How to Climb a 14er in Winter Conditions

How to Climb a 14er in Winter | Tips for Safe Ascents

Most Colorado peak baggers make their ascents during the summer when the average summit temperature regularly hits 65 degrees. In the winter season, things couldn’t be more different. Temperatures plummit to -10 and -20 F on a regular basis, with more wind, storms, and variable conditions difficult to predict. In addition, routes are covered in snow and ice, avalanches threaten from above, and the threat of hypothermia is ever-present. Why would anyone want to climb a winter 14er?

The rewards are well worth it: solitude on usually crowded trails, epic views of white, snow-capped peaks in all directions, and the confidence and joy that comes from the challenge of winter mountaineering. If these are things you seek, here’s a starter guide to help you learn how to climb a winter 14er safely and successfully. To jump ahead to a section of interest, click a link in the table of contents below.

Table of Contents

Why is Climbing Winter 14ers so Difficult and Dangerous?

Before we discuss how to make it up a 14er in January through March, let’s discuss what you’ll be dealing with on the mountain. There are four major risks to address with winter 14ers:

I. Cold and Wind: Hypothermia and Frostbite

The peaks are much colder during the winter months, but they are also windier on average. While calm days do happen, more often than not there will be strong winds during your climb. Together, the cold and wind create a major risk of hypothermia and frostbite while climbing. Those who go without the proper clothing risk serious injury or death.

II. Snow and Ice: Slips and Falls

Many 14er scrambling routes are blown free of snow during the winter. However, there are also many areas that become icy and slippery for unsuspecting climbers. While microspikes, an ice axe or crampons can prevent a fall and improve traction, they require significant practice to use properly – or they may actually make you less safe in the short term.

III. Snow: Slides and Avalanches

The biggest threat in the winter months are avalanches: massive slides of snow, rock, and ice on unstable slopes. While they’re most common following snowstorms and wind events, they can occur on any snow-covered slope. There are a handful of 14ers with very limited avalanche risk along the route. However, anyone who plans to spend significant time in the mountains during the winter should get trained, get the gear, and regularly check the conditions to ensure they stay safe and don’t put others in danger.

IV. Snow: Navigation and Getting Lost

Navigation and route-finding are much more difficult in winter. Snow will cover much of the trail and hide it from view. On busy peaks, people will create a trench along the route to follow over time, but you should always have the navigation skill needed to use a map and compass and double-check your location instead of relying on the path left by others. If you attempt a more difficult peak in winter, you may have no path to follow – making it very easy to become disoriented and lost in the midst of the white, snow-covered landscape.

V. Other Risks: Exhaustion, Dehydration, AMS

Don’t forget about typical 14er risks and challenges – they still all apply. Altitude sickness can strike and cause headache, nausea, confusion and fatigue. Those without the right physical training can quickly become exhausted – and dehydration can strike anyone who doesn’t bring enough water. However, in winter, all of these threats are amplified by the cold, ice, wind, and snow. Water is harder to drink because it freezes more easily. Snow is harder to move across, so you become exhausted more quickly. The effects of altitude sickness become more acute when you are already exhausted, cold, and dehydrated.

Moral of the Story: Winter 14ers Have Less Margin for Risk

You will move more slowly when climbing a 14er in winter – and what might be an inconvenience during the summer can become catastrophic in winter. Give yourself lots of extra time and flexibility when creating plans for winter 14ers. For example, while you might try to sneak in a climb during summer before a storm rolls in the next morning, I would suggest moving your trip in the winter.

How to Climb a Winter 14er Safely and Successfully

If you are determined to face these risks and climb a 14er in winter, take care. Here are eight things you should do and keep in mind to ensure you are properly prepared and ready for the challenge. Always remember to turn back if things become questionable – the mountain will still be there another day to climb.

I. Researching and Picking a Peak and Route

Most 14ers are not appropriate for a first-time winter ascent. In fact, many 14ers that are relatively safe and easy in summer become treacherous peaks in winter due to nefarious avalanche risk on their slopes. For example, Grays Peak is an easy class one hike in summer, but the route in winter passes through numerous avalanche paths. Here are four of the best winter 14ers and routes for those new to the experience. They aren’t too long and have very little avalanche risk. While no peak has zero risk, these are usually okay in all but the most extreme conditions (which is why it is still a good idea to check the avalanche forecast).

