It happens every week during the shoulder seasons on 14ers-related websites and social media groups. Some poor, unsuspecting soul will ask for beta on a winter 14er climb coming up in November or share a glory shot from their claimed winter 14er summit in April. They barely have a chance to refresh their page before the legions of frosty veterans are vying to see who can scream “BUT IT’S NOT REALLY WINTER” the loudest.
With calendar winter beginning today, Friday, Dec. 21, it’s the perfect time to give a brief rundown of what exactly counts as a winter 14er, strictly speaking, and why anyone even cares.
First, the basics. The window used by most mountaineers who pursue winter 14er summits begins on the winter solstice in mid-December and ends on the spring equinox in mid-March. The exact day and time of these events varies from year to year. For 2018-2019, calendar winter will run from 3:23 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21 until 3:58 p.m. Wednesday, March 20.
If you want to check that little box on your 14ers.com peak list that says Calendar Winter Ascent, you shouldn’t leave your vehicle for a hike until one minute after the winter solstice, and you should return to your vehicle at least one minute before the spring equinox. If you climb Mt. Elbert on March 20, but get back to your car at 4 p.m., some would argue it doesn’t count. You can also only drive as far as your on-highway vehicle will take you. The winter trailhead for many peaks is a moving target, depending on road closures due to snowfall and other factors such as mining operations. Get as close to the summer trailhead as your lifted Toyota Tacoma legally allows, but ATVs and snowmobiles are considered cheating.
Why? Because the first couple guys who summited all the 14ers in winter said so.
Though Carl Blaurock and Bill Ervin became the world’s first 14er finishers way back in 1923, it wasn’t until 1992 that Tom Mereness accomplished the same feat within the confines of calendar winter. His contemporary Jim Bock followed in 1997, and together they laid the groundwork for the winter 14er list. Obviously anyone is free to climb in whatever style they choose — peakbagging is an intensely personal pursuit — but the parameters they set are widely accepted in the Colorado hiking community.
Aron Ralston (yes, that Aron Ralston, of 127 Hours fame) upped the ante in 2005, when he completed the original list of 58 winter 14ers and added North Massive as a 59th summit. Ralston also climbed every peak solo, an almost incomprehensible feat of stamina. The decision behind counting North Massive, and why the answer to “how many 14ers are there in Colorado?” can range from 53 to 72, is a discussion for another day. The important factor here is that subsequent winter climbers have generally followed Ralston’s precedent, and the most common winter 14er list now includes 59 peaks.
No rules exist against “trench poaching,” which refers to the act of targeting peaks that were recently attempted by other climbers. Utilizing an existing snowshoe trench or ski track requires only a fraction of the effort of breaking your own trail. Making a habit of trench poaching, however, is a surefire way to earn a reputation within the small faction of dedicated winter mountaineers.
In recent years, that fringe community is growing precipitously. This is due to several factors: Colorado’s population growth, an increasing nationwide interest in outdoor recreation, a trend of dry winters, and information sharing on websites and social media. (This includes jerks like me with blogs like this.) The 2011(ish) addition of a 14ers.com tracking tool for Calendar Winter Ascents, known colloquially as “snowflakes” because of the badge that displays on your user profile, also coincided with the well-publicized journey of the fourth winter 14er finisher, Steve Gladbach. (If you haven’t read Steve’s canon of trip reports and forum posts, set aside half a day over the upcoming holiday weekend and treat yourself. He is sorely missed.)
The result is that, as of the end of the 2017-18 season, approximately 14 men and one woman have completed the winter 14er list. This includes Andrew Hamilton, who became the first to summit all 59 in a single season last year. (He included North Massive as an homage to those who came before, but stated his public belief that the list of 58 is best.) Another four people are within striking distance of finishing this year, and at least eight others are more than halfway done.
That’s it. Those are the guidelines. Do you have to follow them? No, not really. Some people use meteorological winter instead of calendar winter as their window, which is December 1 through March 1. Others count anything that has winter conditions (read: snow, cold and wind) as a winter summit, regardless of date. Many of the rules laid out above are hotly debated. It’s up to each individual to define their own goals and ethics. But, the fact stands that if you want to join the exclusive club established by Mereness, Bock, Ralston and Gladbach, you have to play by their rules.