Mt. Sherman is a great, easily accessible 14er, thanks to access roads dating back to the silver boom era. The basin was once home to numerous mining operations, evidence by numerous historic structures and relics left in the valley below. At one point, a mult-kilometer long aerial tram transported ore down the mountain to the Leavick Mill, which you pass by shortly after parking. Keep an eye for the decaying remains of these towers while climbing Mt Sherman in winter.
In winter, you need to take the South Slopes route, instead of the standard route up the Ridge, to avoid considerable avalanche danger there. Expect an 8.5 mile trip, with around 3,100 feet of elevation gain. However this route isn’t without risk. While there are no major concerns on route, it’s easy to get off the exact path (there’s no trail to follow here – just posts.). Even wandering 30 feet in the wrong direction here, with the wrong snowpack, could be disastrous. Study the route closely, and if you think you’ve gone off route- stop and assess things.
Before You Go: Take Time to Prepare
Climbing Mt Sherman in winter is not easy: you will need specialized equipment, along with the skill and knowledge to use them. Navigation to avoid avy risk is critical, and plenty can go wrong. It’s a good idea to study the route carefully, using good maps and a source like 14ers.com or summitpost.com. Check the weather and avy forecast, and leave your plans back home with someone dependable. This is also a good route to bring a partner along – there’s a good chance you may be the only person out there when you go.
Getting to the Trailhead
In most cases, the access road closes 1 mile below the Leavick site, around 11,100 feet, where plowing stops. In late winter or early spring, it may be possible to park higher near the Leavick site. Use good judgement in determining when this is safe to do so – getting stuck at this elevation in winter isn’t a good idea or fun experience. The road is bumpy and well-worn. While most 2WD vehicles can make it, take your time on the way in. Be very careful turning around – I got myself stuck doing a Y-turn in less than a foot of snow, even with 4WD.
Part 1: Saunter up the Road
The first section of the climb, like many winter 14ers, is a hike, ski or snowshoe up the closed approach road. In most cases this is easy, with the road scoured clear of snow in many areas. You may find yourself switching traction repeatedly to conform to the conditions. As you get past treeline, expect even less snow thanks to the high winds, unless you’re going shortly after a major snow event (check the conditions before you go so you aren’t surprised!)
After you pass the Leavick Mill, continue another mile. You will pass a large gully on your right – this is the gully you will re-enter later. Keep past it now, as it usually fills with unstable snow that can collapse disastrously. Aim to leave the route near a drainage where the road sharply turns left. Head up and over a slope to your right.
Part Two: Through the Hills to the Gully
The South Slopes route is largely defined by a large gully where the southern face of Mt Sherman meets the face of White Ridge. There are several possible routes you can take through the hilly terrain that separates you from this gully. While it’s best to choose a route based on the conditions you find in person, here’s a general description.
After ascending the slope from the road, continue in northerly direction, ascend and cutting across hills to avoid losing elevation gain. You may come across flat sections, continue across or around them. Watch for posts at this point left by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative to mark the route. They follow the western edge of the gully. Your goal should be reaching one of these posts, marking the entry point to the Southern slope gully.
NOTE: There are numerous minor slopes in this area that, while small, are steep enough to avalanche in the right conditions. Make sure you know before you and check the Avy forecast, and have the knowledge and skill to recognize and stay out of avalanche terrain.
Part Three: Up the Southern Gully
Danger lurks above this gully, in the right conditions. The southwestern face of White Ridge above you can create large avalanches when it is loaded with snow. If it has been scoured bare, the risk is minimal. Regardless, hug the gully’s left, western ridge and only enter it once you’ve passed from underneath the highest risk slopes.
This terrain is confusing, especially the area to exit the gully and re-enter the hills on your descent. Take time while ascending to stop and look around and behind you, so you will recognize where to turn right out of the gully. Don’t continue all the way to the road or you will run into dangerous snowpack – not a good idea.
As you near the top of the gully, find the right place to turn left up the summit plateau. Don’t turn too early, or you’ll face steep, avy-prone terrain. If you wait too long, you’ll add unnecessary distance at very high terrain. When the slope begins to mellow, turn left and continue up.
Part Four: Across the Summit Plateau and to the Peak
Mt. Sherman is famous for its flat summit plateau. In the 1970’s, a small 6-person plane crash landed successfully on the summit, with all its passengers eventually rescued. Pick your way across the plateau – this can be challenging if there are high winds, which Sherman is famous for as well. Aim for right part of the summit ridge. It can be difficult to identify the exact summit in some points until you have gotten close.
Once you’ve finished climbing Mt Sherman in winter, prepare for your descent! There are several opportunities for glissading on the south slopes, in the right conditions. Make sure you only do so where there is a clear runout, and if you have experience, an ice axe, and a helmet. Many people have died glissading using trekking poles that snap – don’t be tempted.
Climbing Mt Sherman in Winter: A Great First Snow Climb
Remember, climbing Mt Sherman in winter is best done with crampons, ice axe and helmet. It is not a hike that’s safely done in microspikes. If you want to try climbing Mt Sherman in winter conditions, rent the proper gear and head to St. Mary’s Glacier to practice walking in crampons and self-arresting with your axe. These skills are critical if you’re going to head up the South Slopes route.
About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.