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.

One More Drink, and I’ll Move On (Conundrum Couloir)

Mountain(s): Conundrum Peak (14,060′) and Castle Peak (14,265′)
Route: Conundrum Couloir (Steep Snow)
Date: July 11, 2015
RT Distance: 14.5 miles
RT Gain: 4,850′
RT Time: 10 hours
Climbers: Ben, Jeff

Summer is here.

It’s crazy how fast the Colorado mountains transitioned from buried to dry. Most standard 14er routes only require a few short snow crossings these days, which is hardly believable after all the late-spring moisture. The wet weather made for a weird couloir season, with the window between “avalanche prone” and “rage-inducing scree field” short and difficult to judge.

Few traditional snow couloirs remain in mid-July, but what’s left is generally safe. Ben and I decided to attempt one more before the soaring summer temperatures claim the last of the continuous snow lines. My original idea was Cross Couloir on Mt. of the Holy Cross, an incredibly famous route that’s gathered dust on my to-do list for years. Ben, who’s trying to finish the 14ers this summer, was more interested in two new checkmarks on Castle and Conundrum. A few minutes of research uncovered that Conundrum Couloir, another classic option, was likely still filled. A plan was born.

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Our intention was to meet in Golden around 3 p.m. and depart directly from my office at the American Mountaineering Center. That would give us plenty of time to establish a camp, start a fire, drink a couple beers and catch up. Unfortunately, Ben got stuck at work and then in the heinous Highway 93 traffic. He didn’t get to my office until shortly after 5 p.m., which might be the latest anyone has worked at the American Mountaineering Center on a Friday since at least 2009.

The result was arriving at the Castle/Conundrum trailhead around 9 p.m. My low-clearance 2WD Mazda 3 could only make it up the road far enough to reach the first four campsites, all of which were inhabited by squatting retirees from Texas. We limped back to the pavement and debated our options. Signage made it obvious that no camping is allowed apparently anywhere, ever. Given the late hour and our 3 a.m. wake-up call, we figured no one would notice if we just set up our tents in the corner of the parking lot. It meant packing all our gear first thing in the morning rather than leaving it up to dry, but our assumption was correct. We snagged a few uninterrupted hours of unsanctioned sleep. Don’t tell anyone, Internet.

Rather than risk my car’s oil pan to crawl a half-mile up the road, we decided to hoof it from the paved highway. Sunrise greeted us a couple hours later high in Montezuma Basin, well beyond the Pearl Pass turnoff. Pre-dawn road walking is an easy way to pass miles and time.

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Our solitary vigil ended along with the road. A pair of solo hikers caught us while I was transitioning from trail runners to mountaineering boots, and a brave soul in a stock 4Runner arrived carrying a full cab of hitchhikers. Our newfound crowd began moving up the snow-covered headwall together. Ben and I opted for crampons and a direct line up the snow, while others found a more-or-less dry path through the rocks.

A big push up steep terrain delivered us to the upper cirque, where Conundrum Couloir was beautifully filled. No decision needed to be made here. We’d stick with the original plan.

Surprise cloud-cover, a steady wind and the early hour meant firm snow conditions. The moderate apron quickly gives way to steeper terrain, and the morning fog dissipated from our heads as the need for focus increased. The choke point about halfway up turned out to be the crux. The angle hovered around 50 degrees, and the inset nature of the section meant a general lack of sun. The hard snow meant Ben could only produce minuscule steps, which I did my best to widen with a few extra kicks. Solid ice ax self-belays did provide an extra measure of confidence and security.

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The angle relaxed slightly as we climbed above the choke point and approached the massive cornice. This late in the season, an easy exit existed on the right. A few more feet of 50-degree snow deposited us on the saddle between Conundrum’s twin summits.

We scrambled up to the high point and enjoyed the rare summer solitude. Castle was beginning to look crowded, and a few people had started to traverse over, but for about 20 minutes we had the top to ourselves. The multiple forecasts calling for calm and sunshine looked worse by the minute, with clouds building and an incessant breeze that forced us into down jackets. Still, we were treated to inspiring views of the surrounding Elk Range giants.

