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.

7 Ways to Hike with Your Dog Off Leash (and Not Be a Jerk)

(Note: This article is specific to 14ers and other backcountry zones. I’m always for keeping dogs leashed in crowded foothills/city parks, especially if mountain bikers are present, with the exception of dedicated off-leash areas.) 

It’s one of the most heated debates during summer 14er season. Multiple times every year, an online wildfire ignites as people argue the merits and horrors of hiking with off-leash dogs. On one side are the anti-canine crusaders who cite laws and regulations, biting incidents, dog-on-dog aggression, jumping, food stealing, wildlife harassment, safety, tundra trampling and general annoyance as among the reasons to keep canines on leash or leave them at home altogether. In the other camp are the dog-lovers who roll their eyes at the aforementioned blowhards as they happily let their twin huskies Dollop and Mr. Sprinkles chase pikas all the way up Grays Peak.

Obviously, those are the extremes. Most trail users fall somewhere in the middle. The truth of it is, there’s no going back. We live in Colorado. Coloradans have dogs. Coloradans swarm the mountains. With the exception of the most difficult summits, the likelihood of hiking a 14er in 2015 and not seeing at least a dozen off-leash canines is pretty slim. The issue isn’t going away unless a peak steward is stationed at 500-foot intervals on every trail in the state. I doubt even that would help. The anti-dog crowd can scream about leash laws all they want, but it’s ignoring the reality.

So, how can the gun-toting dog hunters and Susie’s gaggle of mountaineer pugs coexist?

It’s important to note that while many areas do require a leash, in others owners are only obligated to have voice restraint. Not many people are aware that leash laws aren’t ubiquitous. Whether or not you choose to abide by them, know the rules and regulations of the area in which you’re hiking. If you’re a dog owner, prioritize the places where off-leash romping is legal. The guidelines included in this blog, however, also apply to those areas.

Anyone that knows me, or can view these pictures, knows the side of this debate on which I fall. Regardless, trails are a public space that attract people from all walks of life. I respect the right of everyone to spend a day in the mountains free from annoyance and fear, just like I enjoy the ability to hike with my four-legged adventure buddy. As with most raging debates in the hiking community, the solution doesn’t have to be that hard.

(Hint: Everything can be resolved with mutual respect. In short, don’t be an ass.)

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1. Train, Train, Train

Put in the effort to raise a well behaved dog or don’t let it off leash in the mountains. It’s that simple. A mountain dog should come when called, stay mostly on trail, exercise restraint around wildlife or other pups, not jump or get underfoot, not beg for food, show no aggression and, yes, walk comfortably on a leash when the situation warrants. Every dog has its quirks, despite any amount of training. It’s the owner’s job to understand, assess and manage those behaviors to avoid a conflict.

Some dogs are just not meant to be around other dogs or people without a leash. That’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. No one knows your dog better than you. Be honest with yourself about your pup’s tendencies and make responsible decisions.

2. Your Dog Is Not Perfect

You’ve had Grumblebutt since he was an 8-week old puppy. You’ve spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars on training. He’s under tight voice control. He doesn’t jump or chase animals. He can solve basic math problems, walk your cats, cook Easy Mac, set up a tent and bag his own poop.

Guess what? He still does something that will make someone else out there uncomfortable. Don’t fall into the all-too-common mindset that your pup can do no wrong. Always be willing to admit that Grumblebutt’s tendency to pee on the legs of teenagers might be frowned upon, and act accordingly to control your dog. (Unless said teenagers have a selfie stick, in which case it would be deserved.)

As a more serious scenario, I know several hikers who are afraid of dogs as a result of a previous attack. Grumblebutt might fart rainbows and occasionally sprout angel wings, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a living nightmare to a stranger. You love your dog and everything about him. Not everyone else does. Practice some empathy.

