With winter here, climbers covet high summits

Posted 12/28/11

The temperature is in the single digits, and the wind plunges it well below zero. Gusts of 40 mph threaten to knock you off a narrow, snow-covered …

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With winter here, climbers covet high summits


The temperature is in the single digits, and the wind plunges it well below zero. Gusts of 40 mph threaten to knock you off a narrow, snow-covered ridge, gusts that combine with the altitude to make every breath a ragged struggle.

You started before sunrise and won’t finish until well after dark. Your backpack, though containing only essential gear, is heavy enough to bring pain between your shoulder blades. A foot of new-fallen snow pulls at your feet like quicksand, leaving a trail of deep tracks that the wind likely will erase before you have the chance to retrace them. Every step on the wrong terrain brings the risk of an avalanche.

A far cry from summer jaunts on trails wide enough to be sidewalks, climbing a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado in winter is a whole new ball game.

“The allure is both the natural beauty of high-altitude hiking in winter and the solitude,” said Littleton resident Brian Powers, who has climbed 40 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains. “A popular peak may have over 200 hikers on a summer weekend day. In winter, you might get the mountain all to yourself.”

For mountaineers, calendar winter — which runs from Dec. 22 through March 20 this year — brings a whole new set of goals. More than 3,000 people have climbed all 58 of the 14ers, according to the Colorado Mountain Club, but only four have accomplished this feat in winter: Tom Mereness, Jim Bock, Aron Ralston and Steve Gladbach, the latter of whom completed his quest in 2011.

Ralston, who’s more famous for cutting off his own arm as depicted in the movie “127 Hours,” went so far as to climb the 14ers in winter without a partner, solo.

“To climb all the 14ers in winter requires a real passion for and commitment to these mountains, and a little bit of crazy,” Powers said. “Winter hiking is more dangerous because of avalanches, hypothermia, frostbite, fewer daylight hours and weather that can change instantly into whiteout conditions.”

Hiking a 14er in the summer requires little more than a first aid kit, sun protection, food, water, a sturdy pair of shoes and safety knowledge. Required gear in the colder seasons can include crampons, an ice ax, a bivouac sack, a warm sleeping bag, layer upon layer of clothing, goggles, heavy insulated boots, mittens, gaiters, avalanche safety equipment, snowshoes or skis, a stove and more. The general rule of thumb for winter travel is to carry enough gear to survive a night in the open.

Quandary Peak and Mt. Sherman are common climbs for beginner winter mountaineers, with short and accessible routes that avoid most avalanche danger. Still, it’s commonly recommended that snow-season hikers at least take an avalanche awareness class and carry all the necessary equipment, even on a seemingly sunny day.

Quandary, Sherman and a few other peaks can be completed in half a day in favorable winter conditions, but the stakes are raised on mighty mountains such as Capitol Peak, Little Bear Peak and Sunlight Peak. Climbing the more difficult 14ers in winter may require a multi-day approach and a combination of skill, determination, good weather and sheer luck.

Organizations such as the Colorado Mountain Club, REI and Estes Park-based Colorado Mountain School offer a variety of courses centered on winter hiking.

Booms in both the Front Range population and people interested in the 14ers mean it likely won’t be long before Mereness, Bock, Ralston and Gladbach have some company. For a prepared and determined few, the thrill of a winter summit above 14,000 feet is a feeling unrivaled by anything else on earth.


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