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Climbing 14ers in Winter: Getting Started

Avalanche Awareness


Avalanches kill Colorado climbers every year. It's important to know the destructive power of avalanches, how people get in trouble, and the basics of how to avoid them. Not every avalanche happens on obvious terrain and even small avalanches can kill. Steep 14er lines and couloirs should only be climbed with consolidated snow, in SPRING or early summer and will often pose DEADLY avalanche conditions during winter months.

Several of the easier winter 14ers routes avoid avalanche terrain, but not all. Taking an avalanche course is a great way to educate yourself and to stay safe in the mountains. Avalanche knowledge is a must when you leave the beginner peaks and start planning more trips for moderate and harder 14ers.

AIARE Level 1 and AIARE Level 2 courses (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) are available in Colorado through organizations like Colorado Mountain Club.

There are instructional videos online and introductory talks, but an interactive class with training time on the snow is the best way to learn about avalanche safety and the proper way to use a personal locator beacon, a shovel and a probe. Avalanche tools are good, but you need to be proficient for them to be any good so take that darn avalanche course! When someone gets caught in an avalanche, you often only have a few minutes to locate and dig them out.


The Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides updated avalanche conditions based on zones in Colorado. This is a great resource to study before you head into the mountains. Even "moderate" avalanche conditions can be dangerous. Avalanches are not unlike weather in that they tend to happen under a certain mix of conditions. These conditions can be monitored and forecasted by CAIC. The forecasts are broken down by mountain range, and then by elevation and aspect.

Some of the popular summer peaks have considerable avalanche danger on their routes, including Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, La Plata Peak, Mt. Yale, Mt. Princeton, and Mt. Sherman. And the avalanche danger isn't always where you think it might be, as several trailhead roads you will be hiking along should be of concern as they have high avalanche danger.

Know before you go. If you're intended route will take you near avalanche-prone terrain, plan to avoid it entirely or head out when the avalanche danger is low.

For snow avalanches, as with many of life's hazards, both education and experience are essential to provide the best survival chance. The Avalanche Handbook by David McClung