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The fun was over for the day, but Ben also needed Castle Peak to notch his 53rd Fourteener. Rather than blissfully glissade the Castle-Conundrum saddle for a quick reunion with beers and burgers, we had to slog up a couple hundred more feet of crumbling Elk rock. It was all worth it, of course, to stand on the range’s highest summit. Stellar views of Snowmass, Capitol, the Bells and Pyramid were a worthy reward. We spent another 15-20 minutes snapping photos before the worsening weather urged us to retreat.

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We opted to take the standard Northeast Ridge down to complete a loop of the cirque. A couple hundred feet below the summit, I was shocked to hear a female voice casually say, “Hi, Jeff.” Standing just below were Zach Smith, Noel Finta-Johnson, and their hiking partner Joe. Random encounters with friends in the mountains are always welcome.

A graupel storm kept the descent interesting. The weird weather would hound us all the way back to the car, alternating between blistering sunshine, pouring graupel and brief rain showers. The crux of the day was deciding what layers to wear while walking down the road.

I might have gotten a late start, but I was able to salvage a bit of this couloir season the past couple weeks. Classic routes like Conundrum Couloir are a great reminder of the joys of steep snow. The crampons and ice ax will now get shelved for a few months before the fall ice season begins, but it’s hard to feel depressed with summer scrambling, multi-day backpacking rambles and long nights around the campfire with good friends on the horizon. Winter is coming, but summer is here. Might as well enjoy it.

Cornice Busting on Southpaw Couloir

Mountain: Torreys Peak – 14,267′
Route: Southpaw Couloir
Date: July 3, 2015
RT Distance: 8 miles
RT Gain: 3,000′
RT Time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Climbers: Speth (speth), Adam, Jeff

This snow-climbing season was disappointing. Between major life changes, a new puppy, a minor finger injury and the unsettled weather, I accomplished almost none of my goals. I hardly climbed at all in May and June, even missing the Spring Gathering and the past several happy hours. “Stir crazy” doesn’t even begin to describe it. With Friday off for the Fourth and an acceptable forecast, I pinged Speth and Adam about climbing Mt. Edwards via the Goatfinger Couloir. They immediately agreed.

The need for an early start and time constraints (this spring’s theme) Saturday led to us driving up Friday night to bro out around a campfire at the Stevens Gulch Trailhead. It was car camping at its finest, complete with a brick-walled fire ring and wooden benches. A few IPAs, many Dave Chappelle quotes and a magnificent sunset later, we were ready to crash in anticipation of a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.

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First light saw us high in Stevens Gulch staring at a half-dry Goatfinger. Lost Rat was melted out at the top as well, and Dead Dog appeared to be limping along. Looming beautifully in front of us, however, was a fat-looking Southpaw.

This couloir, which is shorter and steeper than the more famous Dead Dog, is seldom climbed because the exit is guarded by a menacing cornice. We stared at it for a while and decided that, this late in the season, a few reasonable options existed to surmount the final obstacle. All I knew about Southpaw was that it wasn’t supposed to be terribly steep and that Moonstalker wrote an excellent TR a couple years back. We set off without a ton of beta, and like any such adventure, the result was equal parts joy, laughter, terror, adrenaline and accomplishment.

Southpaw begins with a long, mellow 30- to 35-degree apron. We were shocked and thrilled to find surprisingly good snow conditions. The angle gradually increases as you ascend, culminating in a 50ish-degree finish to the vertical cornice.

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The climb itself was simply amazing — supportive snow, attention-keeping yet easy terrain, and copious jokes relevant to 30ish-year-old “grown” men. As we neared the top, the two exit options looked to remain feasible. We hugged the right side of the couloir to avoid an unstable Volkswagen-sized block and eyed a less-than-vertical ramp just to its right for our escape.

