How to Climb a 14er in Winter | Tips for Safe Ascents
It’s bitterly cold, the wind is howling, and the snow is up to your knees. These are the joys of winter 14ers in Colorado. While it may sound pretty horrible, there are many good reasons to climb the 14ers in this time of year. There are far less people, providing ideal solitude experiences. The snow also helps provide unlimited route options, while cushioning your steps. If you have bad knees, hiking in the snow is far more comfortable than talus-hopping in the summer. However, given the many risks, you have to know a few things to hike a 14er in the winter safely. Here’s an overview of how to plan, pack and prepare for your trip!
Picking your Peak - Many Considerations
You first need to choice a 14er to climb. There are many places to look – the best sources are guide books (I recommend Gerry Roach’s classic 14er book). However if you’re not looking to buy something, visit the Summitpost page on Winter 14ers here. They provide a good breakdown on the mountains and rank them by difficulty. For our purposes, you probably want to climb one of the easiest ranked mountains. Click the links below for route info on each. Be wary, as many of these peaks require variations to their summer route to avoid avalanche risk, including Quandary Peak, Grays and Torreys.
Each of these routes is relatively short, contains very little avalanche risk, and have generally accessible trailheads. However, nothing is ever as simple as it seems in the winter. People have died on even “easy” peaks in the winter in the past, so don’t get complacent. I would not recommend doing any other peaks than these for your first 14er in winter conditions unless you have someone experienced with you.
Checking the Weather Forecast
Checking the weather becomes even more important in the winter. You need to consider the weather on the day of the climb, but also the days leading up to it, to consider snow conditions. Avalanche risks are heightened immediately following storms, and you may need special gear like snowshoes to navigate post-snow drifts. Wind can also be a significant factor, impacting avy conditions or even causing whiteout conditions when there is no falling snow. I recommend using https://www.mountain-forecast.com/
Winter weather is generally more fickle than the summer. You should be ready to cancel or change plans at a moment’s notice. Go into the climbs with this mindset, and it will be easier to adjust things if you come to it.
Finally, the temperature forecast should drive your packing decisions. You should plan for the forecast, but always be prepared for temperatures up to 10 degrees warmer or colder than predicted. Things change fast so you need to be ready for anything.
What to Wear: Layers, Layers, and more Layers!
Whoever invented the idea of layered clothing, was a genius. Instead of wearing one or two very heavy coats, layers let you add or shed clothing to adjust to changing temperature conditions. This is very important on a mountain, where the temperature may change 15-25 degrees from trailhead to summit.
Start with a base layer of Merino Wool – this is a special, odor-resistant type of worm that will also wick away sweat from your body. This helps is evaporate, preventing wet clothes (which would get cold, fast). I use this undershirt.Then add a light insulation layer, like a polyester pull-over or light jacket. Avoid cotton, which does not wick away moisture effectively. Third, wear a puffy-style insulating jacket, or something equivalent, as your main insulation layer. I use something very similar to this jacket. Lastly, add a shell exterior jacket that is rain and wind proof, to keep the elements out!
For most winter 14ers, those layers should cut it. You should always bring one extra layer, or an emergency bivy to use if you have to spend a night outdoors unplanned. And you”ll want to bring solid gloves, hat, facemask and goggles. You shouldn’t have any skin left exposed.
Assessing Avalanche Conditions & Terrain
If you plan to do this more than once, you really should take an Avalanche Class. It’s the only real way to gain skill at assessing avalanche terrain. Thankfully the risk is low on these beginner peaks, but it is not non-existent. Here are the proper steps to minimize the existing risk.
First, you should look up the current avalanche report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. They give daily updates on avalanche risk in various parts of the state. Anytime the risk is higher than Moderate, you probably want to stay home, unless you have more experience or training.
Even when avalanche risk ratings are low, you should remain on guard. Anytime you’re on more than ten inches of snow, on slopes between 35 and 35 degrees, there’s a chance of a slide. Watch for signs of instability, like shooting cracks in the snow, or a “wallop” sound. Look for other evidence of recent avalanche activity – if you see slide paths have run, it suggests others could too. Always turn back if you are concerned about the level of risk – the mountain will be there next year.
Navigating in Winter Conditions
One of the less obvious challenges of winter 14ers is navigating. Most trails become snow-covered for all or most of their length, making route-finding extremely difficult. This only gets tougher in whiteout conditions, which can occur at pretty much anytime there is snow. You must be able to navigate blind (that is, without any visual aids like landmarks or trail markers).
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t climb difficult 14ers in the winter until I’ve first gone on the route during the summer. When that’s not possible, see if you can bring along someone who has been on the route before. It can make a huge difference.
You should also consider bringing a GPS navigation unit with you, in addition to maps. Neither is a replacement for the other, but in whiteout conditions they may be the best way to safely get down the mountain.
Travelling on Snow & Ice
Snow and ice are the most obvious challenges of winter 14er climbing. They are hard to deal with, as they can present in so many different ways. Snow can be powdery and deep, requiring poles and snowshoes. But it could also be hard as ice, requiring an ice axe and full crampons. For conditions in-between, microspikes provide grip without being as aggressive as crampons. I would start with a pair of these from Kahtoola. You will want to wear gaiters in any winter conditions, to keep ice and snow out of your socks and boots. Not fun, trust me.
For these starter peaks, more advanced snow and ice climbing isn’t necessary. You probably don’t need a helmet, or ice axe. However, if you already have them, you might as well bring them. They can be incredibly helpful if you go off-route or come across someone else in need.
Summing it Up: How to Climb a 14er in Winter
Winter 14ers are not easy, but the solitude they provide is well worth the effort. In fact many people climb because of the challenge – we relish it! If you’re going to attempt the climb yourself, remember all these key points:
- Pick a beginner’s peak to start
- Check the Weather forecast repeatedly and plan accordingly
- Wear the right clothing layers to stay warm.
- Assess Avalanche conditions and be ready to turn around.
- Bring along maps and GPS to navigate in the snow.
- Have the proper gear for snow and ice trail conditions.
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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.