Zach Eiten - Becoming A Mountaineer On Colorado's 14ers

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Hi my name is Zach Eiten and I was raised in Highlands Ranch, CO and now call Golden, CO home. Growing up in the state of Colorado meant hiking, skiing, etc was a way of life and I am lucky to have had the opportunity to get into the outdoors since I can remember. 

When I was young my family was primarily a ski family in the sense that most of our mountain activities involved skiing all winter long. My dad moved out to Colorado in the 80’s and worked at Arapahoe Basin and Keystone so we had a definite affinity to the area including Loveland and Breckenridge.

Then once summer rolled around we would go for a hike now and again. Summers were predominantly filled with sports as I, along with my other three siblings played year round sports which culminated with the busiest season being summer.

I had always admired the mountaineers that were tackling the Himalayan summits since I was young. I remember watching IMAX movies about Mt. Everest with my grandparents and seeing exhibits about climbing here and there in Denver. With climbing and mountaineering a daily reminder in Colorado culture I was constantly immersed in the imagery and wonder of it. 

Growing up in the state of Colorado meant hiking, skiing, etc was a way of life

Once I graduated college I took a job as a marine biologist working on the commercial fishing boats in Alaska and in my spare time I would climb the mountains around the ports. I realized that I wanted to pursue mountaineering and climbing and that I should get professional guidance.

I solidified these ambitions when I returned from Alaska and thru-hiked the Colorado Trail and was in love with the idea that I could live off of everything on my back far in the backcountry.

Therefore, I joined the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) and immediately signed up for the Basic Mountaineering Course with the Fort Collins group. My instructors taught me everything I needed to know to hit the ground running and I guess you can say the rest is history because that course set me on the path to where I am today.

Nowadays I help instruct a few different courses for the CMC and help test out gear for Outdoor Prolink around here in Golden. However, I am always looking onward and upward to bigger and better climbs around the world, hoping that someday I’ll be ready to hit them.

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

My story from the mountain is a mosaic of stories that at its roots turned me into who I am today.

Just after college I was out of shape and looking for a job. It seemed as if everything was at a standstill. I didn’t have much in the way of hobbies at the moment. Then one day my family invited me to come on a hike with them up Mt. Bierstadt which is one of the 14ers here close to the Front Range.

I was immediately drawn into the peak bagging seen and itched to hike and climb more of the 14ers.

While growing up the 14ers weren’t much different than any other hike and weren’t placed high on a pedestal as they are today. Anyways, I agreed to join up and trudged my way up the mountain but upon reaching the summit I was absolutely blown away with the views of my home state.

I thought to myself how little I knew of Colorado although growing up there all my life. I was immediately drawn into the peak bagging seen and itched to hike and climb more of the 14ers.

Now this was just before getting my job in Alaska and before joining the CMC so I went for a period without hiking anymore of the 14ers. I was still in awe of them. 

While on the Colorado Trail I ticked a few more off and as I hiked up each one my interest grew. I was still relegated to the easier 14ers until I took the Basic Mountaineering Course which provided me the crucial skills to take on the more technical summits. 

This drive to climb the 14ers is really what drove me to gain the skills and hobbies I have to this day. As I progressed in my journey I gained more and more experience, I suffered and fought for some peaks, and on others I was gifted with surreal beauty.

As the sun drew closer and closer the sky began to change into cotton candy tones until finally the sun rose and like a blazing flame, the alpenglow burned red and orange across Capitol’s eastern face.

Although I have hiked the entire Colorado Trail and that will forever be one of my fondest experiences, my most profound story from the mountains is that of the 14ers.

A couple of experiences in particular resonate the strongest. Just after completion of my mountaineering course I started ticking off the more technical 14ers. For awhile there is seemed as if each mountain I went to climb taught me some new skill or graced me with some new unforgettable lesson.

In July of 2017, after a spring of heavy snowfall some friends and I went up to take on 

Capitol Peak which is one of the hardest in the state. Our crew was comprised of my Colorado Trail “trail family” of about six. We planned on heading up to Capitol Lake on Saturday, spend the night, then get an alpine start on Sunday for our summit day. I was nervous, anxious, but most of all excited.

As we approached base camp at Capitol Lake we stared up at Capitol’s immense North Face. Clouds were whipping across the summit that day giving it a heavenly presence. As we watched the sun slip beyond the horizon we made camp and waited for our turn at an alpine start to climb the mountain.

Around 3:30am in the morning my team and I were off. With the threat of afternoon lighting such a huge issue in Colorado we had planned on being on the summit of “K2” by sunrise. “K2” is a small sub-summit along the ridge on your way to the summit of Capitol.

It was here where I had one of a few epiphanies from my time in the outdoors.

