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Are 4,000-Footers Tougher to Hike Than Fourteeners? We Debate.

Can the East's small but rugged mountains unseat the Rockies' biggest peaks?

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Everybody loves thinking of their favorite peaks in superlatives: the best views, the most challenging course, the least amount of tourists, the list goes on. But, which summit challenge is really the best: the East’s 4,000-footers or Colorado’s Fourteeners? It doesn’t matter if you’re a Rockies superfan or a die-hard New Englander, the answer isn’t as simple as you’d think. Two of our Backpacker editors duke it out.

Fourteenermania

I hiked all 47 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers as a kid, but now that I am an adult, I have put away childish things. After climbing just 10 Colorado Fourteeners, I know that East is least, and West is best—I write that with all due affection for the pipsqueak peaks that cower in the shadow of Mt. Washington’s 6,288-foot summit, including Mts. Tom (4,051 ft), Willey (4,285 ft.), and Field (4,340 ft.). Even if you combined those three dwarves (Sleepy, Dopey, and Pointless), they wouldn’t add up to a named peak in the Rockies. And they shrink in comparison with Colorado’s Quad of the Gods—Democrat (14,148 ft.), Cameron (14,238 ft.), Lincoln (14,286 ft.), and Bross (14,172 ft.)—where I danced above timberline for eight hours of uninterrupted sunshine and bliss. Longs Peak (14,255 ft.), the capstone of Fourteener fun, required me to plunge through the treacherous Keyhole, tightrope along the Narrows, and heave myself up the near-vertical Homestretch. The elevation gain alone (5,100 ft.) beat out New Hampshire’s lilliputian Mt. Lincoln (5,089 ft.), the seventh-highest peak in New Hampshire. On Longs, the thrills, like the views, are endless. A hiker’s reward for summiting Mt. Washington? Parking lots crammed with Auto Road boilovers, flatlanders in Bermuda shorts looking for the toilet, and a reeking cog railroad that spouts black soot. George’s heirs should sue to have his name removed. To the Yankee whiners who complain about how crowded Fourteener summits are, I respond: They’re popular because they’re worth it. —Peter Moore

Praise For Small Peaks

Until I moved to Colorado to work for Backpacker, I had no idea how easy folks in the West have it. And before you launch into your defense of the Rockies, full of scary buzzwords like “acclimatization” and “glissade” and “class 4,” let me spare you the breath: You don’t know truly difficult hiking until you struggle up 1,500 vertical feet of straight-up-the-hill trail—the East doesn’t really “do” switchbacks—striated with logs, roots, and boulders, with a grabby layer of mud and slick dirt underneath. And views? Forget about ’em. That’s the experience of hiking a Four-Thousander in the East; with few exceptions, there are none of the Rockies’ high-alpine trails or nonstop views. But here’s the thing: If you only climb Fourteeners, you’ll never know the thrill of breaking through the canopy at the top of a tree-covered eastern mountain, having finally reached the summit. You’ll be hard-pressed to replicate the feeling of flying down that same switchbacks-be-damned trail on the descent. And you won’t gain the same humbling perspective: It’s obvious that a Fourteener can kick your ass, but underestimate Four-Thousanders at your own peril. And isn’t that how we should view ourselves as well? All hikers are more than they seem, and we all harbor the ability to astound. —Eli Bernstein


From 2022