If you’ve submitted a Colorado 14er in the summer, you probably weren’t alone. Many Rocky Mountain peaks, especially in the Front Range, see hundreds of climbers during busy summer weekends. For this, and many other reasons, October might be the best time of year to climb a 14er. Things get colder and snowier, driving away crowds. However it’s still much more manageable than a true winter ascent. Still, it’s best to be prepared for the increase in risk that comes with the conditions: Here’s my advice on how to climb a 14er in October (without getting rescued!).
Check the Forecast Multiple Times
The weather in October is unpredictable and totally varied. Depending on the year, you may get warm, sunny days, or below-zero winter storms. Start looking up the forecast a week or so out, looking for larger weather systems that may move in. Check throughout the week, as forecasts get more accurate. Be sure to use at least two sources: a few examples include Mountain Forecast and Weather.com. Unless you are experienced, I’d advise staying home anytime significant snow or wind is predicted.
Be prepared for Snow and Ice
Check 14ers.com to see if there are recent condition reports for your route and peak. You may want to choose based on where there is recent information: Driving out to a mountain without any beta could leave you surprised and ill-equipped for the conditions. If there is any snow or ice on the trail, consider bringing traction like microspikes and trekking poles to avoid slips and falls. You probably don’t need crampons unless you are attempting a technical climb (and you probably shouldn’t do that without a guide or training). Unless there is a large snowfall before you climb, you probably do not need snowshoes either.
Usually avalanches are not a significant problem in October… however, that isn’t always the case. Even a small slide can take you off your feet and toss you over dangerous rocks or cliffs. Whenever you see more than 1-2 feet of snow drifts forming on steep slopes, you should stop and consider the conditions and risk. Watch for cracks forming in the snow or other signs of stability, and turn around immediately if you see any.
Leave the Drinking Tube at Home
By October, you will run into sub-freezing temperatures often above treeline. Even a slight breeze added to this will swiftly freeze your drinking tube and make it inoperable. Bring your water in nalgenes or other wide-rim bottles, or bring an insulated water bottle. Ideally, you should bring someway to get more water in an emergency. In the winter, this means bringing along a small backpacking stove – if you must spend a night or two outdoors unplanned, it could make all the difference. Never try to eat snow – you will lose more energy than you gain.
Clothing Layers are your Friend
The single biggest challenge from a climb in October is the cold temperature. With the wind that is usually present above treeline, it is very easy to become hypothermic. Layering your clothing is the key to staying warm, by trapping numerous pockets of warmer air around you. At the same time, it allow you to easily add or shed layers to adapt to conditions as you ascend and descend. This is my layering strategy – feel free to add or edit it to meet your needs and comfort!
I start with a wicking base layer – think of something like under armor that is elastic and hugs your skin. This wicks sweat away from your body to help it evaporate which is important – wet clothing in cold temperatures leads to hypothermia. Avoid cotton and most wool, look for base layers that are either synthetic material or merino wool.
I then wear a first insulation layer – a fleece pullover that isn’t waterproof, but provides good insulation. Synthetic fleece is more breathable than cotton and will help you keep dry and warm. I skip a first insulation layer for my legs.
My main insulation layer is a micro-puffy style jacket. This is helpful because it can be compacted and put away when not needed but still provides a lot of warmth. Down jackets are warmer than synthetic, but need to be protected by a water-proof jacket.
Don’t Forget a Hard Shell Exterior!
Speaking of which, I finish with a hard shell rain jacket that is both water and rain-proof. Even if rain, snow or storms are not forecast, you should always bring a hard shell if possible. Wind and storms can come out of nowhere and chill you to the bone quickly. I also wear light snow pants or other mountaineering pants to help keep my legs warm from the wind and snow, along with gaiters to keep out any snow, if there is any on route.
Along with all these layers, you should bring very warm gloves, a hat, facemask and goggles, along with two layers of socks. Often toes are the first thing to go numb, so foot warmers aren’t a bad idea to bring either.
That’s how to climb a 14er in October!
Now you know how to climb a 14er in October! Check the forecast and pick a peak and route accordingly. Check for conditions and be ready for snow and ice with the right gear. Make sure your water doesn’t freeze, and that you can get more in an emergency. Finally, wear the right layers so you stay nice and warm! With these tips and good preparation, you can definitely climb a 14er in October (without getting rescued!).
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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.