1. Quandary Peak - East Ridge

How long does it take to climb Quandary Peak?

The winter trailhead for Quandary Peak is only a few hundred feet below the normal trailhead, so the route is essentially no longer in winter than in summer. There is one variation that keeps you on the ridge at the tree line instead of veering left along it side – make sure you follow it to stay out of avalanche terrain. This is a busy peak in winter, so you won’t be alone if climbing on a weekend – however, parking is much easier than in the summer.

Click here for route info →

2. Mount Bierstadt - West Slopes

best winter 14ers for beginners

Mount Bierstadt is another relatively easy winter 14er – the closest on the list to Denver. The summer trailhead closes on Guanella Pass, adding 2-3 miles to your route round-trip. However, it is fun to do this normally busy climb and get a secluded experience instead. More experienced climbers can consider adding on the Sawtooth if they have the proper climbing and mountaineering gear and experience.

Click here for route info →

3. Mount Elbert - East Ridge

Mount Elbert Winter Guide

Mount Elbert, Colorado’s tallest summit, is a relatively safe climb in the winter season. The broad east ridge is free from significant avalanche terrain and is popular among backcountry skiers and snowshoers. It is a longer route with more elevation gain than Quandary Peak and Mount Bierstadt and is quieter as a result. On some days you might be one of the only people on this route. I recommend it after you have done one of the other two options on this list first.

Click here for route info →

II. Find and Bring a Good Partner

Many people enjoy climbing summer 14ers alone – but the winter is a different story. Emergencies are more frequent during the winter, emergency responses are slower, and death comes much more quickly. Bringing a climbing partner is essential during this time of year – especially if you are new to the experience.

However, it is important to find a partner with proper decision-making judgement and experience or they may actually be more of a hinderance than help.

Here are some tips for finding the right climbing partner:

  • Visit the 14ers.com forum or facebook group and make a post looking for partners
  • Reach out to friends or friends of friends they can vouch for.
  • Go to your local climbing or bouldering gym and look for friends there.
  • Join the Colorado Mountain Club and sign up for a trip.
  • Attend a 14ers Happy Hour event – they are posted often on facebook.

Don’t just pick anyone – I recommend connecting via Zoom before you climb. Chat a bit about your climbing experience, goals, and priorities while out on the mountain. Make sure align before you commit – never meet for the first time at the trailhead.

Working with Partners and Group Decision-Making

Even with the right partners, decision-making isn’t always easy. Different levels of risk tolerance, competing interests or goals, and the blinding effect of summit fever can all lead to disagreements over what to do in a given situation. Some research suggests that the optimal group size for mountain trips is three – this way, anytime one person becomes irrational, the other two can outvote them. However, it avoids the group-think dynamics that develop in larger groups. Here are a few other tips:

  • Never separate the group unless you have no other options. It is a factor in many SAR missions.
  • Maintain open communication with your partner and share how you are feeling.
  • Talk through decisions and try to listen with an open mind. Focus on evidence – not emotions.
  • Be mindful of these other decision-making traps:
    • Social Proof: ‘We should climb because another group is climbing.’
    • Familiarity: ‘I know this area well so we can take bigger risk.’
    • Tunnel Vision: ‘Being so focused on the goal you ignore important risks.’
    • Debbie Downer Concern: ‘Taking unwise risks to avoid being a kill-joy.’

III. Packing the Right Gear and Clothing

You’ll need special gear and additional clothing for winter ascents. Let’s start with the ten essentials – the ten most important categories to consider while packing.

  1. Navigation Gear
  2. Sun Protection
  3. First Aid Kit
  4. Extra Food
  5. Extra Water
  6. Extra Layers
  7. Headlamp & Batteries
  8. Emergency Shelter
  9. Knife or Multi-tool
  10. Fire Starting Kit

There are other types of gear you’ll need as well. Here’s some of the most important things to bring with you for winter 14ers:

Insulated Hiking Boots

Normal hiking boots don’t provide enough insulation and warmth for the cold conditions you’ll come across on a winter 14er. Get a dedicated pair of winter hiking boots. They have better traction for ice and snow, and they’ll definitely keep your toes warmer than something you wear in summer. Stay away from shoes of any kind; without a high ankle they won’t keep snow out and your socks will get wet.

