The state of Colorado has a total of 58 mountains over 14,000 feet, aka “14ers”. If you summit one you’ll definitely earn yourself some clout. Climb one in the winter? Legendary.
So, let’s get something straight. Fourteeners are typically hiked from late June-September, so this post pretty much covers everything outside of that window even though it technically entails months that fall under the "fall, winter and spring" categories. Think of it as "Winter Conditions".
With that being said, it’s kind of like an unwritten requirement (not actually) to write the peak, elevation, and date on a cardboard sign, which you hold while getting your photo taken at the top. It’s silly but makes for fun photos to look back on. Now, if standing on what feels like the top of the world with 360 degree views and mountains as far as the eye can see sounds fun to you... we need to get you on top of a 14er.
If you told me 5 years ago that I would climb a 14er in the winter, I would’ve laughed in your face. I would’ve laughed in your face if you told me 6 months ago to be completely honest. Something sparked inside me and I was suddenly intrigued by the idea of barreling through the snow at an absurd altitude. I’ve only climbed 7/58 but one of those happened to be in March... in the winter! It was my first winter summit and I’d like to share with you the things I learned, what to pack, and some advice in case you decide to tackle one yourself.
*Disclaimer* these mountains are extremely strenuous and people have legitimately died trying to summit them... mainly due to altitude sickness or extreme storms. I only recommend these for the experienced hiker, especially since even the beginner ones have roughly 2,500 feet of elevation gain and are around 7 miles round trip.
This isn’t to deter you from attempting one, I just want you to know how strenuous it is. Now, if you’re still interested... moving on!
Mt. Bierstadt was my first winter summit and it was perfect! If you're thinking of doing a winter summit, I couldn't recommend this one enough! This is going to be a little mashup of MY first 14er experience as well as tips for YOURS!
Mt. Bierstadt elevation: 14,060 ft.
Location: Near Georgetown, Colorado; 1 hour 15 minutes from Denver
Specs: Unfortunately the road (Guanella Pass) to the trail head has winter closures, so the summer 7.5 miles trip turns into an 11 mile trip. The closure definitely adds on some miles but it wasn’t too bad.
Elevation gain: My watch said we climbed 3,200 feet with the added distance from the lower lot. Could be more though, the tracking devices always differ.
Avalanche Danger: low
Time Estimate: 4 hours up + 2 down
Walking up Guanella Pass to the trail head!
Weather: Of course there’s this super convenient thing called the weather forecast, which should be your first move of preparation. But don’t be fooled... the weather app on your smartphone isn’t aimed at predicting the weather on top of a 14,000 ft. Peak! This is where this site comes in.
This super convenient website allows you to see the conditions at the top of mountains. It isn’t about the temperature as much as it is the speed of the winds. It could be a nice 35 degree day but with windchill it’s possible to be in the negatives. Crazy, right? So check this site!
It’s common for there to be 60mph winds at the top so be sure to plan ahead. I once had a pair of sunglasses blown right off my face and down the mountain. This clever little product will prevent yours from blowing away like mine did! Also, keep in mind if there’s been a big snow storm recently you may need snowshoes.
The day that we went there was basically no wind whatsoever and it was a bluebird day! It was warmer than the other 6 that I did in the summer, solely because of the sun and lack of wind. The conditions could NOT have been better, which is probably why I looks so jolly in all of these photos lol. With the right planning and attention to the weather forecast, it’ll be a wonderful day for you as well. With that being said... I ALWAYS pack more layers than I think I'll need because the weather can change in a matter of minutes and you need to be prepared. I also run cold so having a jacket in my bag is an absolute must!
What to wear:
Waterproof hiking boots, not trail runners
Micro spikes (essential)
Snowshoes (optional, depending on if it’s snowed recently or not)
Balaclava to keep face warm
Other things to bring:
Physical map in case phone dies
Water bladder ( *TIP* put a Liquid IV packet or a Nuun tablet in for some added electrolytes.
Snacks and energy chews.
A headlamp just in case
Advil-- I personally bring it on every hike
Athletic tape for blisters/injuries
Kevin brought and ice ax for precautions
I layered up at the top!
