Peak(s):  Quandary Peak  -  14,265 feet
Date Posted:  02/17/2009
Date Climbed:   02/15/2009
Author:  KeithK

 Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink...  

Quandary Peak (14,265')
February 15, 2009
East Slopes from winter parking at McCullough Gulch trailhead
~7 miles
~3,450' Elevation Gain
Mike (smoove), Kevin (fishstick), Matt (Native_mntguy), Keith

Quandary Peak might be the most popular 14er in the state of Colorado; year-round accessibility combined with a reasonably short route make this mountain a great choice for first timers, either in summer or winter. On this particular day, both Matt and Kevin were seeking their first winter 14er summit, after being weathered off of Mt. Sherman last month, only a short distance from the summit. Even a terrific weather forecast couldn't keep me from joining them.

Our destination, deceptively farther from civilization than a power line might imply…

When we arrived in Breckenridge just before 7 a.m., the thermometer read 6 degrees. At the trailhead, it read 0 degrees. Sweet, it's not below zero! On top of that, the forecasted wind chill would reach -30 degrees. This should be a killer day! Oh, and an important lesson. Backpacks in the back of a pickup truck are very likely to freeze, especially a hydration tube, whether insulated or not. We have our second theme for the day… Finally on the extremely well packed track at 7:30, we began the brief jaunt up the McCullough Gulch road to the summer trailhead. The trench was well packed, even with some fresh snow from the night before, but we all wore snowshoes the entire way to the summit. Only Matt decided to take off his snowshoes about halfway down the mountain. Although optional, I would recommend wearing them for traction.

A blurry winter morning…

Meandering through the crisp winter forest, we stopped here and there for equipment adjustments. One or two water sources thawed, and at least someone was able to drink. My Camelbak insulated tube never did thaw out and I would survive the entire hike on about three quarters of a quart of Accelerade. To dispel the naysayers right out of the gate, this is the first time I've not been able to us my hose in winter. Also the first time I left my pack in the back of an open pickup. Lesson learned!

The forest thins, and Quandary Peak stands resplendent draped in white…

The weather continued to surprise, as beautiful blue skies streaked with contrails provided a pleasant ceiling above the frozen slopes of winter. It was cold, but did not feel below zero to me. In fact, Mike and Kevin hiked the lower slopes with sunglasses and light hats. I was quite comfortable with my lightweight balaclava, and didn't pull my hood up until we reached the first false summit at 12,400'. The solid trail led out of the trees and eschewed the summer route at the base of the first steep slope. Winter makes this hike much more enjoyable in my opinion, from the standpoint of avoiding the rocky switchbacks that snake up the side of the ridge. With snow, one only needs to weave straight up the slope, shortening the hike and providing a sense of climbing.

A quick break before steeper terrain…

Contrails cut through the azure splendor of the Colorado sky…

Northstar Mountain looks impressive from this angle, with Mounts Bross and Lincoln maintaining a low profile…

Above the trees, the windblown slope became mixed hard pack and rocks, but somehow the trailblazers before us had managed to keep a fairly snow-covered route. I'm pretty sure my snowshoes took way too much punishment, though, as avoiding rocks was nearly impossible. Still, there was enough snow, especially in some steeper sections, to warrant the traction provided by them. As we steadily made our way along the ridge, Mike and Kevin continued to lead in tandem, and I thought to myself that this hike actually seemed shorter this time around. Probably because the first time I climbed this pile of rocks, the sun burnt my hatless head to a crisp and I spent a week in misery thereafter. On a winter day, only the occasional gusts of wind would threaten comfort, and the climb was quite enjoyable. On a clear winter day, seeing the entire route ahead makes the climb almost elementary. Almost…

Windswept hard pack provides a smooth pack over a carpet of talus…

Switching from fogged and iced sunglasses to my goggles, I became more comfortable, and kept a steady pace, with Matt a couple of minutes ahead of me. Mike and Kevin began the final steep pitch to the second false summit, and were making great time up the ridge. A few unconsolidated stretches provided contrast to nearly snow free rocky sections, and I was surprised at how well we managed to follow the summer trail almost perfectly. A couple of snowboarders finally caught up to me, their boards looking like sails, and I could tell the drag of the wind was making them work for it. I was working hard enough without any additional help!

The big push to the summit!

