As the aspen turn gold and the temperature begins to drop, most people hang up their hiking boots and call it quits for fourteeners. However, I find September through November to be one of the best times of the year to hike in the mountains. The changing leaves create an awe-inspiring landscape, while the snow and cold keep away the crowds. There are definitely more risks with fall fourteeners, but with the right gear and knowledge, it’s easy to stay safe. Here’s a quick intro to shoulder season, plus seven tips for a successful autumn summit.
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What is Shoulder Season? Tips for Fall Fourteeners
The shoulder season is a time of transition in the mountains, as the season changes rapidly from warm summer days to bitterly cold winter conditions. However, this transition occurs over several months, often with reversals and outlying days. It’s normal to see snow in September, along with good climbing days still in November. The biggest risk posed by these Fall fourteeners is the variable conditions. You need to thoroughly research the conditions for your climb, and remember that those conditions can change rapidly. Here are seven tips to put this into practice.
1. Check the weather but be ready for all conditions.
Start checking the weather forecast for your climb 1-2 weeks in advance. If storms or extreme cold is expected, consider rescheduling your trip. You should check every 1-2 days as the climb approaches, as forecasts are constantly changing. Carefully consider the expected temperature high and low, chance and type of precipitation, wind speed, and potential storms. When packing clothing, be sure you plan for the coldest possible weather you may experience – bring extra layer.
2. Leave your hydration bladder and hose at home.
Any time the weather approaches freezing, it is a good idea to leave camel pack systems with hoses at home. Even if the temperature stays above freezing, cold winds are likely to leave the water in the tube frozen very quickly. Stick to water bottles, which usually will not freeze on fall fourteeners if stored out of the wind and close to your back in your pack. I still bring my camel pack, but only to refill my primary water bottle.
3. Bring a pair of microspikes for snow and ice.
It only takes a tiny film of ice on a rock to send you slipping down the mountainside. Microspikes are small metal teeth and chains that fit on your hiking boots to provide more traction on snow and ice. They’re most helpful on hard ice and packed snow, but are less useful on deep wet snow, where they sometimes collect snow. I also recommend bringing a pair of trekking poles. The extra points of contact similarly improve your balance and traction on the snow-covered trails common on fall fourteeners (in addition to their many other benefits).
4. Be mindful of seasonal road and trailhead closures.
Many mountain roads close during the winter season, both public forest roads and private service roads. In many cases, this happens before the snow falls, when a gate is shut that adds many miles to the approach hike. One example is Mount Bierstadt, which closes to facilitate elk migrations. The higher trailhead for this and other fall fourteeners may close long before the first snowfall. It is always a good idea to do some research on 14ers.com or another forum to ensure the road you need to take is still open and clear to reach the trailhead for your climb.
5. Bring what you would need to survive a night outdoors.
Temperatures during most Fall fourteener trips can be warm during the daytime, reaching 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit on a good day. The biggest threat comes during nighttime when the temperature plunges below freezing. If you are caught in high winds or storms, the risk of hypothermia is significant. Consider what you think you need to survive a night in the mountains if you got lost or injured. Extra layers, some kind of shelter, food, water, and a means to start a fire are all critical to bring for fourteeners in the Fall.
6. Remember that snow makes route-finding harder.
It does not take much snow to cover a trail completely, leaving little indication of where you should go. This has happened to me before during a climb itself – it began to snow heavily while I was hiking, and by the time I made it back below treeline, the trail was completely obscured. Bringing a GPS unit and map with you is essential to avoid getting lost – everything looks the same when it is covered in six inches of snow. If you do not consider yourself a strong navigator or route finder, consider bringing along a buddy who is.
7. Check snow levels before you go to be prepared.
Snow levels fluctuate a lot during shoulder season. An early storm can drop a foot of snow, only for it to mostly melt out over the next week. It can be difficult deciding what gear you need, in terms of crampons, snowshoes, microspikes, and other traction devices. You can look up snow levels in many mountain areas using online sources like the government’s SNOTEL survey program’s interactive map, located here. When in doubt, bring extra traction for fall fourteeners. You can always stash it along the way and grab it on the descent if conditions are better than expected.
Take extra care during shoulder season in the mountains
The mountains are dangerous all year-round, but that’s especially the case during autumn. If you plan to keep climbing fourteeners in the fall, follow these seven tips to ensure you have a safe and successful shoulder season summit. If you want more information about fall fourteeners, check out some of the below links to help you prepare and plan ahead. Safe travels on the trail!