Sunset on Snowy Wilson Peak in The San Juan Mountain Range view from Alta Lake Road, Telluride, USA

Photo Credit: YayaErnst (iStock).

As snow starts to coat Colorado's mountains, many hikers are starting to consider winter climbs. A popular cold weather activity that doesn't require a lift ticket or reservation, winter hiking is appealing for a number of reasons. However, winter hiking in Colorado is not an activity that should be taken lightly due to a huge uptick in risk compared to its summer counterpart.

Here are a few basic things to keep in mind as you're planning your adventures. This article barely brushes the surface of these topics and additional research is required to partake in this activity safely.

Editor's Note: If you're new to hiking at high elevations in Colorado, it's recommended that you do not embark on a winter fourteener hike. This is an extremely dangerous sport that kills people every year. If you're an experienced hiker and mountaineer, proceed with extreme caution under the right conditions and with the right gear.

1. There will be fewer people on the route

While summer fourteener climbing often means long lines of hikers pushing toward the summit, this isn't the case during the winter. Even popular mountains can be sparsely traveled, making some dangerous situations that much more consequential. Make sure friends are aware of where you're headed and when you're expecting to be back and utilize safety tools like a GPS communication device to ensure that you can call for help if needed. It is strongly recommended that you do not travel alone.

2. Avalanche danger can be a huge risk

Even though you might plan on traveling an established trail, this doesn't mean that avalanche risk isn't there. Be highly aware of avalanche risk levels and strongly consider taking an avalanche safety course prior to embarking on any winter adventure in the backcountry. Avalanche awareness is crucial for not only your safety, but for the safety of others that might be on the mountain, as well.

3. Planning for the coldest of colds is crucial

While it's crucial to be aware of changing weather conditions during summer conditions, it's even more crucial to be aware and prepared for changing conditions during the winter. Plan for the coldest temperatures in the forecast and expect them to feel colder than that. Windchill and cloud coverage can cause massive temperature drops that can be deadly. Invest in good winter climbing gear and consult the experts at a Colorado gear shop. Generally, they'll be able to point you in the right direction.

4. Many winter hazards exist

Just like summer conditions, winter conditions come with their own set of unique hazards. From strong wind that can knock you off balance to whiteout conditions that can hide the trail, it's important to be prepared for a very different experience. Ice, snow, and frigid temperatures are all things to expect and prepare for.

5. A different route might be used

When winter conditions are present, a different route may be used to access the summit of the mountain. If a different route is recommended, take that advice. This winter route may be recommended to avoid a massive snow drift or extreme avalanche risk, among other reasons.

6. Trailhead access may be limited

Many high-elevation mountain roads have winter gates that close off access before the trailhead is reached. This can add several miles to some hikes and make some routes inaccessible.

7. Sometimes the route is there, sometimes it's not

Don't expect to follow footprints up the mountain. Snow can often cover any sign of a trail completely, making route finding in winter conditions a crucial skill to have. This might also mean that winter hikers need to break their own trail through fresh snow and ice.

8. Batteries will die

Cold weather can impact the battery life of digital devices. A batter can go from full to dead in a matter of seconds in some cases. Be prepared to survive the adventure without digital tools in the event that these items fail.

9. Turning around can save your life

In winter conditions, it's that much more crucial that you're prepared to turnaround prior to reaching the summit if that decision is essential to your safety. Not only can winter conditions make it more difficult to self-rescue from a dangerous situation, they also make it much more complicated and risky for search and rescue teams that may come to your assistance.

10. Winter climbing is extremely dangerous

The level of risk associated with winter high-elevation climbing is extreme. While some skills translate from summer climbing, many additional skills are required to climb fourteeners safely in the winter. Do not take this activity lightly. It can get you killed. Winter climbing can provide an amazing experience but it is absolutely crucial that you prepare and train to do so. Always prioritize safety.

Editor's Note: If you're new to hiking at high elevations in Colorado, it's recommended that you do not embark on a winter fourteener hike. This is an extremely dangerous sport that kills people every year. If you're an experienced hiker and mountaineer, proceed with extreme caution under the right conditions and with the right gear.

Director of Content and Operations

Spencer McKee manages the OutThere Colorado digital publication as the Director of Content and Operations. In his spare time, Spencer loves to rock climb, trail run, and mountain bike. Follow along with his adventures on Instagram at @spence.outside

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(1) comment

HalfPricePedi's

Don’t be like the two guys on Elbert in September who started late morning in Yeezy’s and jeans, didn’t look at the forecast of incoming snow and couldn’t be rescued until the next morning...

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