Adam, in the lead, was the first to reach the cornice. The ramp we’d chosen comprised only about four-to-six feet of 70-degree snow. A couple swings, a few kicks, and we’d be over the top. It quickly became apparent that our optimism was going to go unrewarded. Unlike the rest of the couloir, the snow on the cornice was 100 percent pure garbage.

IMG_4637After Adam deemed our intended finish too dangerous, I started peering over my shoulder and weighing our retreat options. The first 200 feet or so was steep enough to require face-in downclimbing, and the snow conditions were deteriorating rapidly. Still, it seemed reasonable.

A horizontal two-foot-wide ledge of snow, ice and scree also caught our attention, as it led to a spot where the cornice was only about three feet high. If we could reach it — which would require several delicate moves across exposed Class 4 terrain — it seemed like it would go. Speth led across first, balancing on crampon points and grasping for anything that resembled trustworthy rock. He made it safely to the ledge and disappeared around the corner. Adam went next, talking himself through the balance-y moves. Only a few tiny islands of solid rock interrupted the 50- to 55-degree scree and snow. Without much in the way of handholds, it was a mental battle to trust your frontpoints and shimmy across. A few sections of thin ice that took a pick or point provided extra security.

Adam reached the ledge and talked me through the traverse, which I completed with only minor whimpering. A couple deep postholes kept the pucker factor high while crossing the snow ledge, but before long we found Speth standing on terra firma above the cornice. He offered a hand to help us over the final waist-high wall, and we all collapsed into a heap on the standard trail near two frat bros sipping PBRs. Welcome to summer on Grays and Torreys.

IMG_4638We stayed put for a while, giddily releasing adrenaline, before taking off our climbing gear and finishing the trudge up to the summit The Big T. Awaiting at the top was the standard July fare, including summit signs, selfie sticks and trail-runners in Colorado flag bikinis. Kelso Ridge was a popular route choice on this Friday, and it was cool to watch party after party come up, basking in their accomplishment.

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Thanks to Speth and Adam for yet another fun day out. Southpaw Couloir isn’t climbed much for a good reason — unless conditions are perfect, that ever-present cornice is a monster. If you catch it right, however, I could see it being an absolute classic. I suspect that only happens for a week or two every couple years, though. Happy hunting.

P.S. Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrdddddddddd.

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!

Mountain Therapy

An Ode to the Constant

Life is chaos. Nothing ever stays the same. Regardless if it’s positive or negative, change often leads to stress, uncertainty and a whirlwind of difficult emotions. It’s the constants that serve as a lighthouse in the fog, helping us chart a course through the choppy waters of human experience. For some people, that constant is sailing. Others choose fly fishing, salsa dancing, surfing or storm chasing. These are places we can go that calm our minds and offer a deep internal sense of enrichment. They’ll always be there, whether we’re going through a divorce or changing jobs or dealing with the loss of a loved one. We bond with people over them, forming long-lasting relationships and even entire communities. They define who we are and how we perceive the world. Mountains are my constant. No matter what’s happening in my personal life, I can always find solace in the hills. It can be a simple stroll through the forest or a difficult ice climb; as long as I’m in the mountain element, my troubles melt away.

IMG_1945 Why do people climb? It’s a silly question. How can you explain to an uninitiated bystander the joys of graceful movement, breathing in the cool morning air from a campsite lightly wet with dew, the never-ending views from a hard-earned summit, the sound an ice ax makes as it plunges into perfect snow or the human connections that form through mutual sacrifice, suffering and success? Climbing, like any constant, leads to a sense of personal happiness and fulfillment. Sure, there’s the added element of risk, but acquiring the skills to mitigate it and gaining a fundamental understanding of how you react to adversity and fear is part of the allure. It’s comforting to know that I can always lean on the mountains. Even when the current steals me out of a sheltered bay and into white-capped open waters, a few hours in the alpine remind me that everything will be all right. It’s not an escape. I’m not running from anything. It’s that when you approach them with the right mindset, the mountains distill life to its most basic form.