Check out my recommendations

30-40 Liter Backpack

You need a bigger backpack for winter 14ers than you do in summer. You’ll have more layers and you will need to take them off at times as the day warms up and as you descend. A 30-40 liter bag has enough space for all the essentials without unnecessarily adding to your weight. If you are doing an overnight trip, you will probably need 60-70 liters of space.

Check out my recommendations

Trekking Poles

While trek poles are optional in summer, I always recommend using them in winter conditions. They provide two extra points of contact on icy or snow-packed trails to provide more balance and stability to reduce the risk of slips and falls. Make sure you buy a pair of ski pole basket tips – they improve the trek pole performance in snowy conditions.

Check out my recommendations

Satellite Messenger/SPOT Device

If something goes wrong during your climb, your cell phone may not work due to the cold. A satellite messenger or SPOT Device allows you to call for help even if you do not have a cell phone signal. I personally use the Garmin, which provides GPS navigation in addition to its communication and SOS features. These devices require a monthly subscription but the security is worth it.

Check out my recommendations

Rocky Talkies (Two-way Radios)

Rocky Talkie Review

Groups can easily get separated on a 14er in winter, especially during storms or when the wind is blowing around snow and ice. A durable pair of radios like the Rocky Talkies are great for keeping your group in contact on the mountain. In emergency situations where you must split up, the allow you to keep in touch and work together to address the situation while miles apart.

Get 10% off with my promo code

Microspikes (Traction)

Every winter hiker needs a pair of microspikes to use with their boots. They are ideal for snow-packed and ice-covered trails where you might otherwise slip and fall. Don’t wear them on clear sections of trail – it dulls the spikes and can cause a trip or fall, especially on rocky terrain. I always keep one extra pair for my group, as the spikes can and will eventually break after several years of use.

Check out my recommendations

Mountaineering Snowshoes

If you head out within a few days of a recent snowfall – or you plan to climb a remote and relatively rarely visited peak, you will probably need some snowshoes. Not all pairs work equally – for a 14er, you need to use a pair of mountaineering snowshoes. They come with built-in teeth and spikes for traction and a heel-lift to save strain on your calves.

Check out my recommendations

Do You Need an Ice Axe and Mountaineering Crampons?

Many people rush out and buy an expensive ice axe and crampons for their first winter 14er – but that usually it not necessary. Most beginner winter 14ers don’t require an ice axe or mountaineering gear. Furthermore, these tools require skill and practice to use effectively. If you don’t know how to self-arrest with an ice axe, and you haven’t walked much wearing crampons, they may just cause you to trip and fall, and you probably won’t be able to arrest your slide.

Until you take the time to properly train yourself with this gear, leave these tools at home and stick to tamer peaks with limited technical terrain or steep slopes.

IV. Checking and Planning for Conditions

Knowledge is power – so the more information you get about the current conditions on the mountain the more you can manage your risk and stay safe. You’ll need to do considerably more research while planning for winter climbs compared to summer ascents. Here’s the main areas to look up before you go.

Weather Conditions

Weather is often the biggest determination of whether or not your trip should go ahead as planned. Start checking the forecast a week before you hope to go climb a winter 14er. I recommend updating the forecast each day, as the forecast often changes day-to-day. Here are some specific things to consider:

  • Temperatures: Pack layers appropriate for the expected high and nighttime low.
  • Wind Speed: I recommend staying home if wind speeds are above 30mph.
  • Precipitation: Is there any rain, snow, or sleet expected? If so, how much?
  • Storms: Are storms expected to arrive within 48 hours of your climb?

If the conditions look rough, I always recommend postponing your climb for another day when they look more favorable. No summit is worth risking your life unnecessarily.

Snow Conditions

The snow conditions along your route can vary considerably over time. After a storm, routes are usually buried in snow that requires snowshoes. However, over time, wind often blows things around and the sun melts some snow, making snowshoes unnecessary. Check peak condition reports for information on snow. You can also use the state’s SNOTEL system of weather stations that report snowfall totals and the amount on the ground in several dozen spots around the state.

Avalanche Conditions

Avalanches are a serious risk during the winter and spring in Colorado. Never head to the backcountry or attempt to climb a 14er without checking the avalanche forecast for the area you plan to visit. Here are the different rating levels and what they mean in practice:

  • Level 1: Low (Green): Generally safe avalanche conditions.
  • Level 2: Moderate(Yellow): Heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features.
  • Level 3: Considerable (Orange): Dangerous avalanche conditions.
  • Level 4: High (Red): Very dangerous avalanche conditions.
  • Level 5: Extreme (Black): Extraordinarily dangerous avalanche conditions.

