Raising the bar

Jeff Eisele/Durango Herald

A Colorado Mountain Club group takes a clothing and food break on an early-winter climb in Rocky Mountain National Park. The East Face of 14,255-foot Longs Peak looms in the background. Layering your clothing is even more important in winter, and a waterproof, breathable outer shell is a must.

The Gazette


Hiking a Fourteener in the winter is nothing like doing it in the summer.

In summer, you can stuff a pack with snacks, a couple of water bottles and some extra clothes and then head out expecting success. The risk and difficulty increase significantly in winter.

Most of Coloradoís Fourteeners are considered a mountaineer kindergarden playground during summer. Trying one during winter is a good first step into the world of real mountaineering.

I have successfully summited Fourteeners 20 times in the winter, have had eight failed winter attempts, been part of a number of winter alpine rescue missions and participated in several winter overnight trainings in temperatures as low as minus 30. While this doesnít come close to making me the most experienced person, I have learned a few helpful tips along the way.

Learn to layer

Use clothing layers well and invest in a shell of clothing that is waterproof and breathable. If you have a solid shell, then your layers donít need to be anything fancy, as long as you avoid cotton. Donít forget layers for your head, face, neck, feet and hands.

Be proactive in adjusting your layers. When you stop to take a rest, put on additional layers before you feel cold enough to need them. Pause before you reach a ridge or a saddle and zip up your shell layers. Winter winds blow harder and will steal your body heat if you donít seal them out.

Protect your water

Just because itís cold doesnít mean your bodyís need for water decreases. You will be working hard to climb the mountain. But carrying enough water does you no good if you canít drink it.

In winter, I give up on my hydration packs. Tube insulators, blowing out the tube between uses and putting the pack inside my jacket have all failed me. I stick with large-mouth water bottles, keeping one in an insulated pouch that is easily accessible.

Itís best to store it upside down as any ice that forms will be at the bottom of the bottle. I keep additional bottles in my pack, wrapped up in my emergency gear and extra clothing.

Plan for the snow

Bring footwear traction appropriate for your terrain, whether itís crampons, snow/ice traction devices or just a pair of boots with good lugs.

Bring snowshoes (or skis) for deep snow. I really donít like snowshoes; they are awkward and tiring. However, I hate postholing when you step on the snow and your foot punches through. Then, as your next step is about to get you out of that hole, that foot punches through. This leaves a trail of holes that look like fence-post holes.

Carry an ice axe. You can find trails that donít go into terrain where you need one, but getting off route in winter is common, and an ice axe can save you in a bad situation. The basic use of an ice axe is to help you stop in an uncontrolled slide. There is little time to respond, so make sure you have learned to use it properly.

Know how to navigate your route without any clues besides the topography. Snow can obscure a trail and even your own tracks might be swept away behind you in seconds.

Most importantly, be prepared for avalanches. Take at least an avalanche-awareness class and make sure you and everyone in your group have the proper equipment and know how to use it. At a minimum, this includes an avalanche beacon, probe and metal shovel. Donít skimp on this equipment.

Bring a headlamp with extra batteries

The math is pretty simple. Hikes take longer in winter, and the daylight lasts as much as 6Ĺ hours less. Put those together, and you likely will be hiking in the dark.

Be prepared to succeed

Plan ahead. Know how close to the trailhead youíll be able to drive. Pay attention to the snowfall that occurs in the weeks preceding the hike. Try to pack as light as you can without leaving anything behind that you need. Get in shape and lose weight.

Be prepared to fail

I donít advocate giving up when things get hard. Mountaineering involves persevering through a lot of difficulty, but at some point, continuing to push on risks too much.

Also be prepared for when things go wrong. Make sure you have the gear needed to spend an unplanned night out.

Taking on such a challenge is to experience the real Colorado, rugged and untracked wilderness. You might even experience a modern-day rarity: solitude. The price of admission to the Fourteeners in winter is high, but the splendor is all the more rewarding.

Friesema is a Colorado native who has scaled each of the stateís 14,000-foot peaks. He has been a member of Teller County Search and Rescue since 2003.

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