IMG_2998 Most tasks in the real world come with ill-defined goals and even looser parameters. With climbing, the objectives are much simpler. You have yourself, the gear you choose to carry, a point on the map to reach and only one rule — return safely. You gain an understanding of what truly matters, as well as how to let go of situations you can’t control. You learn your capabilities and limitations. Most importantly, it affords you the opportunity to look at yourself in a figurative mirror and see a clear vision in return. So many outside influences affect how we perceive ourselves. Our self-esteem is too often based on the opinions and actions of others. Climbing brings everything back to center. Mountains recalibrate the soul.

The hills aren’t for everyone. Some people don’t get it. That’s OK. All I wish is that those folks have their own constant, whatever it may be. Life sure would be a lot harder without one.

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.

A Bond Between Strangers (Horseshoe Mountain/Boudoir Couloir)

There’s no point in denying it: Horseshoe Mountain’s Boudoir Couloir is a flat-out classic. I’d already climbed it in 2011 as one of my first snow climbs, but when Speth suggested it for this weekend, I had no qualms about returning. This April is all about getting into shape for the Skillet Glacier, anyway. If a route has snow and vertical gain, I probably won’t say no.

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We were forced to park about a mile short of the standard starting point at Leavick due to lingering snow. A few poor souls had tried to drive a bit farther. Carnage ensued. Three-foot-deep tire tracks, busted wooden boards, a wrecked tow strap and, of course, their abandoned vehicles. All that to avoid walking an extra five minutes. Human nature is a funny thing.

Speth and I were walking by about 7:30 a.m. My memory had blocked out the difficulties of the approach, and for some reason I thought it would only take us about an hour to reach the base of the couloir. In reality, including the extra slog to Leavick, it took us three. A little less than a mile from Leavick is a road that branches off left and crosses Fourmile Creek. Follow it as it switchbacks up a couple hundred feet to break treeline, then make a straight shot for Horseshoe’s namesake amphitheater. Many options exist to reach the base of the couloir. Gerry Roach’s guidebook suggests angling to hiker’s right around two small lakes. As the lakes remained solidly frozen, we took a more direct line straight across.

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We reached the base of the couloir around 10:30 a.m. I’d normally be nervous about starting an east-facing spring snow climb so late, but the temperatures were mild and a stiff breeze kept everything firm. Speth hadn’t even used snowshoes for the approach. While gearing up with crampons, helmets and ice axes, we were joined by fellow 14ers.com members BKS (Brian) and eskermo. Brian also had his 2-year-old labradoodle, Charley.

Being an English nerd, I was absolutely tickled by the company of a poodle named Charley. Surely his owner must be a Steinbeck fan? Actually, no — it was a total coincidence. Charley was a joyful companion, and I used the encounter for the title of this blog entry. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, famous novelist John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, etc.) wrote a travelogue in the 1960s about a year-long road trip across America with his full-size poodle, Charley. Travels with Charley is one of my favorite travel books. Contained within is the quote, “Dogs are a bond between strangers.” How true is that?

We started switchbacking up the apron on perfect snow. Our boots were sinking in to about lace-level and the crampons bit hard. It was much more relaxing than the first time I’d climbed Boudoir on bulletproof névé.

An intermittent old boot-pack existed in the middle of the couloir. I tried to use it at times, but given the moderate angle and great snow conditions, switchbacking was much more efficient.

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In addition to being an aesthetic line, what makes Boudoir special is the spectacular setting. Horseshoe Mountain’s entire east face is a half-moon of near-vertical cliffs. Boudoir offers the only easy passage. Rest breaks were passed giddily spying other potential snow, ice and mixed lines in the breathtaking amphitheater.

What else makes Boudoir a must-do? The direct finish over a mini-cornice onto the summit plateau. Immediately above the exit is a remarkably intact old mining cabin, which we crawled inside to escape the increasing wind. Views of the Sawatch, Sangre de Cristo, Tenmile and Mosquito ranges did not disappoint. We ditched our packs and most of our gear inside the cabin before strolling over to tag the true summit.

