Why Winter 14ers Make Me Feel Complete Joy and Utter Misery
We’re expecting up to 15 inches of snow this weekend in the north central mountains of Colorado. The storm dashed my plans to sneak in a last snow-free fourteener with my partner. Instead, I’m spending my weekend stowing away my summer and fall gear, and pulling out my snowshoes, crampons, and ice axe for the winter season knocking at the door.
While summer 14er ascents are now a mainstream, popular activity in Colorado (more than 300,000 ascents are completed each year), winter ascents remain somewhat well-kept secret among climbers and mountaineers. With heavy snow that often piles up 5-10 feet deep in some places, many trailheads close from November through May or June until the snow melts out. This adds multiple miles to most routes, in icy conditions that routinely drop below zero, with snow and whiteout conditions possible at almost any time.
It’s a dangerous time to climb. Trails and slopes are icy and slippery, and no one is around if something goes wrong. Avalanche paths are found on almost every 14er route – with only a few considered mostly safe. Even these rare routes can and have slid in extreme snow conditions. Hypothermia and frostbite are ever-present threats, and you can easily sweat through your layers if you aren’t careful, leaving yourself vulnerable to the winds, which are more common in winter.
As I pulled out my winter boots and ice axe and thought about the last white-out I experienced at Rocky Mountain National Park, I paused as a question sounded in my head. “Why do you get so much joy from such a miserable experience? What is going on?”
Only 1 in 10 Peak Baggers Climb 14ers During the Winter
While the 14ers see hundreds of thousands of ascents during June, July, and August, they’re very quiet, relatively speaking, during the cold winter season. While the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative puts out trail counters during the summer season, there are few hard data points of the winter season, when snow makes cameras like these impractical.
To try to fill this data gap, I conducted an informal poll in a large Colorado 14er group online to gauge just how uncommon it is to climb during winter.
I received 65 responses from 14er climbers. According to this informal sample:
- 100% reported climbing during early summer (June-July).
- 63% climb during late summer (August-September)
- 46% climb during fall (October-November)
- 12% climb during winter (December-March)
- 21% climb during spring (April-May).
The graph below shows these results below. As you can see, there’s a significant drop off from summer levels once the snow starts falling earnestly in December. Additionally, the peaks remain quiet during the spring until the snow melts out in mid-to-late June each year. This is both a blessing and a curse (another winter 14er paradox).
On the one hand, this means it’s one of the best times of the year to catch a summit on your own. On the other hand, it also means you are largely on your own if anything goes wrong. And there’s a lot that can go wrong – a lot more than during the summer.
Poll Results: Seasonal Preferences for Climbing Colorado 14ers (n=72)
Let's Climb a 14,000-foot Mountain in late January! What Could Go Wrong?
A lot of the the same threats that exist on a summer 14er are still a hazard in winter. The biggest difference is the baseline background environment, which significantly changes the nature of risk in almost every way possible. With cold temperatures, shorter days, and more snow and ice to contend with, the risk of falling or injuring yourself, getting lost, or otherwise needing rescue is significantly elevated. What might be an annoyance in July can kill you in January.
Consider A Sprained Ankle in July vs. January
Let’s pretend you’re climbing Grays Peak, a relatively easy and popular peak near Denver and Boulder. Just above the tree line, where trails become rockier, it is not uncommon for hikers to trip on a rock and twist an ankle.
Depending on the season, a sprained ankle can be an annoyance or a life-threatening emergency.
During the summer, on a 14er like Grays Peak, you are likely to be surrounded by other hikers and climbers to provide first aid, call for help, and provide food, water, comfort, and support while you wait. While the temperature might drop down into the 40s or 50s, the extra layer you packed is more than enough to stay warm – along with layers shared by good samaritans. While this would not be a good day, by any means, it is unlikely to ever be more than an annoyance and temporary set-back.
In January, this would be a life-threatening situation. You may have only seen one other group on the trail – if any at all – and they may have been descending in the opposite direction. Even worse, your phone battery died in the cold, so no one will know you need help until you miss your check-in time with your roommate nearly 5 hours from now. At this point, all you can do is try to crawl out of the wind and stay warm enough to make it through the night. Your survival may depend largely on how cold it gets and how quickly SAR teams can get to you.
Emergency Rescues Move More Slowly in Winter
The wind, snow, and cold are not the only thing you have to worry about. Winter conditions also affect the rescue teams and volunteers who will start searching after you miss your check-in time. Trailhead closures usually add several hours or more to reach your location, and winter winds and extreme weather make helicopters harder to use and more risky in general. Avalanche conditions must be carefully considered to avoid putting rescuers in danger too, and specialized gear, like ropes, ice axes, and rigging, is used more often to deal with slippery, exposed situations.
In short- not only is it harder to survive an unplanned night in the mountains during winter – but you’ll have to wait considerably longer before rescue teams can reach your location. This double-whammy is a big factor behind the increased peril of climbing winter 14ers compared to summer 14ers.
Winter 14ers Suck, Yet They Make Me Happy. Why?
None of these descriptions thus far sound appealing. Deep snowdrifts, freezing winds, catastrophic avalanches, and slowed emergency response times… what part of this sounds fun? And yet, winter 14ers are not just fun, but one of my favorite things to do. While I was not sure at first, I honestly enjoy them now more than I do summer climbs with much easier and less dangerous conditions.