3. Exercise Common Sense

Are you and off-leash Capt. Cuddles approaching an on-leash German Shepherd with his hackles up and a straight tail? How about a family with a small child that acts fearful and hides behind her mother’s legs? A bearded redneck with a Duck Dynasty vest and his finger on the trigger of one of four barely concealed pistols? A skittish horse? A herd of mountain goats?

Call your dog to your side, put her on a leash and give a wide berth. Once you’re clear, Capt. Cuddles can happily go back to running 15 feet ahead of you, plopping down, and licking her genitals while giving you side-eye.

If you’re on a trail that’s crowded enough that this is happening every 30 seconds, such as an Open Space park or a Front Range 14er in July, just keep the dog on leash. It’ll be less annoying for everyone involved.

4. Keep the Leash Handy

I use a dog pack that includes a harness attachment. It’s easy enough to keep a leash clipped on and shoved into a a pocket, where it’s out of the way but easy to grab. That way, when you encounter scenarios like those just mentioned, there’s no time wasted in securing the pup. If you’re a slave to your dog and not making it carry its own food and water, keep a leash in your hand or slung around your shoulder for immediate access.

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5. Communicate with Other Trail Users

This applies to both pro- and anti-dog hikers.

“Is your dog friendly?”
“Can you leash your dog while we pass?”
“Is Sgt. Snuggles bothering you?”

Hey, that was almost too easy.

6. Know the Truth About Dog Poop

Wild animal scat is 100-percent biodegradable. Dog poop is not, largely because most domestic pets eat a cheap and unnatural diet. Dog feces can also contain harmful diseases that are transmittable to other animals or even humans.

You might still be 8 miles from the car while Sir Poopsalot just had the canine equivalent of beer shits, but you should still bag it and pack it out.

There’s also no such thing as a Poop Fairy. No mythical creature is following you around and picking up the soggy bags you left on the side of the trail. This is another bonus of making your dog wear a pack — they can carry their own crap. Literally.

7. Understand the Risks

Dogs die or get seriously injured in the mountains on a regular basis. Something as “cute” as a marmot or mountain goat can kill even a large dog. Your best friend will try to follow you anywhere, even across a knife-edge ridge or up a steep snow gully. They don’t understand the hazards. They just want to be close to you, the center of their world. It’s heartbreaking that every year dogs die from heatstroke, falls, animal attacks, or other hiking-related incidents. They didn’t choose to be there. You made that choice for them.

I’m not saying to always leave dogs at home. Anyone who’s seen a happy pup running free in the mountains knows the rewards can outweigh the risks. Owners simply must put the wellbeing of their dog above their own ambition. In general, I don’t bring dogs on anything more difficult than easy Class 3 rock or 35-degree snow. That’s my personal comfort level. Every individual and every dog is different. Also, carry a dog first aid kit and consider an LED collar or reflective vest for low-light situations.

IMG_2615Now, can’t we all just get along? Dog lovers and dog haters can indeed peacefully coexist, it just takes a little effort and human decency. Happy trails!

11 Tips for Hiking 14ers Like a Grown Up

1. THE INFORMATION IS OUT THERE

Don’t ask for information on Quandary’s East Ridge in August. There’s no faster way to rile up the masses. If you have a question about the 14ers, it’s already been posed and answered at least a dozen times. Invest energy in doing your own research. I promise, it’s more fulfulling. The search function on the 14ers.com forum is easy to use, and there are thousands of archived trip reports containing everything you need to know. Nearly a half-dozen guidebooks specific to the 14ers exist. Pick one (or several) and read them. Still have a question? Frame it in a thoughtful, intelligent way and post it on the 14ers.com forum or Facebook group. The answers will arrive within minutes.

2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK

I can’t emphasize this enough. Whether it’s arrogance or naivety, too many people head into the backcountry with little to no information. Study your intended route. Read trip reports. A shockingly large number of accidents are caused by hikers getting off-route, and it’s heartbreaking that many of these are avoidable. Fancy GPS units with programmed waypoints are a nice supplement, but they’re not a replacement for genuine knowledge and intuition. A map is essential. There’s no excuse for not carrying one — free software such as Caltopo.com is readily available for easy printing.

