Author Chris Meehan has been wandering around the wilderness since he was four. On Thursday, December 8, he'll find himself at Baker Wine & Spirits, 440 Broadway, at a whiskey-tasting and book signing for his new guide, Climbing Colorado's Fourteeners: From the Easiest Hikes to the Most Challenging Climbs. We caught up with Meehan for a few minutes before he got to the whiskey, to ask a few questions about fourteeners and other peak experiences.
Westword: We at Westword know you as a local freelance journalist. How’d you get started in the writing biz?
Chris Meehan: I’ve been writing for publications since at least 2000, when I started a work-study job at the National Association for Interpretation in Fort Collins. But I didn’t really start freelancing until around 2010, a year after I moved back to Colorado.
Are you a Colorado native?
No, but this is my second stint here. I came to Colorado to go to Colorado State University in 1994. In 2003 I moved back to Maryland before landing in D.C., and I moved back to Denver the day after watching President Obama get sworn into office.
How’d you end up writing a guidebook for Falcon Guides?
My friend Justin “Trauma” Lichter — an ultrahiker who’s hiked more than 10,000 miles in a year — wrote a book about ultralight hiking. It was his first book, and he enlisted my help in editing it. About a year later, at the Outdoor Retailer Show, I met some of the people who worked at Falcon Guides. We discussed Trauma’s book, and they asked me if I had any ideas. I pitched them on a fourteeners guidebook on the spot.
Sounds like you knew a lot about fourteeners. Have you always been a hiking and outdoors enthusiast?
Yes. I’ve always loved adventuring. My folks tell a tale of when I was about four years old, and I wandered off on vacation in Maine and hiked around Cadillac Mountain for an hour while they were looking for me. It’s been like that since.
When did you get hooked on fourteeners?
The first fourteener I climbed was Longs Peak,in 1995. I did basically everything you shouldn’t do when hiking it, and I warn people what not to do in the book.
How’d you learn what you were supposed to be doing?
In 2001 I spent a summer as a mountain guide working out of the Salida area, taking scouts and their families up fourteeners like Mount Antero, Mount Shavano and Mount Princeton. It was a great experience that laid the foundation for this book in my mind.
This book’s a little different from a typical fourteener guidebook, right? What makes it special?
Well — first off — it’s mine! This particular book is designed with the user in mind, and is suited to help first-time climbers get their legs up the peak, but it doesn’t abandon climbers wanting to take on the more difficult peaks, like Little Bear or Capitol. I focus on what are considered the standard routes up each fourteener, and I’ve arranged the climbs in order of relative ease.
Isn’t the ease of a climb a little subjective?
Well, sure. There’s no objective way to rank that, because what’s easier for you might not be for me, and vice versa. But my brother and I created a ranking matrix using objective data like trail length, elevation change, steepness of pitches, and we also used more subjective information like rank of climbing class and opinions from other climbers and guides.
That’s pretty interesting. Any other cool features in the book?
It has a peak-bagging list for keeping track of your climbs. The book also lists outdoor gear shops close to each mountain, in case someone needs to replace an item they forget. And it has some of the best local places to go after climbing: brewpubs, ice-cream shops and the like.
Also, I reached out to some amazing people and had them contribute to the book. For instance, I had search-and-rescue professionals Dale Atkins of the Alpine Rescue Team in Evergreen and Skeet Glatterer, M.D. — also with the Alpine Rescue Team — contribute safety information. And the current fourteener speed record holder, Andrew Hamilton, contributed a short piece about beating the fourteener record in 2015, when he climbed all 58 fourteeners, official and unofficial, in 9 days, 21 hours and 51 minutes — smashing the previous record of 10 days, 20 hours and 26 minutes in 2000.
What about you? How many fourteeners have you bagged?
I’ve climbed fourteeners at least seventy times now; I’ve lost track over the years. Since Longs was the first one I climbed, it has a special place in my heart. But climbing the Maroon Bells and doing the traverse this past summer was an incredible experience.
How many fourteeners are there in Colorado, anyway?
There are at least 58 points in Colorado above 14,000 feet. The book discusses all of them. But most people consider that there are only 53 peaks in Colorado above 14,000 feet. That’s because in some cases there’s not enough distance or a change in elevation between two high points to consider them separate peaks.
Ever find yourself in a tricky situation while hiking?
My scariest climb was probably Little Bear, in 2001. We had read a bad guidebook and weren’t properly prepared for the challenges. We should have had helmets and been better prepared for the “Hour Glass,” a high-altitude scree field where any rock falling above you bounces toward your head like a drunk bowling ball.
That sounds terrifying. Got any advice for climbers who are new to fourteeners and don’t want to end up in that sort of predicament?
Two things. If you or other people in your group don’t have a lot of experience hiking or climbing difficult things, don’t do one of the more difficult fourteeners first. Second, never be afraid to turn around.
Chris Meehan will be at Baker Wine & Spirits from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, December 8. Pick up a copy of Climbing Colorado's Fourteeners: From the Easiest Hikes to the Most Challenging Climbs, at local bookstores, including the Tattered Cover, select outdoors stores and online. They will also be available at the store during the signing.