Hiking a 14er — a trail that climbs to an elevation of 14,000 feet — can seem like an insurmountable task in and of itself. So can snowshoeing any trail with elevation gain. Combining the two might seem ludicrous, but when done right, it’s worth it.
The most common time of year to hike 14ers is July through September, and for good reason. The snow, ice and winter storms present outside this small seasonal window can cause the trail to become hazardous, fast. Which is why it might seem odd that when a friend of mine asked if I wanted to snowshoe a 14er with her one February several years ago, I said yes.
14er Fail: A Near Death Experience on Mt. Bierstadt
Before I get into the “dos” of hiking a 14er in the winter, I want to take you through an experience that taught me a few “don’ts”. And that includes a hike that ended with a friend and I questioning our likeliness to survive.
Mt. Bierstadt is considered one of the easiest 14ers in Colorado. The trail leading to the 14,060 foot summit is a 3.5 mile trek that features 2,850 feet of elevation gain. With this in mind, we geared up for the added winter component and took off.
We didn’t factor in that the hike to the trailhead would need to start from this popular trail’s lower parking lot due to a snow-blocked road, adding more miles and more elevation. In an attempt to offset the length, we opted for a shortcut. But the shortcut involved breaking trail in knee-deep snow.
Exhaustion set in before we even reached the trail.
In what seemed like a smart move, we decided to pack water bottles instead of hydration bladders since it was likely water would freeze in the bladders’ hoses, rendering them useless. You can only imagine our disappointment when we realized the water bottle lids attached themselves to the bottles themselves through the power of ice. And the precious water within those bottles was freezing from the top down.
Our snacks were also freezing, forcing us to sacrifice our teeth so our bodies could take in the much-needed calories from Cliff Bars and fruit snacks. After eating everything we had packed during the first half of the trail, we realized we didn’t have nearly enough food for the energy we were expending.
Hungry and dehydrated, we kept pushing toward the summit.
We finally discussed whether or not to continue about 200 yards from Bierstadt’s peak. My friend wasn’t feeling well, and her toes were numb. I also wasn’t feeling the best, but seeing how close we were to the top had re-energized me.
“I know we could do it,” my friend said, “It’s right there. But we need to think about the hike back.”
She was right. As crummy as we felt going up, reaching the summit would only mark the halfway point of the hike. And the combination of gusting winds and steep terrain was making for a slow-moving hike. So we turned around.
The closer we got to the car, the worse we felt.
Both certain that passing out was in our near future, worst case, how-would-I-handle-this-situation thoughts raced through our heads. It wasn’t until later we realized we were both thinking through emergency plans; in the moment all of our energy went toward encouraging each other to at least make it back to cell-phone range.
When the car was in sight, my friend and I took a moment to collect ourselves, resting our weight on our trekking poles. Two cheery, older women just starting their hike asked if we were alright and offered us Gatorade powder. While this was thoughtful, what we really needed was water, so we waved them off.
Back in town we scarfed burgers and started feeling farther from the brink of death. So we started planning our next attempt to snowshoe Mt. Bierstadt.
How to Snowshoe a 14er: 7 Tips for a Safe Winter Summit Hike
Alright. On to the “dos” of hiking a 14er in the winter. If you just can’t shake the urge to bag peaks during the winter months, doing so in snowy conditions can be fun. Just be sure to take extra safety precautions and pack accordingly.
1. Choose an Easy Route
Hikes that might seem easy to you in the summer become a different beast in the winter. Keep this in mind when choosing a snowshoe route. Easier 14ers and summit climbs are smart because they often don’t feature terrain that’s above class 2 hiking. In other words, the trails won’t be as exposed, meaning you should be able to hike them in the winter months without technical climbing gear.
2. Check Conditions
Before hiking a 14er in the summer, it’s smart to check weather conditions. When hiking a 14er in the winter, you need to keep avalanche conditions in mind, as well. Sites like 14ers.com, summitpost.org and mountainforecast.com all feature up-to-date weather and avalanche conditions. It’s a good rule of thumb to start your hike early enough so you can start descending at noon to avoid storms and changing conditions.
3. Bundle Up
Sure, mountains look pretty from a distance, but standing on top of one can be a real punch in the face. This is especially true during the winter, with cold, gusting winds sending snow in all directions. Dress accordingly.
Here’s a quick list of what to wear:
- Warm base layers — Choose wool, merino wool or silk; NOT cotton.
- Warm mid layers — Merino wool and fleece work well. Again, avoid cotton.
- A waterproof winter coat or a layering system that includes a waterproof shell
- Snowpants or gaiters, depending on conditions
- Waterproof mittens or gloves
- A balaclava, warm Buff, neck gaiter or scarf
- Ski goggles (trust me on this one)
- Warm, waterproof winter boots or hiking boots
- Snowshoes or microspikes, depending on trail conditions
- Ski or hiking poles — Not a thing you wear, but a thing you need. Even if you don’t usually hike with poles.
4. Pack Water — the Right Way
One of our 14er fails on the snow-covered Mt. Bierstadt was not being able to access our water. While our fears of freezing hydration bladder hoses weren’t wrong, we didn’t exactly follow through on the best way to pack water on winter hikes.
Many hydration packs meant for winter sports feature insulated hoses on bladders. This would be my number one choice since the freeze factor is low and hydrating yourself is convenient. If you don’t have an insulated hydration bladder, it might still be in your best interest to use one that isn’t insulted. Here’s a fun hack to avoid freezing: blow it out your hose. After you take a sip, simply blow hose water back into the reservoir.
Water bottles aren’t as convenient as hydration packs, but if you choose to pack water bottles, do it right. Store them upside down so the water closest to the mouth freezes last. Or if your coat has an inner pouch large enough for your water, place it there and let your body heat prevent the freezing.
5. Load up on Food
Our second biggest winter 14er fail was not packing enough food. We packed for a summer hike, not taking into account the additional calories we’d burn in the winter. Just working to stay warm is a calorie burner. Add heavy outerwear, deep snow and a hefty elevation gain, and you’ve got yourself a real workout. Pack accordingly. Consider your food’s freeze-factor, as well. Packing soft bars or chewy foods that won’t become edible rocks can make fueling up on the trail a little easier.
6. Expect the Unexpected
As beautiful as snow is, it can throw a wrench in your hiking plans. Prepare to be flexible in your hike. A closed road could lead to extra miles. Fresh snow might hide a clear path. An unexpected storm could put an end to the hike. Brush up on your navigation skills and make a bail plan with your partner if you start to feel uncomfortable on the hike. It might be smart to snowshoe a 14er you’ve hiked in the past so you are at least familiar with the route if conditions take a turn for the worse.
7. Check in with Your Hiking Partner Frequently
It’s important to check in with your hiking partner(s) on any sort of route, but this is especially true in the winter. Snow and cold can turn a minor situation into a major one, fast. While my partner and I probably should have turned around sooner during our Bierstadt adventure, our decision to not push to the top was made together. Check in often to see how your partner is feeling, and be sure to speak up if numb digits or other discomforts start affecting your hike. Safety should always be the priority. Don’t be afraid to turn back if someone in your crew just isn’t feeling it.
Hiking a 14er in the winter can be a magical experience. Take a little extra time to prepare, then get out there and have fun!