3. BE SELF SUFFICIENT

Traveling in groups is a double-edged sword. Yes, there’s an added measure of safety. The dynamics can also lead to a false sense of security. Regardless of party size, always ask yourself: “Could I make it up and down this mountain on my own, survive a night out if I become stranded, and somehow get the attention of Search & Rescue if necessary?” If the answer is no, pick another objective.

Carry and know how to use the 10 Essentials. Either bring more water than you think you’ll need or a purification system. Most 14er routes cross or follow streams — if you do your homework (hinthint), you’ll know where to find them. If you don’t want to invest in or haul a traditional filter, iodine tablets are cheap and weigh next to nothing. Sure, they taste terrible, but that’s preferable to dehydration.

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4. START EARLY

Yeah, that 5 a.m. alarm sucks. It’s also your ticket to safety and success. A summer afternoon free of thunderstorms is rare in the Colorado high country. The risk of death via lightning may be overblown, but no one that’s been caught above treeline in a thunderstorm is jumping to repeat the experience. For most 14er routes I aim to start at first light, which generally comes between 6-7 a.m. I’ll start earlier for high-mileage days. Just get up and go. Missing out on an hour of sleep is better than having to turn around or putting yourself in a life-threatening situation.

5. LEAVE NO TRACE

I wish I was kidding, but last summer I saw a group hitting golf balls off Grays Peak. People have left lawn chairs, grills, toasters, flags and even human excrement on summits. On top of these extravagant affronts, there’s the routine garbage such as food wrappers and discarded summit signs. The Front Range is attracting more and more people, and the overcrowding on 14ers is only going to get worse. Respect the resource; leave the backcountry as you found it. Take your summit signs down with you (or better yet, don’t bring them in the first place), remove your trash, dispose properly of human waste, camp responsibly, follow Wilderness and Forest Service guidelines and most importantly, don’t be a golf ball-hitting jackass.

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6. RESPECT OTHER TRAIL USERS

We all hike for our own reasons, using our own methods. Want to smoke pot, let your dog off leash or blast music from a portable speaker? I’m not going to turn you in to the fun police — as long as you aren’t disturbing the experience of other hikers. Leash the dog if it’s being a nuisance, find a spot off trail to smoke and turn down the music when you see other people approaching. If someone is faster than you, let them pass. Give a brief greeting to people heading the opposite direction and yield the trail if necessary. (The general agreement is that uphill hikers have the right-of-way, but most of them won’t pass up a chance to stop for a breather. Communicate.) Mutual respect really isn’t that hard.

7. THE MOUNTAIN ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE

Smart decision making is not synonymous with failure. Many hikers consider it a point of pride to have only turned back “X number of times” because of weather, fatigue or other factors. It’s not. There’s more honor in good judgment than putting yourself in a dangerous situation to tag a meaningless summit. Listen to your body. Trust your instincts. Watch the sky. Turn around if necessary and return to the mountain when conditions are more favorable. Not only will you reduce the risks, I guarantee you’ll also have a more enjoyable summit.My first time on Capitol I called it quits at the subsummit “K2″ because of slick rock, cloudy skies and a forecast that called for an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms after 9 a.m. Most of my party continued on, summited in a whiteout and safely returned to camp. The lightning started soon after. I returned three weeks later on a warm, cloudless day. Even with the benefit of hindsight and knowing my friends experienced no major issues on the first trip, I’d make that same decision 10 out of 10 times. You can only toss so many dice before you roll snake eyes.

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8. PUT EFFORT INTO A TRIP REPORT

Title: “Mt. Quandry – East Ridge”
Pictures: 3 (one rotated off-axis)
Words: “We climbed Quandry yesterday. It was crowded. Dan had a peanut butter sandwich on the summit. I could see Pike’s Peak. On the way down I tripped on a loose rock. Overall the hike was fun.”

