After a long, cold winter, it is normal to be itching to get back out on the trail and climb one of your favorite fourteeners. However, while it might be warm and dry in Denver during March, the mountains are a totally different story. March is typically the snowiest month of the year in Colorado – followed by April. While it is spring down on the plains, it is still winter conditions in most of the mountains during March. Here are the challenges of 14er ascents during early spring. If you still want to attempt it, there are also 14 tips for safe and successful summits.
Why is Climbing a March 14er Difficult?
There are a number of dangerous conditions and hazards that make March 14ers more risky than a summer hike or climb. Here are some of the most serious challenges you will need to address and mitigate to make it to the summit and back home.
Snow and Ice
March is the snowiest month in the mountains – you will need to make it through deep snow drifts, especially below the treeline where the forest blocks the sun and slows snowmelt, allowing deep drifts to form. Above the treeline, conditions vary widely. You must be ready for snowfields, icy terrain, and windblown rock. This makes it a perilous time of year where slips and falls are more likely.
The average high temperature for Pikes Peak’s summit in March is 23 degrees – the average low is -3 degrees. However, cold fronts with -10 or -20 degree days aren’t unheard of either. It is important to know this before you try climbing a 14er in March: Even if it is not technically winter anymore, you should expect winter conditions to persist until mid-April or early-May.
Difficult Navigation & Route-finding
With snow blanketing the trail, navigation is more difficult in March than during the summer. Popular peaks, like Quandary Peak and Mount Bierstadt, will usually have a well-developed trench within a few days of major snows due to the large number of hikers. However, more remote peaks may go weeks without visits, leaving you completely on your own to navigate and stay on the proper route. Straying from the path could have deadly consequences.
Trailhead and Road Closures
Routes are longer in March as most upper trailheads and access roads remain closed until the snow melts out completely in May or early June. This can add anywhere from a few hundred feet to 7-8 miles to your trek. This is one of the biggest reasons 14ers are so tough during the winter and spring – there are few peaks that can be climbed in one day without a superhuman effort.
The risk of altitude sickness is just as high during the winter as it is the summer. However, if it does strike, the ramifications are more severe due to the effects of extreme cold and wind. If you become unable to move due to AMS in freezing temperatures, the risk of death becomes quite significant. Proper acclimation is critical for March 14ers – as well as the willingness to turn back if and when it strikes.
Slower Emergency Response
A key factor that affects all other risks is the slowed response time of emergency personnel during winter and spring. SAR teams are usually spread thinner during this time of year, transportation on snowy and icy roads is slower, and teams take longer to hike to your position. In remote parts of Colorado, it can take between 24 and 36 hours just to gather the rescue team and arrive at the trailhead to start their hike in. If you climb 14ers in March, you need to have the skills and gear necessary to be completely self-reliant until rescue comes.
14 Tips for March 14er Safety and Success
If you are committed to climbing a 14er in the month of March, here are 14 tips to reach the summit safely and successfully.
1. Consider postponing your climb until late April or May
I hate to repeat myself – but in this case, it’s worth mentioning one last time. This is one of the most difficult times of the year to climb 14ers due to the extremely variable conditions, avalanche risk, snow and weather. If you can afford to wait until April or May, I recommend it – especially if this would be your first 14er ever. No summit is worth your life.
2. Bring insulated boots, snowshoes, gaiters, and microspikes
If you decide to go, you need to bring the right footwear and traction to stay warm and avoid slips and falls. A warm pair of insulated hiking boots is a must, along with a warm pair of merino wool hiking socks. Gaiters will prevent snow and ice from getting into your shoe and getting your socks wet, while snowshoes and microspikes will help you keep your balance on deep snow or packed trails, respectively. Always bring these essentials for March 14ers.
3. Wear warm clothes appropriate for winter conditions
Based on the forecast for your climb (see #6) select the right mix of clothing layers to stay warm despite the conditions. Bring enough layers to be comfortable at the low temperature for the night of your climb – not just the daytime high temperature. I suggest using the following layers and customizing them based on your preferences:
- Base Layer: Merino Wool thermal leggings and undershirt
- Light Layer: Synthetic hiking pants and lightweight polyester shirt
- Mid Layer: Nano puff jacket or heavy fleece shirt
- Shell Layer: Hardshell mountaineering pants and hardshell jacket
Don’t forget the essential accessories: A warm hat and face mask, ski goggles, and a pair of gloves or mittens (I recommend both).