We had stopped for a quick break to eat and snack and wait for the sun to crest over the horizon so that we could navigate the technical ridge. As the sun drew closer and closer the sky began to change into cotton candy tones until finally the sun rose and like a blazing flame, the alpenglow burned red and orange across Capitol’s eastern face.

While Capitol Peak showed me strength in myself and surreal beauty, the Maroon Bells showed me perseverance, humility, and pain.

I can still see it in my head to this day. Capitol standing high above all the other peaks covered in blazing red light while the surrounding mountains remained in the darkness of morning. My team and I had been anxious about the climb until this point, but that view forged our spirit and gave us the stoke to push on and summit Capitol Peak.

We were given a perfect bluebird day and climbing that peak with those people cemented my drive to further my mountaineering.

Not too long after Capitol Peak I set my eyes on the majestic Maroon Bells. These peaks located just outside of Aspen, CO are some of the most recognizable summits in North America.

They captivate all who look on them, I was no different. While Capitol Peak showed me strength in myself and surreal beauty, the Maroon Bells showed me perseverance, humility, and pain.

The first time I threw myself at the peaks my team and I felt beyond prepared. The weather was forecasted as a cool fall day with a chance of a dusting of snow later in the day. As we pushed on the day was cold and windy as expected, we reached the summit of South Maroon Peak in the early morning.

Something I would love to pass on to others is that awe inspiring wonder that nature gives me.

We took a quick break, ate a snack, and scoped out the Bells Traverse from the summit. The traverse consists of Class 4 and low 5th Class climbing with massive exposure. As we packed up and made our way down to the saddle of North and South Maroon Peaks to begin the traverse weather began coming in.

It started dusting snow as expected so we continued on. I racked up with some climbing gear and a short rope to protect the airy beginning of the traverse. I swear as soon as I began climbing, the storm intensified and throttled us with blinding snow and wind.

Up until this point I had never had to bail on a 14er and this was my first dose of real time decision making. We made the decision to bail and in doing so gave me valuable experience to not let my ego fog my decision making process.

Mother Nature helped reinforce our decisions for all 18 hours it took us to return to camp and reminded us who was in charge. I returned the following year and once again the Maroon Bells pushed me to the limit.

Poor snow conditions and bad weather left my team and I with a 27 hour single push of both peaks. I have never been so physically and mentally exhausted as I was pushing to complete the route that day. Each step had to be methodically taken to ensure safe passage, but each step took us closer to the finish line.

My philosophy is to just keep learning as much as I can in the hopes that one day I may master a sport.

I am proud of those summits because although they weren’t the prettiest they truly provided me with my first experiences of what it meant to take risks and make smart decisions, really the heart of mountaineering. It was from this point I felt like I had crested the ridge from an aspiring mountaineer to finally tip toeing into understanding what it meant to be a mountaineer fully. 

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

My mountaineering and climbing pursuits have brought me closer to the natural world than ever before in my life.

As a biologist by trade I have had the great experience of heightening my awareness to the world around me while I am out playing outside. If everyone would take a deep breath and observe the landscape around them I think everyone would increase their knowledge and want to protect the areas we recreate in.

Something I would love to pass on to others is that awe inspiring wonder that nature gives me.

Next time you are out getting pummeled by Mother Nature look at the strength of the trees bracing the storm allowing you shelter, take that extra time to look into the eyes of the stoic mountain goat you pass by on a climbing route, or marvel at the resiliency of the tiniest creatures pressing on in the face of what seem like insurmountable obstacles, maybe you might find something in yourself.

On a personal level, I have learned that you really can accomplish what you put your mind and body too. I really didn’t think I would be where I am today and it just goes to prove that you have the power to change as long as you work towards a goal. I have pushed myself to the limit mentally and physically, but with proper training, gear, and good wits I have never gone to the limit thinking that I wasn’t in control of the situation. 

I would love to be known for putting up first ascents on unclimbed peaks, but if I were to be known for anything I would hope that it would be that my climbing partners find me as an unwaveringly solid partner. If it’s still unclimbed by the time I am ready, the first winter ascent on K2 would be badass but really no peaks in particular. Hopefully somewhere in the Andes, Karakoram or Himalaya.

I want to be known for being a safe and competent climber as well as a good spirited one that my partners would be glad to rope up with.

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

Without a doubt my favorite pieces of gear are my belay jacket and my trusty ice axe.

With today's modern lightweight gear I carry a 6000m down jacket all year round. Many people don’t understand why I have a jacket made for Denali on a mild summer day at the top of a 14er until they throw it on.

Not only is it just comfortable to have, but it is a massive lifeline should anything go awry in the backcountry.

However, my all time favorite piece of gear is my ice axe (Back Diamond Raven). The versatility of the ice axe is hard to beat. My friends and I keep a list of different uses we have found for an ice axe and I think we are up to around 200 now (Greg note: I asked Zach what are his favorite uses and he said: Warding of an aggressive mountain goat, digging your car out when you don’t have a shovel, using it as rock protection, using it as a toilet paper holder in your Glacier camp, and most importantly used as a beer opener.)

