Buyer’s Guide: Snowshoes for Mountaineering

Let’s not sugarcoat it. Snowshoeing can be a pleasurable pastime when the powder isn’t that deep or you’re following an established track. (Which, ironically, often means flotation isn’t even necessary.) When snowshoes are actually needed, it would be difficult to describe one’s relationship with the four-pound torture devices as anything less than abusive.

Breaking trail in untracked snow is about as enjoyable as slamming your hand in a car door, except you repeat it a few thousand times over a multi-hour outing. It’s tiring. It’s awkward. Your hip flexors hate you. You look like a big nerd. If you want to venture anywhere other than the most popular trails in winter, however, mountaineering snowshoes are a necessary evil.

Luckily for us, gear designers seem to understand how much snowshoeing sucks. Manufacturers in recent years have made incredible advancements in flotation technology. Nowadays, it’s more like just crushing your pinky instead of your entire hand. The negative effect is that the market has become saturated with dozens of different offerings, and it’s difficult for the uninitiated to understand what to purchase.

For the purposes of this guide, I’ve refrained from mentioning other less conniption-inducing flotation options. I doubt you’ll find anyone arguing that a backcountry ski setup isn’t worlds better than even the most advanced snowshoes, but skis require additional skill and at least six times the entry-level investment. Mountaineering snowshoes are also more versatile on steep, rocky alpine terrain. If you have $200, a pair of sturdy legs and an ample supply of self-loathing, they’ll take you anywhere you want to go.

Here are the factors to consider if you’re in the market for a new pair of mountaineering snowshoes:

Cost

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t skimp on price. Sure, you can get a great deal at Costco or Walmart or wherever, but those models will break at the first opportunity and provide a maximum misery factor: insecure bindings, poor traction, heavy weight. Plan to spend $200-300 for a pair from an established name brand. Not only will you appreciate the enhanced features, they’ll also last a decade or more.

Traction

Buy a pair with steel crampons, for durability and traction on both snow and ice. They should also have teeth running along the side edges for stability on uneven terrain. This is perhaps the most crucial feature of a mountaineering snowshoe. If your footing slips even a little, especially on steep slopes, you’re going to have a bad time. An added bonus is that snowshoes with aggressive traction can be used fluidly on slopes up to about 30 degrees, without the hassle of stopping to swap into traditional crampons or MICROspikes.

Length

This will depend entirely on your stature. If you’re a heavier person, you’ll need bigger snowshoes to stay afloat. That said, for longer days and vertical ascents, gear weight is at a premium. The MSR Evo line is fantastic in that you can get a shorter snowshoe — 22-25 inches — with removable 6-inch tails for deep powder days. I’m a 6’0” and 185-pound adult male, and I’ve never once regretted owning 22-inch snowshoes. Consider also that these loathful beasts will spend a significant amount of time riding on your back as you’re traversing dry, wind-swept or hard-packed terrain. The 30+ inch varieties might as well be five-pound windsails, if they fit on your pack at all.

Heel Lift

Snowshoeing is hard. Snowshoeing on high-angle terrain is harder. The idea behind a heel lift is to remove some of the awkward strain on your calves, and it’s far from just a novelty. Used appropriately, a heel lift can turn a steep straight-up sufferfest into a relative pleasure cruise. It basically cuts the required work of snowshoeing uphill in half. Plenty of great snowshoes exist without heel lifts, but if you plan to regularly do more than 1,000 feet of vertical, spring for a pair with this amazing and underrated feature.

Bindings

The snowshoes, obviously, have to stay on your feet. You should be able to comfortably wear them for hours without any slippage, including on steep and uneven ground. You’ll also be putting them on and taking them off all the freakin’ time, so make sure you can easily manipulate the straps. You should be able secure or remove a pair in 30-60 seconds, while wearing gloves. Each company has a different take on bindings. Play around with what works for you and your winter boots. Flexible straps that lay flat are a nice bonus for when you have to carry your snowshoes on your pack.

Durability

You can’t go wrong with higher-end models from any the major brands carried at dedicated gear shops. Look for an aluminum or plastic frame to ensure the snowshoes don’t shatter the first time you fall through trap-door snow and make friends with a rock. I’ve spent eight years abusing my MSR Evo Tours, which are pictured above and sadly discontinued. They’re showing no signs of wearing out despite frequent encounters with rocks, dirt and pavement.

The Winter 14ers “Game”: 2018-19 Kickoff

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.

Source 1 (Steve Gladbach)

Source 2 (Steve Gladbach)

Source 3 (14ers.com/Andrew Hamilton)

Related Content

5 Winter 14ers for Beginners

10 Things You Need to Know for Hiking in the Snow

5 Winter 14ers for Beginners

Often the most difficult aspect of committing to a big endeavor, such as climbing a 14,000-foot mountain in winter, is knowing where to start. It’s a common misconception for summer hikers that winter is off limits, a no-man’s-land of arctic temperatures, sheer ice faces and hourly avalanches. That’s simply not true. I previously wrote a basic overview for exploring the alpine in the so-called offseason, and now I’ll attempt to answer another oft-repeated question: Which peak(s) to try first?