4. Be prepared for difficult navigation and route-finding
Make your navigation easier by preparing ahead of time. Identify landmarks along the route on your map that will be identifiable even in winter, like major peaks, creek crossings, and treeline. Write down notes on which landmarks to look for at each point along the route. Make a note of all major turns or other points you think you might have a hard time finding your way. In addition to your map and notes, pack a GPS unit with the route pre-loaded to verify your position. If you think you are off-route, stop to check your position before you wander further out of the way.
5. Don’t forget about the risk of avalanches in March
Staying on route is incredibly important during winter and spring due to the continued risk of avalanches. While the route you should be on might be safe, a nearby slope you accidentally wander under might not be. If you plan to continue climbing in winter and early spring, take the time to get proper avalanche training. Buy a transceiver, shovel, and probe, learn and practice how to use them, and bring a partner with you who does all the same. Your life isn’t worth a summit no matter how much you want it.
To help stay out of and avoid passing below avalanche terrain (slopes with an angle of 30 to 45 degrees), use a backcountry slope angle map. It shades the terrain on a map to identify dangerous areas – a critical tool to ensure you don’t stray into danger. I recommend this tool: http://www.backcountrymap.com/
6. Check the weather repeatedly before your climb
The weather is the biggest variable in March. Conditions can vary a lot, from above average days with above-freezing temperatures to raging winter blizzards with -10 degree weather. It is important to check the weather a week or two in advance – and continue to update your research every 1-2 days thereafter. In the final days, check every morning for daily forecasts, including the final forecast on the morning of your climb. Knowledge is power – consider the high and low temperature, expected wind and precipitation, and and income storm systems or fronts. Take care to prepare for what is coming – and postpone if conditions deteriorate.
7. Bring an experienced climbing partner for March 14ers
March is not the time of year to set out into the backcountry alone. For starters, avalanche rescue is only possible if someone is with you to dig you out. However, this issue applies to all emergencies. If you get injured while alone, no one is there to go for help or provide first aid. If you are knocked unconscious, even your SPOT device can’t call for help. SAR team generally recommends going in a group of four. That way, if someone is injured, one person can stay with them to provide care while the other two go for help – so no one is left alone.
8. Brush up on your wilderness survival skills
If the worst does happen and you get lost or injured, a few simple wilderness survival tips can make a big difference in turning a life-threatening emergency into an unplanned annoyance. First, if you realize you are lost or need help, remember the acronym STOP:
S: Sit down. Take deep breaths, rest, and calm yourself down. You won’t help yourself by getting worked up and panicing.
T: Think about the situation. What are your priorities? What are the major risks? What’s the weather forecast? Does anyone know where you are? When might help arrive?
O: Observe around you. Is anyone injured? What gear is available? When is sunset? Can we make a shelter or fire?
P: Plan what to do. Address any first aid or safety issues. Find shelter and get out of the wind. Build a fire if possible and make yourself as easy to see and rescue as possible. Do not move unless it is critical.
Being able to start a campfire in wet conditions is a critically important skill – in cold conditions, fire can be the difference between life and death. Take some time on your next camping trip to practice your campfire skills.
Shelters are another area you can practice in advance. Read how to build a snow cave or quinsy and try it on a ski trip or winter campout. Something as simple as a tarp can also be used to create a shelter with some creativity.
9. Bring the ten essentials and know how to use them
The ten essentials are the ten types of gear required to stay safe in the mountains. They allow you to respond actively to emergencies instead of waiting passively for help from first responders. This is critical in the winter and early spring when SAR crews can take 24+ hours to reach your location. Here is the full list of the ten essentials:
- Navigation gear (Map, compass, GPS)
- Fire-starting Kit
- First Aid Kit
- Headlamp and batteries
- Emergency Shelter
- Extra Food
- Extra Water
- Extra Layers
- Knife or Multi-tool
- Sun Protection
Never separate yourself from the ten essentials – like leaving your backpack behind for the summit crux or your first aid kit back at base camp. You are most likely to use this life-saving gear near the summit – so keep it with you at all times.
