Winter Rewards: Climbing Mountains in the Frosty Months

By Dave Cooper

It might be cold, it might be windy, but winter can be the most rewarding time to climb Colorado’s mountains. Gone are the crowds on the fourteeners. Nasty scree slopes can be hidden under a blanket of snow. Also buried are the trails, requiring (and inviting) you to make your own tracks. Our mountains never look more stunning than when adorned with a coating of the white stuff.

Aesthetics aside, winter allows us to develop our mountaineering skills more completely than during the summer months. Remember, though, that while the rewards are greater, so too are the risks. Just as in summer, head up to the hills well prepared and you are likely to have a great time. Being unprepared in winter, however, leaves you open to having an unpleasant experience, at the least. The possibilities beyond that can prove much worse. Still, the incentives are plenty. Below are five tips to help you reap the rewards of your winter adventures.

1. Know Your Snow ▶ Take an Avalanche Awareness Course
Heading into the backcountry in the winter without having an understanding and healthy respect for the vagaries of snow is like going into the mountains during hunting season wearing that nice, fur-covered antler hat that your ex- gave you. You’re asking for trouble.

Colorado has one of the least stable snowpacks in the continental United States. In an avalanche awareness class, you’ll learn (at a

Chris Case
Chris Case

minimum) to evaluate the stability of a snow slope, how to avoid dangerous areas, and how to use avalanche beacons, snow shovels and probe poles in rescue situations.

You’ll also be able to interpret the backcountry forecasts put out by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. By the way, don’t just check the avalanche conditions the day of your trip. Make it a habit to check on a regular basis, so you’ll know the history of the snowpack.

It has been said that when it comes to avalanche prediction, there are no experts. But, you can do a lot to minimize your likelihood of becoming a victim. And learning how to safely launch a rescue of other team members can make all the difference.

2. Winter Warrior ▶ Understanding the Hazards Specific to Winter Mountaineering

During the summer, a simple equipment malfunction may be little more than an annoyance. Something like a broken ski binding in the winter can leave you stranded with no way to get out—unless you’re prepared.

An injury in the backcountry might mean a night out—not necessarily too serious in the summer, but possibly life-threatening in the winter. The same goes for getting lost. Know how to avoid and provide first aid for frostbite and hypothermia. Check your team members for signs of frostbite on exposed skin and signs of confusion and slurred speech that may indicate hypothermia.

Remember that the days are much shorter, often necessitating a predawn start or moonlit finish to achieve your goals. A good headlamp and spare batteries (kept warm in an interior pocket, along with your spare camera batteries) are essential.

Trails will most likely be covered by snow. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to follow your track back down the mountain—footsteps can be filled in by the wind within minutes. Whiteout conditions can reduce visibility to zero. Also, just because there’s a track from a previous party, don’t assume that they knew where they were going.

Remember that a successful trip is one where everyone returns safely, having had a good experience. The probability of reaching your summit in the winter is lower than on a nice day in the summer. And reaching the top is not the only reward. Some of my fondest memories come from winter trips that ended short of the objective. On a February attempt of Keiners Route on Longs Peak, we made a planned bivouac at 13,000 feet. A storm which moved in overnight destroyed any hope of completing the route, but the experience of lying in my sleeping bag in such a location, watching the sun rise on the Diamond Wall while spindrift avalanches cascaded down around us was too special to lament.

3. Tricks of the Trade ▶ Caring for Yourself in the Cold

The snowshoe approach to Greg Mace Peak in the Elk Range. Dave Cooper
The snowshoe approach
to Greg Mace Peak in
the Elk Range.
Dave Cooper

Not much can spoil a day out like a frozen water bottle. Typically, the large-mouthed bottles are less prone to the cap freezing; storing your bottle upside down is another trick that works. Insulated carriers are essential. Pre-heating the water before you set out can also help. Occasionally, I’ve carried a water bottle inside my parka. Hydration systems can be problematic in winter due to freezing. I learned the hard way that foods such as apples freeze and become inedible.

When you stop for a break, have a warm, “puffy” layer at the top of your pack that you can quickly put on over all of your other layers (including your wind shell). Don’t take off layers before adding more. This can rapidly chill you. When you’re ready to start moving again, remove the parka so you don’t overheat. Carry multiple pairs of gloves, including some very warm mittens.