Would you want to read that? No one else does, either.

(It’s Quandary Peak, by the way. Mt. Lindsey. Longs Peak. Pikes Peak. Mt. Bierstadt. Grays Peak. Torreys Peak.)

Writing a trip report should be fun. Don’t make it work, you’re not getting paid for it. Relive your experience and inject some energy into the content. Tell the story of your hike. Include personal anecdotes, or if that’s not your thing, provide unique details about the route and trail conditions. Trip reports are personal endeavors. Photographer with no interest in writing? Share a photo essay. English major with nothing but a flip-phone camera? Stretch that sucker out to 1,500 words. Bottom line, make the report interesting. Consider your audience and what they want to see, know and hear — then deliver.

9. SHARE THE STOKE

Whether you took a vacation from sea level to hike Mt. Sherman or just jogged Capitol Peak as a daytrip, you’ve just notched an awesome life accomplishment. Celebrate it. Share your photos on Facebook. Write a trip report or blog post. Blow up Instagram for a week. It’s OK to be proud of yourself. More importantly, fellow hikers will benefit from your reports on conditions, the route and the overall experience. It’s easy for veteran climbers to forget what it was like to try their first summit, first Class 3 or first couloir. It’s always on to the next challenge, with little time for the rear-view mirror. Forget ’em. For every blowhard rolling their eyes at your accomplishment, there are 10 people who will find it inspiring.

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10. STAY HUMBLE

You are not a special snowflake. Regardless what you’ve accomplished, many people came before and many more will follow. Narcissism is a widespread disease in the climbing community. It’s a constant game of oneupsmanship. An impressive climbing resume does not make you an awesome person. To be honest, no one except you cares. Even if you’ve finished the 14ers and climbed Denali, it’s not an excuse to talk down to or consider yourself above a fellow human being. Mountaineering often serves as a cornerstone for a climber’s sense of personal worth, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t embrace those self-esteem boosts. They’re awesome. Just don’t let your head get lost in the clouds. It happens all too often.

11. ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE

There is no parade or world-shattering epiphany when you finish the 14ers. Life beats on as it always has. You get a little street cred, a certificate from the Colorado Mountain Club and a sentence for the “Other” section of your resume. That’s about it. So, what’s the rush? Swap those three-peak sufferfest weekends for setting up camp in Yankee Boy Basin and climbing only Mt. Sneffels. Breathe the mountain air, observe the wildflowers, linger on campfire conversations, pause to ponder the world under a twinkling blanket of stars. Those are the moments you’ll remember, not your round-trip time on Pyramid Peak.

Top 5 Colorado Mountain Towns (for Dirtbag Climbers)

One of the biggest perks of pursuing 14ers and 13ers is having an excuse to range far and wide across Colorado. Little towns that even natives haven’t heard of become favorite haunts, complete with their hole-in-the-wall restaurants, obscure festivals, historic sites, quirky attractions, sunny patios and small-batch breweries. When you exit ski country, you enter the real Colorado.

I’m daunted by even the thought of trying to tally how many road miles I’ve logged in-state over the past four years. Hiking and climbing nearly every weekend, let’s just say I’ve gotten to know Colorado fairly well. The only criteria I have for the following list is the question, “Which towns do I look forward to visiting, time and again, even as much as the surrounding summits?” This mostly boils down to mountain access, nearby free camping areas and quality of local restaurants and breweries.

