It’s normal on many online climbing forums and groups to get asked about winter 14ers – what’s needed to safely and successfully climb Colorado’s high peaks in the cold and snow? This is a good example of a situation where you simply can’t know what to expect unless you’ve been there yourself, as winter 14ers have a lot of unique dangers not present in the summer. If you head out to the mountains without knowing about them, it’s impossible to manage and mitigate that risk. Here’s a brief comparison of winter 14ers vs summer 14ers.
It's Time to Reset Your 14er Expectations
Before I dig in, you should start by trying to set aside your assumptions about fourteeners. Comparing a high peak in July and January is a totally different experience. There’s no such thing as a winter 14er hike – even the easiest summer hikes are difficult snowshoeing trips and snow climbs. This adventure will be cold, difficult and exhausting. If you aren’t ready for that, best to stick to summer 14ers. Now let’s compare winter 14ers vs summer 14ers.
Difference 1: It's a Lot Colder - Deadly Cold.
It’s very normal for Colorado fourteeners to reach temperatures below zero during winter months. With a bit of wind, you may experience a wind chill of -10 to -20 degrees at the summit, if not colder. With such bitter cold, hypothermia and frostbite are real risks should anything go wrong on your climb. Make sure you carefully pack and bring warm layers, including high quality gloves, socks and a hat to protect your ears, nose, fingers and toes – the most common places to get frostbitten. When in doubt, if you’re concerned about the cold, descend. The peak will be there for you another time.
Difference 2: Snow & Ice Pose Numerous Difficulties
There are many uncertainties in the mountain, but this is not one of them. There will be snow and ice on your route – lots and lots of it. Hiking boots alone won’t do it for winter 14ers. Below tree line the biggest challenge are massive snowdrifts that cover the trail and cause deep post-holing, where you punch through the snow with each step, the snow going up to your hips. It’s slow and exhausting work.
Above tree line, snow is often scoured by the wind, leaving icy trails but less snow to deal with. Be wary of cornices as well, large snow packs along the crests of ridges, which are unsupported and can collapse if you step out on to them. Snow is the most obvious difference between winter 14ers vs summer 14ers.
Difference 3: You Need Special Gear & Skills
There are a few special types of gear you need to safely climb winter 14ers. Microspikes and crampons will help keep you safe on slippery icy and snow slopes. A good pair of gaiters will help keep the snow and moisture out of your shoes to avoid frostbite as well. An ice axe is a good idea as well to self-arrest and stop a fall if you slip, however it’s worthless without the skill and knowledge required to use it. Practice self-arrests before you head to the hills. Finally, pack warm layers – but be careful you don’t wear too many layers as sweating through them will chill you quickly.
Difference 4: Your Water Will Probably Freeze
During the summer months I recommend using a hydration bladder. In the winter this is not an option as it will inevitably freeze. A lot of groups sell hose insulation tubs but they do not work, it is simply too cold. Instead bring a vacuum-insulated water bottle and store it upside down so it freezes from the bottom up and you can still drink from it. A small backpacking stove is also a good idea to melt more snow if you need more or if your source freezes solid.
Difference 5: The Trailhead is Probably Closed
We’re blessed in Colorado with extremely accessible fourteener routes. In many cases you can drive within 5-10 miles of the summit. This changes in the winter as many upper roads close due to thick winter snow drifts. Research your trailhead ahead of time so you know what to expect. There’s nothing worse than finding your trek is 5 miles longer than you expected. 14ers.com provides very good trailhead reports to help with research, along with many online mountaineering facebook groups and forums. Ultimately though if there is no recent info, you may have to go and find out what awaits you with a plan B in mind.
Difference 6: Small Mistakes Turn Deadly
This is a broad, but important point when comparing winter 14ers and summer 14ers. There is a lot less margin for error on these high peaks in the ice and cold. A minor mistake in the summer that leads to a night outdoors will be uncomfortable, or even miserable. However, an unplanned night outdoors in the summer can turn deadly very fast.
Follow summer rules even more strictly: Keep your gear with you at all times, bring extra food and water, let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and bring the ten essentials with you. These simple steps go a long way at keeping you safe.
Difference 7: There is Little Risk of Lightning
There’s a lot of obstacles presented in winter, but there are a few upsides as well. Most significantly, afternoon thunderstorms are far less likely during the cold, winter months. This mean that there’s more time flexibility when it comes to winter 14ers vs summer 14ers. You don’t need to worry nearly as much about being off the mountain by early afternoon, providing a lot more time to complete your climb. This is helpful considering these winter climbs usually take a lot more time than the summer equivalent, so it is usually still a good idea to start early with an alpine start and leave the extra time in case anything goes wrong
Difference 8: You Need to Watch Out for Avalanches
The last point is among the most important when comparing winter 14ers vs summer 14ers. Avalanches are a major risk in the Colorado Rocky Mountains anytime there is significant among of snow. You should be able to recognize avalanche terrain (which is not easy, and takes time to learn to do well) so you can avoid it unless absolutely necessary. If you do plan to enter avalanche terrain, you need to bring a buddy, personal locator beacon, probes and shovels so you can engage in a rescue should the worst occur. Check the ratings before your trip to check the Avalanche forecast – it’s important to know before you go. This is a major difference between winter 14ers vs summer 14ers.
Winter 14ers vs Summer 14ers: There's a Difference.
Winter 14ers are a lot more difficult than their summer equivalent, but the adventure is well worth if if you know what you’re doing. I hope this blog helped you learn more about what to expect on a Colorado slope in winter conditions. Still looking for more information I recommend this blog by my friend Jeff Golden, or the blog below I wrote last year on climbing winter 14ers vs summer 14ers conditions. Stay safe out there!