If you do not have avalanche training and gear, I recommend staying home anytime the forecast is moderate (level 2) or higher. However, remember that green does not equal safe – many have died in avalanches that occurred during a level 1 danger forecast.

The best way to protect yourself is to get trained, bring gear, practice using it, and always going with a partner with training, practice, and gear.

Peak Conditions

Get information on the specific conditions on the route you hope to climb with the peak condition reports on 14ers.com. If you get lucky, someone may have posted an update with information recently – in the previous 5 days. Otherwise, you may need to take a chance and go out without beta.

If you do a winter 14er, please help the community by posting a conditions report to share your insights with other hikers and climbers. It helps improve safety for the entire 14er community here in Colorado.

Trailhead Conditions

You cannot climb a 14er if you can’t get to it. Trailhead Condition Reports on 14ers.com tell you what kind of car you’ll need to reach the open trailheads during winter and spring. Many of these roads are in very poor conditions and turn into mudpits during the snowmelt. Don’t expect to reach upper trailheads until early June – and sometimes even later during heavy snow years.

V. Getting to the Trailhead

Driving to the trailhead itself can be a hazardous experience, especially if you do not have 4WD and snow tires. Check the CDOT website to look up the road conditions on the route you plan to take, as well as the weather forecast for the area. While the mountain weather forecast may be clean, there could be blizzard conditions along the route you’re taking to the mountain.

When possible, I recommend spending 1-2 nights camping before your climb near the trailhead to acclimate and reduce your risk of altitude sickness. If winter camping isn’t your thing, stay at a motel or airbnb in a mountain town near your trailhead, like Leadville, Breckenridge, Frisco, or Fairplay.

In case you get stuck while driving in an area where you don’t have cell coverage and other drivers are rare, always keep the following in your vehicle during winter:

  • Sturdy scraper, snow brush, and snow shovel to clear snow
  • Flashlight with extra batteries or crank-powered flashlight
  • Blanket or sleeping bag
  • Gallon jug of water
  • First aid kit and essential medications
  • Tire chains and tow strap
  • Jumper cables
  • Flares/reflectors to signal for help and warn other motorists
  • Battery or crank-powered radio to listen to emergency broadcasts

While not essential, I also recommend bringing:

  • Extra set of clothes, including coat, hat, mittens, boots, etc.
  • Chemical hand warmers
  • Non-perishable snacks like granola bars
  • Non-clumping kitty litter/sand for traction
  • Deck of cards or board game for entertainment

Click here to learn more about winter driving preparedness

VI. Navigating a 14er Route in Winter

Route-finding and navigation will be more difficult in winter conditions. Snow will cover the trail and many landmarks, making navigation by sight less easy. Using a map, bringing GPS, and researching ahead of time will help you navigate and stay on route.

Click here to learn how to use a map and compass

Research the route thoroughly and try to find images of it in winter. Things will look much different than the summer pictures show. Trip reports from others on 14ers.com can provide multiple detailed perspectives on the winter 14er route you’re planning on taking. I always look up the route on a backcountry slope map like CalTopo. It colors slopes that have the right angle for avalanches (28-45 degrees) so you can identify them and avoid them in the field.

When I do a winter 14er, I try to identify major landmarks on the route that will still be easily identifiable in the snow. For example, lakes, treeline, large gullies, major peaks, and creeks, streams, and rivers are all relatively easy to identify even when there’s a lot of snow on the ground. Knowing the 4 or 5 landmarks that mark waypoints on your route can help you visually identify the way forward at each step along your journey.

Never rely 100% on a digital map – always have a paper spare. In winter, where snow is everywhere and things get wet, I recommend buying a sturdier waterproof map of the route (click here to see some options). Your compass should also be waterproof. Use a dedicated GPS unit or tool like an InReach which has more water resistance than most cell phones.

On popular peaks like Mount Bierstadt, Quandary Peak, and Mount Elbert, a trench usually forms along the route within a few days of a major storm. This simplifies navigation. However, be wary and vigilent, never blindly follow a trail or footprints left by others as it does not mean that route is correct or safe. Sometimes dozens of people cross an avalanche-prone slope before the 26th person finally triggers a deadly slide. Know where you are going, or don’t go there at all.

