Hiking 14ers in Spring: What You Should Know
As the snow melts throughout the United States at lower elevations, many people start to consider the mountains for their next trip or vacation. Hiking 14ers in Spring poses a few more challenges than you may expect. March and April are the two snowiest months in the Rocky Mountains, so you’ll need the right gear and preparation to make it through the snow. Here’s what you should know about hiking 14ers in spring.
There will be snow. Be ready for it.
Unless climate change speeds up dramatically, there will still be snow on 14ers into at least June, and often July. In gullies or other areas shaded from the sun, snow can last into August or September. Most people, surprised by the massive amount of snow and ice present into summer, lack the right gear to move safely across it. If you don’t feel comfortable traveling over snowy slopes, I recommend you wait until June to start hiking. If you’re open to new challenges, read on!
Bring the right gear for traction.
Plan to bring snowshoes for any area that doesn’t see a lot of traffic. Generally, I always bring them, just in case. If unnecessary, they’re easily left in your car or stashed along the way. When flotation isn’t needed, turn to microspikes to provide traction on the slippery packed surface. However, microspikes begin to collect snow once it becomes wet and easily packed.
Waterproof boots and gaiters are essential in spring, where wet, melting snow makes it impossible to keep your feet dry at all times. Wet shoes, socks, and feet are a great way to get frostbite. You may also want trekking poles or an ice axe (if you know how to use one) to provide more grip and traction while travelling over snow. You can use ski poles too, if you don’t have trekking poles.
Start early to avoid poor snow conditions.
While lightning isn’t a problem in the spring, changing snow conditions create new risks you should be aware of. During spring, the snowpack enters a freeze-thaw cycle. During the day, the sun’s radiation (very strong at 10,000+ feet) warms and melts the snow. However, at night, cold temperatures re-freeze it. The result are changing conditions that require different gear and training to navigate safely.
Generally, if planning to hike a Class 1 or Class 2 route, try to start your hike early in the morning, pre-dawn if possible. The snow will still be crusty and frozen, making it easier to hike through using snowshoes or microspikes. As the sun warms during the day, postholing in deep snow will become easier. On steep slopes, wet avalanches can present a risk. Make sure you research avalanche forecasts before you go so you can watch out for these hazards.
Don’t forget to check if the trailhead is open.
Many 14er trailheads close during the winter as the access roads are unplowed. This can add anywhere from 2 to 8 miles round-trip to your hike. Check for trip reports on 14ers.com and facebook 14er groups to make sure you know what to expect. In some cases, a 4WD vehicle with good clearance can get further than other cars, but it always depends on conditions. Tread lightly before continuing onto unplowed sections of road.
Lookin for more excitement? Try a snow climb!
Snow climbing involves heading up snow-covered slopes to climb a 14er more expeditiously. These trips and routes usually use gullies or snow-filled couloirs, which requires special gear and knowledge to ascend safely. You’ll need mountaineering boots and crampons, along with a helmet, ice axe, and the knowledge to use them all safely. I recommend getting the book “Freedom of the Hills” to study up. The Southeast Gully up Humboldt Peak and South Slopes of Mt. Sherman are both great first snow climb routes, without much risk.
Hiking 14ers in Spring: What You Should Know!
So there you have it – hiking 14ers in spring is a lot like hiking them in summer. The biggest difference is the snow you’ll have to navigate through. With the right gear, preparation and knowledge, you can definitely climb a Colorado 14er in the springtime.
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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.