Not only does my ice axe save me from dangerous falls on exposed terrain, but it has proved to be extremely handy in a variety of situations. If I had only one tool to go climb a mountain it would be an ice axe!

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

If you are new to the outdoors, I highly recommend getting professional guidance to get your foot in the door. If not you’ll just end up spending time and money on gear and skills you don’t need or you might get yourself in a sticky situation without being aware that it was a situation to begin with.

Most outdoor communities will have very informative clubs that hold classes as well as activities for members. For example, the Colorado Mountain Club in Colorado, The Mountaineers in Washington, The Mazamas in Oregon, and so forth. If you cannot find an outdoor club around you consider hiring a guide or taking a course through an outdoor school such as NOLS.

Once you get trained up, set a goal for yourself. It doesn’t have to be big, just make sure to get yourself out and doing the activity at any capacity. If you truly enjoy the activity you are doing it will start to take hold of you. Just keep making goals as soon as your reach the one prior.

I made plenty of mistakes throughout my learning process, but I think that’s a major part of becoming immersed in the sport. I have bought incorrect gear and underestimated weather, etc but I learned each time and adapted. My philosophy is to just keep learning as much as I can in the hopes that one day I may master a sport.

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

First off, go pick yourself up the holy book of mountaineering known as “Freedom of the Hills” and only after reading this should you progress to other guides. “Freedom of the Hills” will teach you everything with illustrations as well as give you the jargon needed to understand other publications.

Personally, I love reading the “Accidents in North American Climbing” from the American Alpine Club (AAC). It is an annual publication that analyzes each mountaineering and climbing accident that year and what to do to avoid a similar situation.

I also highly recommend checking out your states avalanche observation center, here in Colorado it is the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).

Aside from those, my two favorite mountaineering “reads” are “Extreme Alpinism” by Mark Twight if you are in need of some stoke boosting. The other is “Training for New Alpinism” by Steve House and Scott Johnston which is a training book using the most modern scientific research to maximize your workouts, diet, and lifestyle for alpine pursuits.

In terms of social media, go follow the hashtags like #iceclimbing, #tradclimbing, and #tradisrad for example.

When you see a sweet shot check out the athlete’s page and in no time you’ll have a constant feed of motivational photos of other people kicking a** in the backcountry.

Most importantly, follow Steve House (@stevehouse10) and look into his accomplishments. He is one of my top role models.

Also go check out the Smiley’s Project, the Smiley’s are a couple that attempted to become the first people to climb all of the fifty classic climbs in North America and recorded it, the whole thing is very inspiring.

Where’s your next adventure?

My next adventures coming up are to go ski the Skillet Couloir on Mt. Moran in the Tetons this Spring, climb and ski some of the California 14ers, and I need to return to climb Granite Peak in Montana.

Mt. Moran is calling my name because the Skillet Couloir is listed as one of the fifty classic ski descents in North America. Grand Teton National Park is also one of my favorite places on Earth and I haven’t made a trip up there recently so I am overdue. I am going to head there in Spring to allow for safer snow conditions and prime skiing. The trip should be a success if I can maintain a high level of cardio to be able to boot my gear 6,000 vertical feet to the summit.

The California 14ers have also caught my eye since now that I am done with all of the Colorado 14ers and Mt. Rainier in Washington. The California 14ers are all I have left to complete all of the 14ers in the lower 48 states.

I had a friend that has since moved away that had this goal as their main drive. This was at the time I was just getting started so that goal has always really stuck with me as well. I would like to go in late Spring or Summer so I can either ski some of the peaks or take climbing routes to their summits. I just need to get a lot more cardio and time on rock before I head out there for the season.

Granite Peak on the other hand is a beautiful and secluded peak that denied me this past year. It is Montana’s highest point so I want to go back and successfully climb it. I would like to go back in late Summer or early Fall. All I need is a good weather window and we will be golden.

All of these adventures are for accumulating training to one day ski Denali via the Messner Couloir or climb the Cassin Route in true alpine style.

Where can others learn more about you?

If anyone wants to follow my lowly adventures they can follow me on instagram at @zacheiten. I am also a very active council member, instructor, and a member of the Colorado Mountain Club so if you are in Colorado check out the CMC.

I’d also be happy to answer any questions you have, you can just message me on instagram. If not you can find me climbing around Golden, CO where I call home.

Want to share your Story From The Mountain?

Hey, I'm Greg Kamradt, the founder of Terra Mano.

We interview awesome hikers/mountaineers/climbers/photographers and share the stories behind their ambition. By sharing these stories, we want to help others become inspired to reach their goals.

Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how

Terra Mano makes handcrafted maps of American Landscapes.

Get Stories From The Mountain Delivered directly to your inbox