I watched as Mike and Kevin crested the high point and disappeared, with Matt shortly behind. The true summit began to reveal itself to the west of the intended high point on the ridge. There is a feeling of complete confidence that sinks in at this point, knowing that it's just a matter of effort and the summit will be a reality. In the winter, it's that much more satisfying for me, as I'm suddenly realizing that achieving the summit of a fourteener is not something only a hard core mountaineer can do. Although there are sure to be times when turning around is the best option, I'm very much enjoying my new found self-assurance. Step-breathe-step-breathe, just stay in rhythm, rest step, breathe. As I followed the 2nd snowboarder to the crest of the ridge, it was a relief to know that a break would be forthcoming, and perhaps a drink of water?

Surprisingly comfortable conditions treated us on the summit, and we spent time for picture taking and a snack. My water was still a lost cause, but I drank from my Nalgene, and felt plenty strong, albeit dehydrated. It was a tremendous day to be above 14,000'.

The DeCaLiBron, in reverse…

La Plata Peak, Mt. Elbert, and Mt. Massive stand distant with the Clinton Group in the fore…

Mount of the Holy Cross just right of center…

Atlantic, Pacific and Crystal Peaks rise to the north, with the Gore Range looking oh so close…

Keystone sprawls beneath Grays and Torreys Peaks…

A nice shot of Mt. Silverheels, and the North Slopes route from Hoosier Pass…

Summit shots...





With snowshoes on, we began the descent, which is not steep enough to scare, but plenty steep enough to feel. My legs are complaining as I write this; I haven't been this sore in quite some time. The descent was uneventful, as we always hope it will be. Just a steady plod down, down, down. Battering toes into boots as gravity asserts itself. We reached the truck at 3:30, a reasonable 8 hours round trip. That's about an hour less than it took me in summer! I'll drink to that!

A look back at the Leviathan…

Matt, Kevin and Mike are great guys, fun to hike with and equally as entertaining during the hours on the pavement. Pizza and a beer in Fairplay precluded the skier-free drive back to Denver on 285; of course, there are always those Sunday drivers that love to cruise along at 5 miles below the speed limit. Gotta love it! It turned out to be a fairly pleasant day, and I was glad that we chose to challenge the forecast. I'm learning more and more lately that hoping for the perfect day on paper is counterproductive; you just have to get out there and do it!


 Comments or Questions

I like it.
02/05/2011 00:22
Nice work on the trip report, and those are some great photos. Thanks for posting this.


Nice ...
02/18/2009 16:40
Attitude! And great photos ... you can even see the Bells in that 10th photo (in the background). Way to get ‘er done, and in good time. Thanks for posting! Happy Trails.


Another well-written report!
02/18/2009 17:53
Good to hike with you again, Keith. And I like that you used my ”Leviathan” nickname (although I‘m guessing other people have had the same thought).


What Changed???
11/30/2010 17:28
I thought you had adverse reactions to cold weather and always waited for "June". Three recent reports. Making me feel bad that I can't get out. How you liking the winter stuff? Certainly different, but not too bad if you have the right gear. Looked like an awesome day.


02/19/2009 16:23
Dave, nothing changed. I don‘t know what you‘re talking about. All I ever talk about is how much I LOVE winter, and climbing in winter, and how warm, sunny days are pure torture.
I guess it‘s just becoming a necessary evil, so I might as well embrace it. Gotta get into the best shape possible for summer! How come you can‘t get out? I would like to plan Sherman and Bierstadt yet this winter, and you‘re welcome to join for either!


Re: Haha!
02/19/2009 18:23
I am incharge of a major system integration at work and the actual ”go-live” activities started in early January. Four weeks of 12-14 hours days left me too drained to even climb the stairs. Have more to do but hours are finally dropping.

I would be up for Beirstadt or Sherman. Also, looking at doing a winter Evan‘s accent to avoid the summer crowds, if you are interested.


02/19/2009 18:50
I‘ll send you a PM about future plans... I will have to respectfully decline on Evans, though, as I intend to save that one for my ”finisher”...


great TR as usual
02/20/2009 22:18
It was a much better day than Sherman was......while winter 14ers aren‘t my favorite, I will continue to do them....march 1st I may try sherman again.


Nice Going
02/25/2009 02:35
Congratulations on Pikes Peak and Quandary; you should be in good shape for the early part of the summer hiking season. My fitness training seems to be moving in the opposite direction...

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