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Climbing 14ers in Winter: Getting Started

What to Expect


Trailheads

Most of the 14er trailheads are on long, unpaved county or forest service roads. In the summer, these can be beautiful drives. But in the winter, most of these roads are not plowed and are unreachable by automobile. This effectively moves the trailhead down the road by miles. This increases both the mileage and elevation gain of a winter hike, making for a longer day in the backcountry. This makes it quite likely that many winter hikes may begin and end in the dark given the shorter hours of daylight.

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Grays Peak Trailhead in Winter

Even with 4x4 or AWD, most vehicles can't get much farther up the snow-covered road, and many get stuck. Why chance spending hours digging out your vehicle and ruining your day? You could easily walk that extra mile or two within a short timeframe. The more you visit winter trailheads, the more you'll see the marks left by stuck motorists, if not the stuck vehicle itself. Tow trucks cost a lot of money in the backcountry. Be sure you have a shovel with you in your vehicle just in case! Tow straps, sand and a wood axe are also a good idea to have in case you get stuck. Some winter trailheads and roads see very few people, so don't expect to be able to easily flag someone down for help.

Early winter or a low snow year might provide better access to trailheads, but never assume this is the case without checking conditions online or with the local country authorities. Many of these roads have gates or other types of barriers blocking winter access even if the roads are passable. Peaks with gates in winter include: Mount Sneffels, San Luis Peak, Wetterhorn Peak, Mt. Lincoln Group (Kite Lake) and Pikes Peak (Crags).

If you are fortunate, you may find that snowmobiles or other travelers have recently packed down a line along the road, which will greatly help you, since you likely won't need to break your own trail on the approach. Don't underestimate how much effort this can save you. In fact, some people intentionally will watch for conditions updates on 14ers.com for a given peak, and once they know there is a trench in place, they will attempt that same peak in the next day or two. This is called "trench poaching." If you poach someone's trench, please be sure to thank them and give credit in your own Trip Report or Conditions Update.

There are a few summer trailheads with access all year, including: Quandary Peak, Mount Elbert (South), La Plata Peak and Mount Yale (Denny Creek).

Please visit the Trailheads page view trailhead status updates or to post one after your hike.

Trails and Conditions

As one would guess, snow will cover the trails on the 14ers. This is where you'll need backcountry navigational skills to provide you with a successful summit and return. On popular peaks, like Quandary, the trail can usually be easy to follow because of those that hiked before you. A well worn bootpack or trench is very common on these highly-used trails. But fresh snow and wind can easily cover the path within minutes. Understanding maps, GPS apps and navigation is important in winter, even on easy peaks. Note: Cold temperatures will drain your phone battery faster so be sure to have a back-up battery if you plan to use electronics for navigation in winter.

During the winter months you should expect all types of conditions, from dry trails, to slick icy rocks, to several feet of snow. Ice or crusty snow can form a layer on top of soft or sugar-like snow. In the morning, the hard surface may support you but warming throughout the day may cause you to break through and "posthole" through deep snow. Snow conditions may also be hard-packed or icy, requiring the use of micro-spikes or crampons.

Peak Conditions Updates are a great source for current conditions on the peaks. If your hike, please leave a condition update to help out others.

Routes

On many of the 14ers there are different routes for summer hikes, winter hikes, and spring snow climbs. These can be minor or major modifications of the summer route or completely different routes. Summer routes are often designed to be the quickest, shortest, and most direct, all while keeping trail sustainability. These changes in winter routes are usually to avoid the dangers of avalanches.

The winter routes usually avoid gullies and steep faces in favor of safer ridge lines. Though, not all of these changes avoid avalanche terrain so be careful of your route choices. Winter routes are not the same as snow climbs, which are usually marked with a blue snowflake on 14ers.com. There is a saying, "ridges in winter, couloirs in spring."

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When studying routes on 14ers.com, select the "Slope Angle" map layer to identify slopes which may be prone to avalanche. This is not the be-all and end-all to stay out of danger, but it does provide a general rule of avalanche danger - Be leery of slopes between 27 - 45 degrees of angle, which the slope angle map layer helps identify.

Getting off-route in winter can be more dangerous than summer, as you could easily end up in avalanche terrain if you are not careful. Additionally, the extra energy expended can wear you down, depleting your endurance levels.

Be careful of crossing over frozen creeks, streams, ponds and lakes. Know your route to avoid these, even those covered by snow. A step or fall into water could quickly lead to hypothermia and you should have a plan for such an emergency.

Be careful walking near cornices and on ridgelines. Cornices are generally wind-driven, hard-packed snow formations hanging over the side of ridges. They can be stable places to walk, until they aren't. The closer you get to the edge, the less it can support your weight. Your best bet is to stay where you are sure there is mountain (rock) underneath you.

Just because you can see and follow the tracks left by a previous hiker, never assume they knew the correct route. They could be traveling to a different location or might even be off-route.

Speed

You will likely be moving slower on winter hikes. Bulkier clothes and more layers. Extra gear and a heavier pack. Hiking on unsupportive snow. Wearing snowshoes or other floatation gear. Postholing. All of these add up to slower and longer days. It is a good estimate that most people average about 1 mph on a winter climb of a 14er.

