Spring might seem like a great time to hike 14ers, but it’s actually one of the snowiest, most difficult times of the year. As lower altitude parts of the country warm, it sends massive quantities of moisture to the mountains which usually falls as snow. The result is large, wet snowdrifts and tough conditions for hiking well into early June. Still, with the right gear and preparation, hiking 14ers in May is a realistic idea. Here’s what you should know about your trip before you start planning.
Prepare for Snow. It’s Inevitable.
April is the second snowiest month in the Rockies, and snow levels in May usually mirror that of December and January. Don’t drive to the trailhead and cross your fingers praying you’ll find a clear trail. You won’t. It’s a better idea to prepare for the snow that you will come across. This includes bringing the right gear, staying mindful of high water levels, picking the right peak and route, and starting early enough to avoid melting conditions.
Bring the Right Gear & Traction.
The most obvious challenge presented by snow and ice, slips & falls, is avoided with a bit of traction gear. For almost all May hikes, this means microspikes – lightweight chains, claws or other attachments that fit onto boots or hiking shoes. They help dig into the snow like snow tires. They work well on hard-packed snow, perfect for well-traveled trails and wind-swept snow. However they become less useful as snow becomes wet and clings to them. In these conditions, and when facing deep unconsolidated snow, snowshoes are your best friend. These two traction devices provide all you need to face the route on most 14ers in May.
Be Mindful of Creek & Stream Crossings
One of the indirect effects of snowmelt are high water levels in the hundreds of creeks and streams that flow from Colorado’s high basins and peaks. During May and June the water level rises substantially, especially following large long warm spells and during the afternoon peak melt. This can sometimes make creek crossings difficult, both on the road driving in and along the trail. When picking a route and peak, take this into account and plan an early descent if you find higher water levels than you expected on your way up.
Pick an Easy, Accessible Peak.
Not all 14ers are the same. When hiking 14ers in May, there are easier and harder routes. The Elk ranges are difficult peaks that get massive amounts of snow, making them poor choices for May hiking. Review a 14er route in detail to determine if it’s a good candidate for a May climb. A few good candidates include Mt Bierstadt, Quandary Peak, Grays Peak or Torreys Peak. These peaks all have very limited avalanche risk, are accessible and usually see a well-packed trail by May. There’s a good bet to try out if you’re not sure where to start.
Start Early to Avoid Wet Snow
As the day warms and the snow melts, conditions deteriorate for hiking and snowshoeing. Snow that was firm and solid on your ascent may turn to slush and mud by time you return at 2pm. On steep slopes, these conditions can cause instabilities and wet avalanches. While small, they’re more than able to knock you into trees or rocks and cause serious injuries. To avoid these risks, start your hikes early when hiking 14ers in May. Stick to shallow slopes if unsure, and check the Avalanche Reports just to be sure before you go.
Hiking 14ers in May: To Review
It’s normal to feel antsy about getting back to the hills. Hiking 14ers in May is possible with the right preparation. Just remember these tips and advice to stay safe and have a successful summit!
- Bring the right gear for traction.
- Be mindful of creek & stream crossing.
- Pick an accessible & easy peak.
- Start early enough to avoid wet snow.
With those tips in mind and a bit of research you’ll be on your way to the summit!
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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.