While I know this to be true, I cannot tell you the exact reasons why. But I can take a few educated guesses behind this paradox. Here are the four reasons I think winter 14ers are so great, despite the misery they can create in the short-term.
1. Challenging Yourself is Rewarding
All 14ers provide the opportunity to challenge yourself and accomplish something incredible. That accomplishment and the sense of fulfillment it provides is magnified during winter when the challenge is far greater, the risk more substantial, and you are part of a much smaller group of people reaching the summit successfully. This outsized reward is a big reason why many people want to push themselves and keep climbing all year.
It is important, of course, to know your limits. Climbing a 14er is dangerous, and if you aren’t aware that certain hazards exist, or you lack the gear or skills required to mitigate them, it’s impossible to be smart about challenging yourself. Safety should always be your first consideration when crafting adventures to provide fulfilling challenges without unnecessary hazards and risk.
2. Snow-capped Summits are Spectacular
The views from a 14er are another year-round reward for reaching their summits. However, speaking personally, it’s hard to compare the vista in July, when the rocks are bare rock, with the same view in January when they are capped with snow, ice, and cornices. I have yet to meet more than a handful of people who disagree: snow-capped peaks are just prettier to look at. It’s a fact.
I don’t want to diminish the experience of a summer 14er ascent, or the spectacular views you can see after a climb in July (especially if you start early enough to catch sunrise from the summit). It’s a sight that every Coloradan should see at least once in their lifetime.
However, if I had to pick between a summer view or winter view – I would go with the view during winter every time. There’s just something magical about a snowcapped peak. I wish I knew why – but that’s beyond my abilities.
3. Sometimes, Solitude is Worth the Risk
Solitude is a hazard on winter 14er routes… but it’s also one of the season’s prime attractions. Our informal poll suggest that 85% of hikers hang up their boots between December and March. With so few people on the trail, getting a summit to yourself is pretty common. If you are the kind of person who hates rubbing elbows on the trail with other hikers and gets annoyed playing leap frog with other groups, you might want to consider trying a winter 14er.
Given that solitude is inherently dangerous, as is the winter season, I always recommend compromising and bringing a partner with you for ascents when winter conditions are present. While an extra pair of hands does not seem like it would make a big difference, it is often the difference between life or death. They can help help with navigation and route-finding to stay on the trail, provide first aid if you get injured, and in a worst case scenario, go for help.
4. There are More Opportunities for Growth
Last, but not least, climbing a 14er in winter requires specialized skills and equipment that are unnecessary during summer months. While this is a barrier for beginners, it also creates more opportunities for growth than a summer 14er. For example, there are only a handful of 14ers (3-4 at most) that have almost zero avalanche risk (no peak is 100% risk-free). Climbing these four peaks, Mt Bierstadt, Mt Sherman, Mt Elbert, and Quandary Peak, during winter, is a great first goal for this season – but it is the first of many.
The next tier of peaks have greater avalanche risk to contend with, requiring avalanche training (AIARE I or II), along with an avalanche probe, shovel, and transceiver, and a partner with the same training and gear. You must also learn to read the avalanche forecast and conditions in the field to manage your risk and avoid becoming caught by a slide.
Beyond these peaks, you must develop more technical skills utilizing an ice axe and crampons. At this point, you’ll have left the realm of hiking and be engaged in full-on mountaineering. This requires the ability to self-belay while climbing with an ice axe, and to self-arrest a fall on snow or ice with an axe after it starts. This is often the only way to survive a serious fall on steep slopes, which are common on most winter 14ers.
One skill that’s particularly fun to master is glissading: sliding down snowfields on your descent while using your ice axe as a brake and to manage your speed. Glissading is very dangerous if done in the wrong conditions or without the right gear and technique. For example, if you do not remove your crampons before glissading, they can catch on ice while sliding, wrench your leg, and cause serious injuries. Winter 14ers provide dozens of waypoints as you master new skills and climb more serious peaks, allowing for many years of growth, challenge, and a continued sense of accomplishment and confidence.
Paradoxically, It Is Misery That Makes Winter 14ers Spectacular
Overall, it became clear as I put down my thoughts on paper. The joy and misery I experience on a 14er in January are not opposed to each other. To the contrary: They are intimately and deeply inter-related. While post-holing up to my hips through deep snow is not fun in the moment, the satisfaction it generates when I get through it and back on wind-swept trails is more than worth all the effort. Like many forms of “Type B Fun,” climbing a winter 14er is rewarding not despite, but because of how challenging, dangerous, and miserable the experience was. By proving to yourself what you are capable of and mastering more skill over time – paired with stunning winter vistas and solitude on winter summits – winter 14ers have an allure that I couldn’t ignore and had to try for myself.
That said, the data is clear. Most people don’t think the hazards and misery is worth it. Or, as I suspect may be the case, many have no idea of the high you get standing at 14,000 feet, surrounded by snow, holding your ice axe, and knowing it was not just effort, but great skill, practice, and preparation, that got you where you are standing. If more people knew how that feels, I think these peaks would a lot busier in January than they are today.
This is probably the best-kept secret of all when it comes to winter 14ers.