1. Ouray

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The undisputed champ. Any ranking of Colorado mountain towns that doesn’t start with Ouray is invalid. It has the world-famous Ouray Ice Park; access to the most beautiful mountains in the state, including the 14er Mt. Sneffels; several hot springs; affordable lodging and tons of camping; a smorgasboard of charming coffee shops and restaurants; and my second-favorite brewery in Colorado. For those of you exclaiming how much you also love the Ouray Brewery — pipe down. That place is serviceable, but the Ourayle Brewery, also known as the Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewery, blows it out of the water. The fact that most people go to Ouray Brewery and overlook Ourayle just adds to its allure. Ourayle has what I’d argue is the best atmosphere of any bar in the state — as long as you can appreciate sarcasm and take a joke. Also, don’t be a Beermadonna. Other awesome establishments include O’Brien’s, Backstreet Bistro, Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee and Goldbelt Bar & Grill.

2. Durango

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I placed Durango here largely because of its size. It’s a mountain town big enough that the average city-dweller would feel comfortable living there, at least for a year or two. It has all the amenities, a large regional airport, raucous nightlife and enough climbing to occupy several lifetimes. It’s also the basecamp for most everyone venturing into the recesses of the Weminuche, Colorado’s best wilderness area. I mentioned Ourayle as my second-favorite brewery, and the only one to top it — Ska Brewing — resides in Durango. Steamworks also has great beer in addition to some of the best pub food I’ve ever tasted. A trio of top-notch outdoor shops, dueling sushi restaurants, a hidden used bookstore and a variety of watering holes solidify Durango’s ranking.

3. Buena Vista/Salida

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I know, I know, they’re technically two separate towns. From a climber’s perspective, they’re one and the same. The surrounding Sawatch Mountains are regarded by most hikers as boring lumps of talus, but there are a lot of them, and the towns at their foot are a dirtbag’s dream. There’s so much dispersed camping in the area I find a new spot nearly every time I visit. The presence of Elevation Beer Co., Eddyline Brewing and the Boathouse Cantina make choosing an apres-climb stop difficult. Best of all, this area is only two hours from Denver. These are the two mountain towns I find myself in most often, and you won’t catch me complaining.

4. Lake City

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This town could be described as Ouray’s little brother, and that’s not a bad thing. What Lake City lacks in size and amenities, it more than makes up for in character. This town has a fledgling ice park complete with an annual Ice Festival the first weekend of February. It’s one of the highlights of my winter. Whereas the Ouray Ice Festival is a bit of a spectacle, the Lake City Ice Festival is a grassroots gathering of the tribe for beginners and crushers alike. Though Lake City tends to be overrun with Texans in the summer, it’s worth wading through the sea of ATVs for access to many of the state’s best high peaks. There’s limitless free camping in the area, and even a hostel for the dirtbag with delicate sensibilities. Must-stop establishments include Poker Alice and Packer Saloon.

5. Silver Cliff/Westcliffe

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These sister-towns are the gateway to the east side of the Sange de Cristo Range. There honestly aren’t many notable attractions within the city limits, but the views are breathtaking, the amount of nearby trailheads is nearly overwhelming and Tony’s Mountain Pizza has the best pies I’ve yet to find in Colorado. You could literally spend weeks in this area camping for free, hiking a quality 13er or 14er every day and refueling with a different pizza every night. Once someone opens a brewery here, it’s game over, man. Anyone want to throw in with me?

Notable omissions, with reasoning:

Estes Park: Flooded with tourists, lack of free dispersed camping areas, fee required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, only one (overloved) 14er and you have to go through Boulder to get there.

Aspen: Unless you have a trust fund…

Silverton/Telluride: Proximity to Ouray and Durango. I didn’t want this to turn into a list of only mountain towns in the San Juans, which would be pretty easy. I regard both Silverton and Telluride as highly as the other Southwest Colorado entries.

Pagosa Springs: If only Pagosa had more nearby 13ers/14ers, it wouldn’t just be on the list — it would be near the top. It’s a fantastic town on the borders of both the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas.

Alamosa: It’s the biggest settlement on the west side of the Sangres, but shockingly, you just don’t go through it that often in the pursuit of summits. San Luis Valley Brewing Co. is a treat during the rare visit.

