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Illustration by Sean Parsons.

How to (Safely) Summit Fourteeners During Winter

It’s colder and harder than in the summer, but also more beautiful and (best of all) far less crowded—as long as you adequately prepare.

The growing popularity of outdoor recreation and Colorado’s surging population have led to more diehards striving for the state’s loftiest summits during our coldest months—when they’re even more striking and not crowded by hikers. With winter fourteener season running from mid-December till the spring equinox (March 20 this year), you have a few more weeks to follow in their footprints. However, cold-weather climbs are more demanding than summertime attempts, so use this guide to ensure you summit safely.

Pre-Climb Checklist

1. At the Trailhead

Rise early: Breaking trail through snow takes at least twice as long as hiking a dry trail; plan to leave your car at 4 or 5 a.m. for excursions in the 15-mile range and 7 a.m. for shorter treks like Quandary (seven miles round-trip). Also: Dirt roads leading to fourteeners are rarely plowed, meaning you might need to hike a few miles just to reach the trailhead.

Let there be light: For navigating the predawn dark, carry a powerful, durable headlamp, like Black Diamond’s Storm, as well as an emergency spare and extra batteries.

Cache your food: Stash snacks—enough fare to eat at least once an hour—in an inner jacket pocket, using body heat to keep them from freezing.

2. Below Treeline

Shed your threads: Deeper snow leads to added exertion and, thus, sweat. If possible, strip to a shell, a fleece, or a synthetic T-shirt (stay away from moisture-holding cotton) to avoid soaking through your clothes. Wet garb is dangerous in the wind-ripped world above treeline.

Observe the right way: Knowing how to use a map and compass is essential to ensure you stay on the correct trail. Just in case: The Gaia GPS app provides navigation tools that work on your smartphone without cell service.

3. Above Treeline

Armor up: To guard against windburn above treeline—about 11,000 feet at Quandary—cover every inch of exposed skin. We’re talking balaclava, ski goggles, waterproof mittens (which retain heat far better than gloves) lined with synthetic insulation, and, of course, bountiful layers.

Don new kicks: The upside of howling wind? It blows snow off the mountain, allowing you to ditch snowshoes for lightweight Kahtoola Microspikes. The downside? It leads to greater avalanche danger, so be vigilant.

4. At the Peak

Soak up the solitude: From June through mid-October, about 334,000 hikers attempt to summit fourteeners. Quandary sees only 22 visitors on an average winter Saturday. Translation: Enjoy the alone time; you’ve worked plenty hard to get it. That being said…

Don’t dally: Getting down usually takes half as long as the ascent. With the winter sunset arriving as early as 4:40 p.m. in Summit County, though, you should turn around no later than early afternoon—whether you make the peak or not.

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