As a disclaimer, none of these routes offer guaranteed safety. It’s imperative for anyone venturing into the winter backcountry to have at least a basic understanding and awareness of avalanche terrain. The stakes are also exponentially higher. More care needs to be given to gear selection, route knowledge, emergency preparedness and other safety precautions. A forced night out in the summer could be uncomfortable. A forced night out in the winter could be fatal.

I chose the following five mountains based on access, minimal avalanche danger, ease of routefinding and general popularity. Many others are doable as relatively safe winter daytrips. These are simply the lowest-hanging fruit.

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1. Quandary Peak

Winter Trailhead: Quandary (same as summer)
Winter Route: East Ridge (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 7 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,500’

When asked what’s the easiest 14er to attempt in the summer, an argument could be made for several different mountains. When the same question is asked for the winter months, there really is only one best answer. It’s Quandary Peak.

Quandary’s standard trailhead is right off Highway 9, which is consistently plowed. No extra effort is needed to reach the summer starting point. It’s also the most popular winter 14er, meaning there likely will be an established snow trench unless you’re climbing immediately after a major storm. Snowshoes are still recommended, but the need to break your own trail is rare. Staying on the ridge nearly negates avalanche danger except in extreme conditions, though venturing out onto the East Face can put you in harm’s way.

In short, if you hug the ridgeline, carry a bit of extra gear, have a good forecast, enjoy minor suffering and go in moderate or better avalanche conditions, Quandary isn’t much more challenging in winter than summer.

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2. Mt. Bierstadt

Winter Trailhead: Roughly 1.75 miles below Guanella Pass at the Guanella Pass Campground (Georgetown side)
Winter Route: West Slopes (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 10.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,800’

The only thing more difficult about Mt. Bierstadt in the winter is about three miles of road walking. The west-facing slopes harboring the summer route are often blown clear by intense winter winds, with lengthy segments of the trail exposed above treeline. Some avalanche danger is possible during part of the approach up the road, as well as while gaining the upper shoulder at around 12,000 feet. In most conditions, a safe line is apparent.

Many people try to save themselves a couple hundred feet of elevation gain by leaving the road early and making a beeline for Bierstadt without visiting the summit of Guanella Pass. I generally advise against this, as it takes you through a soul-sucking patch of willows. In my experience, it’s easier to stick to the road and suck up the minimal extra gain.

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3. Mt. Elbert

Winter Trailhead: South Mt. Elbert
Winter Route: East Ridge
Winter Mileage: 12.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,900’

See the other side of famous Mt. Elbert. The hardest route statistically on this list also comes with perhaps the lowest avalanche danger. Mt. Elbert’s broad and gentle East Ridge seldom gets steep enough to allow a slide. Like many winter routes, it starts with a two-mile stroll along a closed 4WD road before joining the South Mount Elbert Trail. In some seasons, especially early on, all or part of this road can be driven.

Prepare your mind for the upper portions of this hike. It includes several heartbreaking false summits. Combined with the incessant wind that almost always berates Colorado’s highest peak in the winter, this is as much an exercise in mental fortitude as it is physical endurance.

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4. Mt. Sherman

Winter Trailhead: About 2.5 miles short of the standard summer 4WD gate
Winter Route: South Slopes
Winter Mileage: 8.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,100’ to 3,500′, depending on parking area

Be careful on this popular winter peak. Avalanche-safe lines abound, but the danger is insidious. Venturing even a hundred feet in the wrong direction could put you in a slide area. Along with Quandary and Bierstadt, this is probably the most attempted winter route, due to its short length. I personally know at least three parties that have gotten caught in slides on this mountain. Avalanche terrain awareness and careful decision making are essential.

The starting point for this hike varies considerably. I’ve logged four attempts in winter and began from a different staging area each time. In general, plan to start about a mile below the Leavick site. Anything closer is a bonus. Walk the road to just before the summer 4WD gate, then veer right. The terrain here can be confusing and deceptive. Select a cautious line and make your way toward the obvious shallow gully to the right of the Mt. Sherman summit, targeting the broad plateau between Sherman and White Ridge.

It’s important to take this alternate route and not attempt to stay on the standard trail. Gaining the Sheridan-Sherman saddle on the summer path comes with considerable avalanche risk, including a large and reliable cornice.

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5. Pikes Peak

Winter Trailhead: Crags Campground
Standard Winter Route: Northwest Slopes
Winter Mileage: 14 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,300’

It would be hard for 14 miles to feel much shorter. This gentle route maintains an easy grade most of the way, with only a few steep sections. The popularity of the Crags area as a dayhike also means that a trench is a nearly permanent fixture. The upper portion of the hike, above Devil’s Playground, parallels the summit road. Because Pikes stands largely alone, it’s often subjected to blasting winds. Large sections of the wide, obvious trail above treeline were visible every time I’ve done this peak with snow.

In contrast with Mt. Evans, the road up Pikes Peak remains open year-round, weather permitting. It’s hard to express the sheer joy that’s felt while eating a donut and drinking hot chocolate in the confines of a brick shelter after seven miles hiking uphill in a subzero wind chill. It’s also hard to express the willpower that’s necessary to leave that shelter for the seven-mile hike down.