Leadville: No brewery, a kind of depressing vibe and only two passable restaurants (High Mountain Pies and Tennessee Pass Cafe). Turquoise Lake is a worthwhile weekend destination, though.

10 Things You Need to Know for Hiking in the Snow

Most Coloradans consider “14er season” to be June through September, but such a viewpoint is severely restrictive. The fall, winter and spring months are often the most rewarding times of year in the high country. There’s nothing quite like having a popular summit such as Quandary Peak to yourself, looking out over a sea of white-capped mountains as you sip hot tea that warms your body from the inside out. Like many novice mountaineers, a few short years ago I viewed the gap between summer and winter climbing as insurmountable. I had too many questions, and the answers were too hard to find. The truth is, like many things in life, it really doesn’t have to be that difficult.

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1. An introduction to winter layering

This was one of the most confusing aspects to me when I was starting out. Hard shell or soft shell? Down or synthetic? How many layers do I need to carry? This stuff isn’t cheap, and with my limited disposable income, making the right choices was crucial. Everyone has their own system. I’ll offer mine as a guide, along with the reasoning and a more general perspective.

  • Polyester/spandex short-sleeve T-shirt: Avoid anything with cotton. I don’t like long sleeves here because it’s uncomfortable when you’re layering other pieces on top, which are almost all long-sleeve as well. If you do opt for long sleeves, find a baselayer with thumb loops to help keep them in place.
  • Fleece 1/4-zip pullover: This is my outer layer most of the time in winter. A simple T-shirt and a fleece gets it done when I’m moving, even in frigid temperatures. The other stuff piles on only on the windiest, coldest days, or when there’s precipitation.
  • Midweight synthetic pullover: Down would be fine here as well, but I prefer synthetic because it might get a little sweaty if you’re working hard. Synthetic insulation stays warm even when wet. I leave this one behind to save weight when the forecast is warm and dry.
  • Soft shell jacket with hood: Hard shells are fine too, but soft shells are generally more breathable. A cheap hard shell is often like wearing a garbage bag, and you want to avoid sweating as much as possible in the winter. Soft shells hold up just fine in Colorado’s dry snow.
  • Down over-it-all puffy with hood: Wearing a down jacket over a shell seems kind of weird, right? It’s not. I promise. This is the jacket that will stay at the bottom of your pack 95 percent of the time, but will become your best friend during long rest breaks, on summits or in an emergency situation. Don’t skimp. Again, synthetic works fine, but in general down is warmer, lighter and more compressible.

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2. Basic avalanche education is free

Several local organizations, such as Friends of Berthoud Pass, offer free one- or two-hour avalanche awareness seminars. A proper AIARE Avalanche 1 course wouldn’t be a bad idea, but as a hiker the most crucial piece of your avalanche training is learning what terrain to avoid altogether. Don’t go out in the winter without at least attending one of these free classes, and reading one or both of Snow Sense and Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. I highly recommend Mountain Rescue Aspen’s Public Avalanche Seminar, which is held every year in January. For just $30 you get a three-hour lecture followed by an on-snow day practicing terrain recognition, beacon searches and more. Can’t beat that.

3. Winter is ridge season, spring is couloir season

People often equate winter with ice axes and crampons. Most of the time, that’s simply not true. You’re far more likely to use snowshoes and trekking poles than technical gear. Ascending wind-swept ridgelines keeps you out of avalanche terrain. Just look out for cornices and make sure there’s terra firma under your feet. Snow-climbing season typically begins in April or May, when it’s finally time to bust out the ice ax and crampons for those tasty couloirs. MICROspikes are likely all the traction you’ll need in winter, and snowshoes with a heel-lift and built-in crampons are the way to go for steep ascents.

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4. OpenSnow.com and the CAIC are your friends

Check these two sites daily, even if you’re not planning on heading out. It’s incredibly beneficial to your overall education and awareness. OpenSnow.com meteorologist Joel Gratz provides spot-on weather forecasts, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center posts updates daily on avalanche conditions.