As always, everybody’s preferences for what they pack for a hike differs from person to person. Snow pants might be overkill for some of you but for me they're one of the only things that make hiking in the cold tolerable!
Above all, be sure to pack a little more water than you think you’ll need because it’ll help tremendously with the altitude.
Things to know:
The typical rule of thumb is to summit the mountain by noon, which often means that you need to start at or even before sunrise. Since the days are shorter in the winter, I advise against starting too late in the day. You don't want to be stuck up there in the dark!
Don’t hike alone. It’s always a good idea to hike with at least one other person. Accidents and other unexpected events unfortunately can happen in the mountains and it’s just safer to be hiking with a partner.
ALWAYS tell somebody where you’re going! If you’re not back by a reasonable time it’s important for somebody back home to know where you’re at, if god forbid a Search and Rescue team needs to be sent.
Know when to turn back. Nobody likes an unsuccessful summit... they suck! But safety is the priority. Weather in the mountains can change like the flip of a switch. If you see storm clouds coming in and you still have a ways to go... it's probably best that you turn back. If it's getting late or you're running behind schedule? It's probably best if you turn back. Everybody hates the idea of an unsuccessful summit but it's important to be safe. Lightning is unforgiving at 14,000 feet and the rocks are super slick when wet.
Post holing: This is something that happens when you’re walking on top of deep snow and then BAM... your leg sinks and you’re waist deep in snow. It’s one of the most infuriating things I can think of and it never gets easier. It’s miserable every time. This is where snowshoes come into the picture. They essentially just disperse your weight over more ground so that you don’t sink.
Snowshoes are typically only necessary if you’re one of the first hikers after a bunch of fresh powder. Otherwise in my experience, microspikes are perfect and less weight.
Look at Kevin's leg! It sunk in the deep snow! Also this was a good testament to whether or not my leggings are see-through. They're not! Lol
Follow your GPS or map! We followed a foot traffic trail that we thought would just lead us directly to the trailhead but the “foot” traffic seemed to be made with snowshoes, which we were not equipped with.
We were caught up in a field of postholing for a good hour and a half before we got back onto the main trail! It was beyond miserable and I was so angry that we followed this path lol. (images above)
*separate note* this delayed our schedule by 1.5 hours and we almost didn’t have enough time to summit. (Just to clarify, the trail didn’t need snowshoes if we didn’t go this stupid, stupid way!)
Micro spikes are your best friend. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be wearing these on your way to summit a 14er. They’re these little things that you slip over the bottoms of your boots and they have spikes on the bottom of them, creating traction when walking on slick terrain. They’ve changed my life and they’re less than $70 to buy. Some of the best money I’ve ever spent!
Slow and steady wins the race! Take breaks as often as you need. I’m from Colorado so the altitude doesn’t hit me too hard... but I’ve trekked in Peru at 16,000 feet and I know that breaks are essential every minute or so when you're not used to it. Take your time but be sure to plan accordingly... daylight fades quickly in the mountains.
Taking a little breather!
Drink lots of water! You need to stay hydrated, especially at high elevations. I bought a hydration pack insulation sleeve after the hose froze during my first winter hike.
As always, follow the Leave No Trace Principles
Sun Protection! It was so bright and sunny out that believe it or not, I hiked in my tank top. While I was beyond thrilled to get my pasty winter arms out in the sun, I ended up getting burnt because I didn’t have sunscreen (stupid mistake on my part). The sun here is STRONG. Also, make sure that you have a pair of sunglasses or goggles to protect your eyes from the bright snow! It's nearly impossible to see without eyewear.
Just remember, it’s a marathon not a sprint! Take breaks often and don’t worry or compare yourself to other hikers on the trail. We’re all at different levels of experience. Just worry about yourself.
Last but not least, HAVE FUN and take lots of pictures!! You’ll love to look back on them and relive your badass-ery. Please let me know in the comments if you have any other recommendations for tips on a winter 14er and/or if you’ve done any!
*please note that some of the links above are affiliate links and I may earn a small commission on any purchase made, at no additional cost to you! all ideas and opinions are of course my own!* xoxo
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Thanks so much for reading!!
Til next time,