As a Park Ranger working at Rocky Mountain National Park, I was often asked about Longs Peak.

“What can I do to get ready to hike Longs Peak?”

“Well, you might try testing yourself on a smaller peak to see how you do.  Something like Twin Sisters, or Flattop Mountain.”

In all honesty, it is such a demanding venture, I’m not sure anything properly prepares you for it.  But there are things you can do to get yourself ready both physically and mentally.

As we prepare this week to do our first Fourteener hike of the summer season, this question was on my mind.  I wanted to do a “warm-up” hike to gauge my fitness.  What would be less demanding and yet still test me?

Since I volunteer with the Forest Service doing trail patrol in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, I settled on nearby Mt. Audubon.  If you’ve ever been to Nederland, you’ve seen Audubon.  It’s presence looms over the Indian Peaks.

Audubon isn’t one of those sharply pointed, craggy type peaks.  It’s most like a gray, granite hulking monster.  As you walk around Brainard Lake, it looms to your right, its 13,229 foot summit casting a shadow over the recreation area.

Hiking big peaks demands a lot from you.  Many people assume that if they hike a lot, it will be a piece of cake.  I’ve not found that to be the case.  Even if you are an avid cardio freak, running several times a week, you’ll still find yourself huffing and puffing on the trail, especially once you get above 12,000 feet.

Strangely, what I’ve found is very helpful is lots of lower body strength training.  Living in Nederland, I have to create my own High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) in the comfort of my own home.  There are no gyms in Nederland, and I’m definitely not going to brave Boulder Canyon to go to a gym.

So we have a combination office/exercise room in our house equipped with lots of free weights (dumbbells, bar bells) as well as DVDs.  The one I’m currently hooked on is called Butts and Guts.  It involved 40 minutes of squats, lunges, dead lifts done over and over again with weights.  You will definitely “feel the burn.”

I reaped the benefits of that while hiking Mt. Audubon.  The weight training helped me keep a steady pace as I gained elevation.  The strength of my quads and butt allowing me to tackle the mountain.  The other thing you will want for Mt. Audubon or any of Colorado’s big mountains is good hiking boots.

Because, boy are there lots of rocks.  Rocks in every shape and size, and having a good stiff sole to your boot will save a lot of wear and tear on your feet and legs.

Besides prepping yourself strength-wise, you need to have a good mental outlook as well.  It’s okay to go slower and even take a break now and then.  Big mountains demand a lot of energy, and it’s good to eat period snacks as well as keeping yourself hydrated.

My last tip would be to know the weather forecast.  There’s nothing worse than trying to reach a summit while trying to beat bad weather coming in.  Either start early or choose another day.  Some of my best summit hikes have been in September.  I enjoy the experience so much more when I can relax and take all the time I need.

No matter how much exercising I’ve done, I always find that last 1/2 mile the worst.  I made good time to the saddle, but once I had to go straight up the rocky boulders and talus of Audubon, my pace slowed to a crawl.   I’d hope across some boulders, and stop to catch my breath, up ten more, pause.  I had a similar experience in The Trough on Longs Peak.

There’s not really anything you can do to compensate for the lack of oxygen.

But once I reached the summit, it was all worth it.  That feeling of being on top of the world, surrounded by jagged peaks 360 degrees around me.

Yep, that’s why we put ourselves through such torture.