What do you do when the weather deteriorates while you’re descending from your peak? In the old days (i.e. before GPS), we would flag critical points on the way up using surveyor’s tape, removing them on the way down. This can still be a valuable method, but these days I use a GPS to fulfill the same function. On several occasions, using the GPS to follow my uptrack back down with near-zero visibility has saved me from some suffering. Of course, the map and compass are also essential to have along.

Once, when descending Grizzly Peak in poor visibility, we met a group hiking up the mountain (lots of undulating terrain along the ridge). They thought they were descending and couldn’t be convinced otherwise until I showed them the map and compass.

Make sure you test and know how to use your gear before the trip. There’s nothing like trying to erect a tent for the first time at dusk in a snowstorm. Same goes for your stove. You should know how to field-strip, clean, and repair the stove as well. If you’ve ever experienced a stove breakdown in the mountains, you know the feeling of panic when you foresee a long night of grumbling hunger pangs and the inability to melt snow for water. Adjust and check crampons, skis, and snowshoes before the trip. Become an expert in the use of an ice axe.

Organize the contents of your pack so you don’t have to empty it every time you stop. Carry a few energy bars in your pocket so you can eat without taking off the pack (plus it keeps those bars from breaking your teeth). Have your water bottle accessible. Keep your rest stops short. Expect to burn a lot of calories in the winter. This isn’t the time to start your diet. Also, it’s easy to get dehydrated when it’s cold. Make the extra effort to drink enough fluids. Your energy will be depleted much sooner if you don’t.

4. Bonus ▶ Beyond the Basics

Learn how to build emergency snow shelters. I’ve used these on several occasions to avoid carrying a tent; a snow saw weighs much less. If an emergency does arise, you’ll be prepared. The CMC offers a variety of excellent courses to help you develop and build on the basic skills. Some of these cover basic mountaineering, high altitude mountaineering, backcountry skiing, technical ice climbing, and winter camping.

Colorado’s mountains in winter are to be respected, not feared. Develop the skills and you will have a much more rewarding and enjoyable experience.

5. Decisions, Decisions ▶ Making Choices for Winter Travel

In winter, trailheads are likely to be in a different spot than in the summer. This will influence your decision as to whether an objective can be reasonably accomplished in a day or not. Contact the appropriate U.S. Forest Service Ranger District (if in their jurisdiction) for current access information.

Likewise, your route will often be different than the summer route. Use your topographic map to evaluate a safe route, paying particular

Dave Cooper
Dave Cooper

attention to slopes above tree line. In winter, routes will primarily be along ridges, on flat terrain or on very steep terrain. Pay attention to the aspect of slopes and evaluate with regard to recent weather events and avalanche conditions. For example, high winds will likely transport snow onto lee slopes. Always check the weather forecast for the area you’re heading to, not the Denver forecast presented by a television personality.

Start with less-committing objectives. Choose easy ridges with short approaches, straightforward route finding, and low avalanche danger. As you gain new skills and confidence, you can progress to more challenging climbs.

For overnight trips, use your map to choose possible campsites. Good candidates in Colorado are often just below tree line, out of any avalanche paths and in a relatively flat area. Remember that a route that has too many objective hazards for a mid-winter attempt may be very reasonable as a late winter/spring trip after the snow has stabilized.

When it comes to mode of travel (flotation), decide whether to use skis or snowshoes based on the route, skill level of the group, and snow conditions. On routes such as Byers Peak, with long approaches on snow-covered roads or gentle trails, skis are my first choice. I learned early, however, that there are times when skis become a liability.

Trying to negotiate a steep, narrow trail or skiing slopes with changeable snow conditions, carrying a heavy pack, is more than I can handle. The “pile-driver effect” is particularly annoying—a split-second after you land face-first in the snow, the pack drives your face further into the snow bank. This is obviously related to your skill level. Skis can also become a liability when carrying them attached to your pack, say, on a narrow ridge. They’ll act like sails if there’s any wind. I’ve found that having a mixed group where some members are using skis while others use snowshoes does not work well.

With wise decisions, you’ll reap the just rewards.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 Issue (1005) of Trail & Timberline

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