Grays Peak, along with its twin Torreys Peak, is an easy summer fourteener, no more than a long hike with significant elevation gain. However, Climbing Grays Peak in Winter have many more challenges to contend with, including a much longer approach hike, avalanche danger, and deep winter snow. With the right planning, gear, knowledge and skill, it’s possible to climb it safely. However, it’s not necessarily a great beginners peak. For those just starting out, I recommend Quandary Peak or Mount Bierstadt, which are less of a challenge. For those looking for the next step up, Grays Peak winter ascents are a good choice. You can also tag Torreys Peak without much increase in risk.
Before you Go: Take Time to Prepare
Climbing Grays Peak in Winter begins with preparation and research long before you leave for the trailhead. Read this route review and several others so you know what to expect. I recommend reading several winter trail reports on 14ers.com here as well. You also need to pack the right gear. Bring the ten essentials for winter 14ers, along with microspikes and snowshoes. An ice axe and crampon are not required, but it doesn’t hurt to bring them.
Another big issue on Grays Peak winter ascents is avalanche risk (the red and blue areas on the map below). It is all over this basin. Make sure you know of and can recognize the two winter variations in the route to avoid avalanche risk (the purpose and yellow lines), rather than taking the standard route. You should also check the avalanche conditions here. That will give you a better idea of where there is risk and how you can best respond. I do not recommend climbing if the rating is considerable (3 or 5) or higher.
Getting to the Trailhead
Climbing Grays Peak in winter starts with a trip on I-70 in the heart of the Front Range. Take the exit for Bakerville just east of the Eisenhower Tunnel, and head towards Stevens Gulch Road. Park at the large parking area between the road and highway ramps. This road is extremely rough, unplowed and unmaintained during winter months. There is avalanche risk, and you should not risk an attempt to drive up to the trailhead. Plan for a long snowshoe or hike to the top – it’s just part of this experience. As many climbers say, “Embrace the suck.”
Part 1: Snowshoe up to the Trailhead
Leave your car and snowshoe or hike up the road. Be wary of avalanche risk along this path – if the conditions are right, it can slide right over the road. This is one reason to avoid this route anytime there is significant avalanche risk. If you go after a storm, snowshoes will be helpful, but you may be able to leave them strapped to your back if the trail has been packed down by time you go. This is actually my favorite part of climbing Grays Peak in winter. Reach the trailhead area and continue across the bridge along the trail. Conditions usually change here dramatically.
Part 2: Ascend the Gulch with the Winter Variation
Above tree line, the snow drifts much more, often quickly burying tracks from others and preventing a well-worn track from forming. You will likely need not only your snowshoes but also solid route-finding skills, a gps unit, compass or map. Very quickly, you’ll be leaving the summer route, around 11,600′ where the path switchbacks up higher. Instead, continue straight up the gulch (purple in the map) to avoid avalanche risk from Kelso Mountain above you. This path has killed before – be sure you know how to take this variation. Meet back up with the standard route around 12,200′.
Part 3: Into the Upper Basin, Take the Ridge Variation
After 12,200′ you will begin to climb a ramp to the right that takes you into a higher basin on Grays Peak’s north side. About halfway up this slope, you should take a left to follow the ridge directly to avoid a small avalanche slope on the main trail. In wind-swept conditions, this area may be clear, in which case you can take the main route. If you are at all unsure, take precaution with the alternative along the ridge directly, before meeting up with the trail higher up. This leaves you with the final section and crux of climbing Grays Peak in winter.
Part 4: Climb the Switchbacks to the Summit
The final section of Grays Peak is a series of switchbacks up to the summit. Conditions here can vary significantly. When loaded with snow, the slopes can slide in the very worst circumstances. However when windswept or lightly covered, avalanche risk is lower. If you are not trained, bring someone who is, and stick to the ridge to ascent to avoid the risk if you need to. At the summit, you can choose to traverse over to Torreys Peak if you have time. Avoid the large cornices that form on the ridge, as they can break off if you step on them, taking you with them.
Climbing Grays Peak in Winter: Now You Know!
As you can see, climbing Grays Peak in winter is no easy task. You need to deal with a long approach hike, dangerous avalanches, and all the other challenges of winter fourteeners. For those who brave the conditions, amazing views and experiences await you on the summit and slopes alike. Best of luck, and stay safe while climbing Grays Peak in winter. Save travels on the trail!