Don't be fooled by dry trails in your Colorado hometown – the highest peaks of the state are still very snowy, presenting a number of deadly risks that can't be underestimated. If you're headed out to hike Colorado's fourteeners, know that you'll need to utilize your winter hiking set-up for at least a few more weeks.
Each spring, a flood of hikers head to fourteener-based forums around the web to start inquiring about trail conditions on the long list of peaks the rise above 14,000 feet. Anxious to get their summer hiking started, these hikers are chomping at the bit to add more summits to their collection. In most cases, the best answer for these hikers is to wait until June or July before hitting trails above treeline – unless a hiker is capable of tackling a strenuous hike in snowy conditions.
With snow often persistent above treeline in Colorado into June, many hazards typically associated with winter remain on the trail in the spring.
Avalanche hazard remains a risk, as does frigid weather and strong winds above treeline. While some days may seem more favorable, it's important to remember that a few warm days aren't enough to clear the trail of snow. Always check the CAIC avalanche risk report and the Mountain-Forecast.com forecast prior to any adventure. It's also important to stay up-to-date with recent weather in the area in days prior to a hike.
Another springtime aspect of mountain climbing is the texture of the snow. While winter fourteener hiking typically means extremely cold and dry snow conditions, springtime hiking means traveling through wet and heavy snow with a top layer that's easy to penetrate come warmer afternoon temperatures. This creates an exhausting post-holing scenario that can be draining enough, in itself, to have hikers calling for help.
Warmer springtime temperatures also increase the risk of sun exposure. It's easy to stay bundled-up during colder winter conditions, but as Colorado heats up in the spring, this may mean shedding layers while trekking across snowy slopes. Sunlight reflects off the slope and, given the higher elevation of a fourteener hike, it's more powerful. This makes applying sunblock that much more important, with this sun exposure also a factor that can contribute to exhaustion.
To those headed out on Colorado's fourteeners this spring, here are a few tips:
- Be prepared to face various elements of winter lingering in the mountains, including, but not limited to, snow, ice, strong winds, powerful sunlight, and frigid temperatures.
- Pack layers that allow you to control your body temperature to avoid overheating or getting dehydrated. A cold morning is likely to turn into a hot afternoon and you need to be ready for both scenarios.
- Bring along a GPS communication and tracking device. Something like the Garmin inReach Explorer will make tracking your position on a snowy route much easier, also allowing you to call for help, if needed. Remember, it doesn't take much blowing snow to cover tracks and many winter and spring climbs lead hikers off-trail and through the snow. This can be an easy way to get lost.
- Snow-related gear that might be needed includes, but is not limited to, snowshoes, crampons, snow spikes, mountaineering axe, and protective eyewear. It's important to know how to use this gear prior to getting to the trail. Don't just toss it in the bag and go for it.
- Always check the weather and avalanche risk before your adventure, but also be aware of what weather has moved through the area in recent days and weeks.
- Be aware of your physical ability. Hiking is much more strenuous when there's snow on the ground and your winter pack will likely weigh a bit more than your summer pack.
- Turn back if it's the right call. The summit will be there another day. If you get on the mountain and realize you're not quite ready for a springtime hike, turn around and try again in a couple months when conditions are more predictable and consistent.
In summary, springtime fourteener hiking probably isn't the safest call for most of Colorado's fourteener baggers. However, it's also very appealing to some climbers, myself included. Like any outdoor recreation experience, a big part of safe participation is managing risks through effective preparation.
If you're heading out on a fourteener trail this spring, proceed with caution. Always let someone know where you're headed and when you'll be back.
Looking to skip springtime conditions altogether? Plan a hike for July. Typically, trails are clear of problematic snow and ice by then.
Looking to help support Colorado's volunteer-driven search and rescue effort? Consider purchasing a CORSAR card here. One year of support via this method costs just $3.
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