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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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
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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