking the gorgeous San Juans.

Heading into the Chicago Basin for a few days. Photo Credit: John Donahue.

Fourteener Project

As the Fourteener Project took shape, we were pretty excited. However, as parents, also knew that climbing a 14 (or any mountain) is a big project. I had never climbed a 14er, and in fact generally tend to prefer to stay below treeline for most of my hiking. My husband also is not a major ‘peak-bagger’ having climbed a few 14ers, but not really setting goals around them.  

We talked about this idea, our daughters’ age, capability, and risks involved. One of the first things we did was very clearly set the expectation that our daughter would be the one leading the trip(s). I spent the summer training to climb Mt. Whitney, and I wanted to be sure that she wasn’t just doing the trip based around my own enthusiasm for my trip, but rather, her own interests.  After talking about this with her, we gave the project an enthusiastic thumbs up. 

This is also the moment in time when I realized that I was completely (& excitedly) moving fully to the “support staff” role in parent-child outdoor adventuring.  

On the ridgeline en route to summiting Mt. Yale.


To start, we had to decide which mountain we’d climb. She wanted a mother-daughter trip, so I set three criteria for a weekend adventure: 

  • We had to stay Class 1-2 technical difficulty, 
  • Round-trip needed to be less than 10 miles total hiking distance, and, 
  • I had to be able to drive easily to the trailhead. 

We started by looking at, which (with a free account) lets you sort mountains by a variety of criteria. Then we headed over to AllTrails to look at trail reviews, and also looked at the slightly more detailed maps available on Gaia


We thought it would be easiest if we camped at or near the trailhead to facilitate an early start. To do this, we pulled out the Colorado Gazeteer and started looking around for campgrounds. Yes, we could have done this online (and eventually went to try to make a reservation there), but I’m a map nerd and I love pouring over maps. It turned out the Collegiate Peaks campground was less than a mile east of the Denny Creek Trailhead, the main trail to Mt. Yale. By the time we looked to make a reservation (a few days before the planned hike), they were booked full, and had only walk-up day slots left. We decided we’d just have to gamble on showing up and hoping for an open spot, or else we’d look to camp on another location.


We drove up to Buena Vista area from New Mexico, going straight to the campground, where we secured one of 5 remaining campsites. Then, we went into town, did some last minute grocery shopping and ate dinner. We returned to the campsite, put together our packs, and set up camp. 

We woke up at 5:15 the next morning, and while she snuggled in her warm blankets and ate some breakfast, I made some quick coffee (me) and chai tea (her). Shout out to my sister who pushed me into buying a JetBoil last minute. It was amazing. Disassembling camp only took a few minutes, and we then drove to the trail head. 

The morning was still dim, though not so dark as to require a headlamp. We walked along the misty trail sipping our warm beverages as we moved through the quiet forest. We quickly gained elevation, and I was able to soak in my daughters suprise and wonder as we looked down look down into the canyon and see it filled with fog. I realized that might be the first time she’s seen fog while camping (a true desert child). We kept moving, staying warm and snacking a bit. 

One gentleman stopped to chat with us as we were about 3 miles in, giving us the advice to take small steps, that if we got out of breath, we were going too fast, and that it was a sign for us to slow down. He also told us to follow the new “big” cairns to avoid criss-crossing the ridge and taking a longer route to the top. One of the best parts of this encounter was that he spoke directly to our daughter, treating her as a fully comprehending person, not speaking down to her. This is huge, and was a boost for her confidence. Never underestimate the power of treating people of all ages with respect!

Soon, the sun was rising, and we were above treeline. Here, it got windy. Despite hiking uphill at a pretty brisk pace, we both were not warm, as the wind was whipping away any heat we generated. We piled back on the beanies and puffy jackets that we had shed earlier in the hike. One thing that was good about the wind is that it was steady. It was strong enough that had it been gusty, it would have buffetted us around, and I was especially worried about the wind blowing my 70-lb daughter around once we got into more rocky terrain. 

I did several checks with her to see if she wanted to turn around, but was met with a definite no, rather just a request to put on another pair of mittens. We were heartened by the fact that people coming back down said it was not windy on the other side of the peak. 

At the top of her first Fourteener.

We got to the top ridge and the wind was screaming. We trundled on, clambering over the larger boulders using both hands, but very quickly coming to the top. Hooray for completing her first 14er summit!

Indeed, hopping down on the far side of the mountain let us sit in windless, sunny warmth. We lounged for about an hour, having a lunch of crackers, cheese, apples, and a cola. Bracing ourselves, we bundled up in puffies, mittens, gloves, and I strapped my longer-length rain jacket on top of all to keep my little one warm. She scampered back over the ridge, and practically skipped down the upper slopes. I actually had to request a snack and leg-break about 3 miles back downhill, so while I let my knees stop pusling, she did splits, handsprings, and cartwheels on the logs that crossed the river. 

We made it back down to the trailhead that afternoon, with a grand total of 5 hours of moving time, and about 7 hours from start to finish. We had considered stopping at the Mount Princeton Hot Springs on the way back down, but instead opted to head straight into Buena Vista and eat some ice cream

To stay up to date on this project, we made a hashtag: #14x14ersby14. Check it out/follow it on instagram.

That’s the quick update – I’ll get more into parenting thoughts and mountain climbing adventures in future posts.

4 thoughts on “The Next Big Adventure: Fourteener Project

  1. jay Schwabe

    Thanks for the update. That is the youngest I have heard of, but I remember seeing a few children on my Whitney trips. Children seem to have some amazing talents at very young ages. Our 2 grand daughters show more confidence than their older brothers. especially when you tell them “you are to young”…Good health to you and your family.

    1. magdalenadonahue

      Thank you! She’s pretty motivated child, and seems to be having a lot of fun with it. We’re hoping we can give her the tools she needs to begin learning how to plan a trip that is doable, safe, and challenging!

    2. magdalenadonahue

      Thank you! We are certainly a family that enjoys a challenge, but we do try very deliberately to scaffold our activities to appropriate levels and skills. It’s fun to see what child is interested in what activity, and to try to bring them all together — and to find times when a child can have a ‘solo’ adventure with Mom or Dad.

  2. Pingback: 2022 Gift Guide – Bun on the Run

Leave a Reply