5. Water freezes

No duh, right? It’s shocking how often someone will be stuck four miles from the trailhead with a solid chunk of ice as their water supply. This is easily avoidable. For starters, leave the hydration bladders at home. Water will almost always freeze in the thin hose and block your access, even if you have an insulator sleeve. I give this advice often, and inevitably someone will respond by championing the incredible lengths they go through to use a bladder and hose year-round. I’m not saying that it won’t work on some days, or even most days. It just won’t work on all days. At some point, it’ll be too cold or too windy or you’ll forget to clear the hose, and you’ll be screwed. All that effort is an incredible pain in the ass, anyway. I prefer to keep a Nalgene, turned upside down, in an insulated koozie clipped to my pack’s hip belt for easy access. My other water bottles are in my pack, wrapped in extra layers and pushed against my back for the additional body heat. A bit of electrolyte powder also protects against freezing.

6. Pluck the low-hanging fruit

Many of the same 14ers that are considered easy in August are still considered easy in January. Mt. Elbert, Mt. Sherman, Quandary Peak and Mt. Bierstadt don’t require much more mileage or elevation gain than they do in the summer, and there are virtually avalanche-safe routes on each. Search the 14ers.com Trip Reports section for your intended mountain, and click only the checkboxes for the winter months. There are dozens of quality write-ups on the easier peaks in December, January, February and March.

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7. You don’t need $500 mountaineering boots

Sure, they’re yellow or orange or some other fancy color, and they make you feel like a badass. They’re also overkill for winter hikes and surprisingly not all that warm. Run-of-the-mill winter hiking boots are cheaper, lighter, warmer and more comfortable. As long as they have insulation and come up to your ankle or above, you’re golden. Such boots are even compatible with strap-on crampons. The big caveat is that you’ll want at least a heel welt, and likely both a heel welt and a toe welt, if you plan to try climbing ice. Those are for attaching hybrid or step-in crampons, which are more secure. Expensive mountaineering boots are also more rigid, saving your calf muscles while standing on steep snow or vertical ice.

8. The “Other” Four Essentials

The 10 Essentials list is even more important in winter, when the stakes are higher. I’d like to add four more: a thermos, a multiclava, goggles and mittens. The thermos might be a luxury, but there’s nothing better than hot soup or tea on a cold, windy day. I often joke that a thermos is the best gear purchase I’ve ever made. A multiclava is a close runner-up. These little pieces of fabric have myriad uses, including as a facemask. You need to be able to cover every inch of exposed skin in the winter to prevent frostnip or frostbite. That’s where the goggles come in, too. You need to see even if it’s windy and dumping snow. No need to break the bank here, a simple $20-30 pair will suffice. Finally, buy a good pair of mittens. Even the nicest gloves can’t compare to mittens for warmth. I recommend Black Diamond Mercury Mitts to anyone who will listen.

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9. The sun is your enemy

OK, not really. The warmth of the sun feels pretty damn good in the winter. It’s just doubly important to have proper sunglasses and apply SPF30+ sunscreen every two hours. The sun reflecting off the snow is lethal. If you don’t take the steps to protect yourself, you’re in for a world of pain. I’m speaking from experience. Pack sunglasses that cover your full field of vision — glacier glasses are best, and they’re really not that expensive. Keep sunscreen easily accessible, such as in your pants pocket, to limit the excuses against applying it regularly.

10. Carry enough to survive a night out

Like a layering system, this will vary depending on a person’s risk tolerance, attitude and experience. The key is being confident in your ability to live through a night in the open. For some that means a tent and a sleeping bag, for others a bivy sack, and for still others simply extra layers. I fall into the latter category. It would be far from comfortable, but I trust my down puffy and other layers to get me through a winter night. I also carry a tarp to wrap myself in should I need protection from the elements.