VII. Responding to Emergencies

When someone gets injured or goes missing, most people aren’t sure what to do or how to properly respond. A little preparation goes a long way. Keep in mind the acronym SPOT if you find yourself in need of help while climbing a winter 14er:

S: SIT

Stop moving and sit down. Try to calm yourself down by taking deep breaths. Focus on the moment and remember – you are alive and you are okay. If you have the ability to call for help, do so once you are feeling better.

T: THINK

Analyze the situation. What do you have with you to use? How long until nightfall? What are your immediate priorities? Can your retrace my steps or are you unable to find your way? What do you need to do to survive?

O: Observe

Is anyone injured, including yourself? What around you can you use for shelter? (snow, cave or overhangs, vegetation, tree wells) Do you have fuel for a fire?

P: Plan

Establish a plan based on your analysis to get to a safe position, get clean water, attract searchers (bright clothing, smoke, whistles, signal mirrors), address injuries, build a fire, make a shelter, and prepare for rescue.

Wilderness First Aid

A few wilderness first aid skills can make a huge difference in the backcountry where search and rescue is often hours away from your position. I highly recommend investing in a full WFA course to learn these skills hands-on. The certification must be updated every several years to ensure you remain sharp and can react quickly in an emergency.

Most first aid kits come with a small WFA Guide – at minimum, take the time to read it before you head out – not when someone is sitting in agony in front of you with a broken leg and you need to learn how to set it.

VIII. Getting Avalanche Training, Gear, and Practice

As mentioned in several different sections of this guide, avalanches are a serious winter threat on the 14ers. They kill more people in the mountains each winter than any other hazard – by a lot.

Avalanches are not completely random in nature – 95% of them are caused by the victim or someone else in their party. That means you have a lot of control over whether or not you stay safe by carefully choosing where you go, bringing the right gear, getting training, and checking the forecast. Here are a few beginner tips to get you started

Avalanche Safety Tips and Advice

1. Get Training and Gear. I repeat this because it’s true. No amount of reading or youtube videos can replace practicing an avalanche rescue in the field with your own gear. Also bring a partner or there won’t be anyone around to rescue you.

2. Avoid Avalanche-prone Slopes. If you don’t have training, the best way to stay safe is to avoid entering or passing below slopes with angle of 28-45 degrees – the most common range where avalanches are triggered.

3. Check the Avalanche Forecast. Never enter the backcountry without knowing the current level of risk, as well as any terrain features or slopes of concern that you need to be especially wary of while on the mountain.

4. Bring Risk Adverse Partners. Head into the mountains with hikers and climbers with similar levels of risk tolerance as you and the training, gear, and experience required to rescue you from an avalanche. Make route decisions together, and say something whenever you don’t feel safe from potential slides.

5. Stay Away from Cornices. While these wind-sculpted snow formations along ridges and peaks are beautiful and inviting, they extend out many feet from the side of the mountain. If they break away with you standing on top of them, you will fall with them – and they can also trigger avalanches. Avoid their edges with a wide margin.

To learn more about avalanche safety, watch this previous webinar we hosted in partnership with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center called Know Before You Go: Avalanche Awareness Education.

Winter 14er Frequently Asked Questions

Here are a few frequently asked questions about winter 14er safety.

Unless you have significant mountaineering experience, I highly recommend climbing winter 14ers with a climbing partner. While it is possible to safely climb a winter 14er alone, there are many dangers and it is much safer to go with someone else. That way, if someone gets injured or lost, your partner can go find help. 

It is a good idea to bring a pair of insulated hiking boots while climbing winter 14ers. They do not necessarily have to be mountaineering boots, but those are recommended for rugged and technical peaks. If you want to wear crampons on your climb, you will also need full mountaineering boots with a stiff sole.

If you are new to hiking and climbing in winter conditions, I recommend one of these peaks for your first:

  • Mount Elbert – East Ridge
  • Quandary Peak – East Ridge
  • Mount Bierstadt – West Slopes
  • Mount Sherman – South Slopes

None of the 14ers are 100% safe when it comes to avalanches. However, there are a handful of peaks that have very little risk because their slopes are not steep enough for snow to slide in most situations. These include Mount Bierstadt’s west slope and the east ridge of Mount Elbert and Quandary Peak.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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