In favorable conditions, like hiking on solid snow, a boot-packed trench or well-traveled road can increase your speed. But a fresh snow fall can add hours due to putting in your own trench. Another reason to have a good partner or two.

Once you have hiked a few winter peaks, you'll have a better idea of your speed, based on conditions.

Weather

Weather during the winter months is more stable than the monsoon season of summer. This means storms don't usually build up quickly in the afternoon forcing you to be off the summit by noon. Though the standard "off the summit by noon" isn't a major concern, this doesn't mean you can sleep in. As mentioned before, you have greater distance and gain to cover and will likely be moving slower. And daylight is shorter. Take these winter norms into consideration as you plan your day.

Wind plays a far bigger role in evaluating weather forecasts during the winter. On cold days, even winds barely over 20 mph can chill you to the bone, freeze your eye lashes and even cause frostbite on exposed skin.

It is not uncommon to have tentative plans for peaks in different regions, then choosing the final peak based on the weather/wind forecast. If you know you'll be hiking the next weekend, start watching the area's weather now. This will help you plan for potential conditions. If it snows during the week, if there are high winds or if it will be sunny, you can take a guess on what to expect on the trail, like new snow, increased avalanche danger, or a trench from last week could still be there. Also, understand that planning a peak in winter is always tentative. Changing weather or avalanche conditions can render the peak a poor choice. Having to cancel at the last minute is a fairly common occurrence.

Don't race an approaching storm. Play it safe and be off the mountain in plenty of time. Winter storms can move in faster than forecasted and put you in harm's way and you could be trying to find your way in a whiteout.

Don't forget to check the weather and road conditions for the drive to the trailhead. You might be traveling over passes and icy roads in the predawn hours.

One of the most important weather factors on peak day is the wind.

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Wind-blasted on Blanca Peak

Wind

Wind is the great demoralizer in the mountains. Winter peaks are almost always windy, some peaks/days more than others. Wind-blown snow covers tracks and trenches. Wind-driven snow can limit visibility and bite at exposed skin. Wind sucks the heat from your body. Heavy gusts can push you off-balance or knock you down. You may take fewer breaks when hiking in high winds, possibly causing you to eat or drink less. Don't underestimate how the wind alone can make or break your attempt to summit.

Windless days with bluebird skies are amazing in winter and well worth the effort to get to the trailhead.

When checking weather, always check the wind forecast. NOAA's "hourly" forecast is a good source.

Everyone has a different tolerance for hiking in sustained wind and wind gusts. The more you hike, the more you will learn what you can tolerate. And remember windy days will feel colder as the wind chill drops.

Wind speeds below 20 mph are nice on the winter peaks. Winds between 20-30 mph are common and are just fine when wearing the right clothes and goggles to cover your eyes. Winds above 30 are normal and begin to change the dynamic of the day's journey, impacting walking speeds. For most, wind speeds above 40 mph are a good reason to stay below treeline or even stay home. Then there are those who are willing to suffer through strong winds.

Think about skin protection on these windy days with goggles and face coverings, and maybe an extra layer for warmth. Wind tolerance decreases as the route exposure increases. Climbing Class 3, 4 and 5 in windy conditions adds to the danger.

Wind, more than just about every other condition, can turn a good day into a sufferfest.

Note: Many people are poor at judging wind speed and tend to overestimate it. Checking weather stations or carrying an anemometer are good ways to be sure. If come home and post a trip report stating you summitted in what had to be 100mph wind speeds, expect some fun comments.

Glissading

Simply put, it's sliding down the mountain on your butt. A fun and fast way to descend gentle, snowy slopes. But as with any mountaineering activity, it comes with risks. People have been seriously injured and killed trying to glissade without an ice axe and knowledge of how to use it correctly. One must be able to manage speed, which is affected by slope angle and snow conditions. One needs to know where the slope ends: Over a cliff, against rocks or a gentle sloping meadow. You could also trigger an avalanche while trying to glissade. The higher the consequence, the higher the caution needs to be. Before you attemp glissading, learn how to self-arrest properly with an ice axe and start on low-angle slopes where there's little chance of you sliding out of control. For detailed information on glissading and ice axe use, consider picking up the book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. The Snow Travel section goes in to great depth in this area.

Winter Camping

Because of the distance from the summer trailhead, not all 14ers are doable as daytrips for most of us. This may necessitate camping during the winter which introduces several additional gear and logistics considerations that complicate things from camping in summer. For instance, often you'll need to melt snow to replenish water supplies. You'll need to spend time drying your wet/frozen clothes and boots at your camp. You'll need the proper tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad for subzero temperatures.

When camping, you'll likely be sleeping at a higher elevation than normal. It won't take many overnight ventures for you to figure out how your body handles the extended time at high elevation and you should try to determine your limits in the summer months so you generally know how your body will react when you head up for a winter camp. Altitude Sickness (Acute Mountain Sickness), or AMS, is unpredictable and affects everyone differently and the overnight camping will certainly make if worse if you are susceptible to AMS in the first place.

When setting up camp, it is smart to use the surrounding terrain to your advantage whenever possible. Try to set up camp on the in an area that is sheltered from the winds by using natural formations for cover. Be sure to avoid locations that are susceptible to avalanches.

More information on winter camping