10. Give yourself plenty of extra time to climb
The days are shorter in March than in July, and it will take you longer than normal to hike and snowshoe up the mountain. I generally recommend adding 50% more time than you would need to do the same distance and elevation during the summer. This is also due to risk tolerance and management. If something goes wrong in winter that causes a delay, the results are more serious – the temperature drops fast in March and usually falls below zero. Giving yourself a bigger time buffer to address issues that arise prevents delays from turning into tragedies.
11. Don’t glissade if you can’t self arrest with an ice axe
Glissading involves sliding down a slope covered in consolidated snow to quickly descend a mountain. It’s a fun way to get down a mountain, but it is also a big timesaver. However, glissading is an easy way to get injured if you don’t have the right skill or gear. The key thing you need to know is how to self arrest – stop – an uncontrolled slide on snow and ice – using an ice axe. You also can use the axe like a rudder to control your speed while glissading and maintain control. Glissading is a technical skill that can result in serious injuries if done improperly. Take the time to learn and practice in a safe environment before you attempt to glissade in the field.
12. Beware of trailhead and access road closures in March
The road to the trailhead is usually buried in snow during March. Very few peaks remain accessible during this time of year – Quandary Peak and Mount Yale are among the few I can think of. This extends the route anywhere from a few hundred feet to seven or eight miles. If you don’t discover this until you show up, you will likely not have enough time allowed in your plan to make it up and down the mountain before nightfall. Always check the trailhead conditions before you commit to and plan a 14er climb during March.
13. When in doubt, turn back and descend immediately
Nearing the summit, it’s easy to get a bit blindsided to risk and focus too much on reaching the top. It is common enough to have a name – summit fever. It is easier to notice summit fever in others than it is in ourselves, which is another good reason to go with a group and not alone. If something feels wrong, conditions are getting worse, or you are falling behind schedule, speak up and suggest turning back. The mountain will still be there tomorrow – make sure you are too.
14. Acclimate near the trailhead to reduce AMS risk
Don’t forget about altitude sickness – the risk is still very real during the winter and early spring. Acclimation remains the best way to prevent AMS while climbing a 14er. I recommend camping for a night near the trailhead before your climb. If winter camping is not your thing, spend a night at a motel or hostel in a mountain town near the 14er (there are a lot of affordable options in most areas). Talk to your doctor about prescriptions for preventing AMS if you are particularly worried or have a history of developing altitude sickness.
Frequently Asked Questions: March 14ers
A: Climbing a 14er in March is not easy, but it is possible with the right gear, skill, and knowledge. The 14 tips above are a good place to get started if you want to know what’s required for a safe and successful Colorado fourteener summit in late winter or early spring.
A: Mount Elbert is one of the three or four 14ers with little to no avalanche risk – specifically along its east ridge route. Many people hike Mount Elbert in March using this relatively safe and clear route. Due to this popularity, a trench usually forms along the route within a few days of major snowstorms.
A: Most people climb 14ers in July when the temperatures are warm and the trails have completely melted and cleared of snow. However, this is when the crowds are largest. My favorite time of year to climb a 14er is September. The weather is cool and crisp but not yet freezing cold and the trails are much quieter – plus the aspen and willow changing color is a beautiful sight to see.
A: You can hike in March in Colorado if you are prepared to deal with snow. Wear insulated hiking boots and bring a pair of microspikes if you visit a popular trail or destination. If you are hiking somewhere remote, bring gaiters and a pair of snowshoes to deal with deeper snow that hasn’t been packed down yet. Otherwise you may end up with wet socks and cold toes. If you want to avoid snow, stick to the foothills and lower elevation hikes until early May.
Climbing March 14ers: Now You Know!
A lot goes into climbing a 14er in March. With freezing temperatures, cold and ice, longer routes and slower emergency response times, it is a challenging time to reach the summit of Colorado’s tallest peaks. If you are committed to making the climb during this brutal time of year, follow all of these tips and other mountain safety practices to ensure you have a safe and successful March ascent. I hope you found this article informative and helpful for your preparation; safe travels on the trail!
Additional Resources Related to March 14ers
Looking for more information on this topic? Here are some additional resources and links to learn more. If you have any suggestions for resources we should add to our list, please leave a comment with your recommendations below so we can share it with the community. Thank you!