By Alan Apt
*This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Trail & Timberline.*
Winter doesn’t mean you have to give up climbing summits. In fact, you won’t want to miss the beauty of sparkling snow and ice crystals, snow-draped trees, and wind tossing spindrift high into the air and sunlight transforming it into snow rainbows. It does mean you will need some different equipment to make it an efficient, safe, and enjoyable adventure. Snowshoes or backcountry skis are your two primary options. Postholing is not a wise choice and will cause consternation on the part of your winter recreation colleagues, because you will make snowshoeing or skiing more difficult options for everyone else by leaving deep divots in the trail. Postholing will also exhaust you quickly and will usually soak you inside and out. You will enjoy yourself much more if you invest in, or rent, a good pair of snowshoes or skis. Floating on top of most of the snow is a better option.
If winter mountaineering is your goal, then taking an Avalanche Level 1, or an avalanche awareness course is a must. If you’re going high and deep into the back country, you will also want to rent or buy an avalanche beacon and shovel, and learn how to use them. Dressing in layers becomes even more important, so having an adequate backpack that can hold extra clothing and winter gear is essential. Assume you will encounter high winds and sub-zero wind chills, and be ready with a thick insulating hat, face mask, goggles, very warm gloves, warm socks (avoid cotton), and waterproof boots with gaiters. A wind and waterproof shell with fleece or down supplement underneath it is ideal. You might also enjoy calm conditions, with warmer temperatures and sun, so the pack will allow you peel off your layers, and avoid sweating, which will freeze you later. A pair of poles will provide extra traction and stability on steep slopes, whether you’re snowshoeing or skiing.
Snowshoes that are long enough to provide good floatation relative to your size and have lots of claws for traction are a great choice for highly variable snow. Make sure the bindings will be easy to get on or off when you have cold hands. If you are renting, put them on and off in the store. Imagine yourself on a steep side slope, and see if you think the claws will hold. Snowshoes with tubes tend to slide. You can have fun snowshoeing on mediocre, or crusty, icy snow that would make you miserable on skis. You can also count on bare ground and rocks on the way to the summit. So be prepared to carry your snowshoes or skis on your pack part of the time. Early in the season, when snow is thin, spikes are a better choice. If encountering steep slopes with snow and ice is likely, then an ice axe and crampons will, of course, be necessary. Check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website (avalanche.state.co.us), and see if steep terrain is a good choice.
A compass and a good topo map are especially essential in the winter. It is much easier to get off-trail and get lost; then there is the possibility of a whiteout. Stop frequently to orient yourself. Also, shorter days mean you might need a headlamp. Time yourself on the way up and assume the snow conditions will change, which will make your return longer. Know when the sun will be setting. Insulate your water, or it will turn to solid ice. Bring along hand and foot warmers in case it is much colder than anticipated. Suffering is not part of the plan, fun is.
This trailhead is in Rocky Mountain National Park, at the end of Bear Lake Road. It is at 9,500 feet, so it usually has great snow. The route has minimal avalanche danger if you stay on the trail. Once you get above tree line (11,500 feet) expect wind and a wind scoured trail. You will be ascending around 3,000 feet to make the summit that is over 12,000 feet. Plan on a very early start, and an all-day adventure. Start out by walking to Bear Lake, and continue counterclockwise around the lake, and you will see signs for Bierstadt Lake, Fern Lake, and Flattop Mountain. All three trails share the same route for the first half mile. Bierstadt will exit to the right, and you will climb more steeply to the west to a great view of Longs Peak. After a mile, look carefully for the Flattop Mountain Trail going left uphill, while the Fern Lake Trail goes straight. The sign may be snow covered. Now the real fun begins. The trail tracks a bit west to a great view, before turning north, and then southwest to the summit. You will be climbing a broad slope and over a couple of false summits.
This is a popular winter Fourteener summit. It is near Georgetown, on the top of Guanella Pass, which is open year-round. Having an all-wheel-drive vehicle is a good idea. There are a couple of sections with avalanche danger, so check the CAIC website. Whiteouts are not unusual, so pick favorable weather forecasts when storm fronts are not on their way into the state. The foot bridges through the willows might not be snow covered, so expect to carry snowshoes. It is a much steeper, more challenging route than Flattop, so not a good choice for a first winter summit. Once you park, you will be able to see the summit from the parking lot. The trail actually goes downhill and has a flat stretch through the willows, before it climbs. The summit will be to the northeast, so don’t meander too far off to the south as you switchback above treeline. At treeline, hug the north ridge and create your own switchbacks. When you top out, you’ll have the final summit scramble to the north and a view of the Sawtooth Ridge to Mount Evans.