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Normally I would have suggested walking off the standard Northeast Slopes route, but the Skillet Glacier will require downclimbing snow up to and including 50 degrees. I figured I might as well practice walking down moderate/steep snow as much as possible. It was still a bit firm for easy plunge-stepping. Once we were through the constriction and the angle began to relent, we popped off our crampons and glissaded the rest of the way in a matter of minutes.

We followed our tracks out and reached the car only two hours after leaving the summit. Glissading is awesome. The wind had even kept the snow remarkably firm for an April afternoon. No waist-deep postholing in snowshoes necessary. A perfect spring day. We did have a bit of difficulty finding a dining option in Fairplay given the Easter holiday and my low-carb kick this month, but we eventually settled in at McCall’s Park Bar. Let’s just say a 1/4-pound buffalo burger with no bun and a side salad is no match for a post-hike appetite. It’s going to be a long month…

Third Time’s the Charm on Mt. Princeton

MOUNTAIN: Mt. Princeton (14,197′)
ROUTE: East Slopes
RT GAIN: 5,400′
RT DISTANCE: 13.25 miles
RT TIME: 10.75 hours
PARTNERS: Jerry, Adam, Shawn, Joel

Mt. Princeton had become something of a winter nemesis. I tried it in early January 2014 prior to shoulder surgery, but the recurring dislocations that necessitated said repair left me woefully out of shape. I only made it as far as subsummit “Tigger Peak,” a mile or two and nearly 1,000′ short of the summit. Princeton was also the plan three weeks ago, but I was forced to bail last-minute for a variety of reasons.

Third time’s the charm, right? I roped a few poor souls — Shawn, Joel, Adam and Jerry — into yet another winter attempt Sunday, Feb. 15. Most of the Colorado high country still looked more like early fall than mid-February, and with the weather pattern changing toward more frequent snow beginning this week, I figured I better poach an easy winter summit while the option remained.

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The group started from the lower trailhead at 6:45 a.m., faced with a few miles of road walking before reaching the standard summer starting point. Snowshoes weren’t necessary and the distance melted away. As the day grew warmer and the sun burned off the early-morning clouds, some of us even found ourselves in baselayers. Of course, with a storm scheduled to roll in during the afternoon and high winds obvious up high, we knew it wouldn’t last.

The rest of us caught up to Jerry, who’d dashed ahead at superhuman speed, at the only real decision point we’d face all day. The road continues to above 12,000′, but the summer route leaves it on a good trail that traverses across the face of “Tigger Peak” to the low point in the saddle between “Tigger” and Princeton. Most winters, avalanche danger dictates forgoing the summer trail and going up and over “Tigger” instead, at the expense of some extra mileage and about 800′ of added elevation gain. The minimal snow levels convinced us to take the easier option and stick to the trail.

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The “easier option” was still kind of a pain. The Mt. Princeton trail consists of large, loose, annoying talus. Add a foot or two of powder on top of it and the going becomes very slow and tedious. Jerry continued leading the way as the weather began its preordained decline.

Princeton’s summit looked tantalizingly close. Almost every winter trip report I read had a huge round-trip time that didn’t align with the 13.25 mile/5,400′ stats. Sometimes it even took people 20+ hours! Now, I understand why. Most of terrain above 12,000′ is simply horrid. If we’d had to deal with trailbreaking in snowshoes and going over “Tigger,” it likely would have taken us much longer as well. The path becomes more and more intermittent, replaced with steep scree, loose talus and ankle-breaking murder holes. The final push to the summit took about twice as long as I expected at first glance. We finally topped out, one after another, between 1-1:20 p.m.

The forecasted storm was arriving in earnest. I stayed on the summit only long enough to eat a sandwich and snap three pictures. No one else bothered. Clouds and light snow had already rolled in, with the wind whipping around at 30 or 40 miles per hour.

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On such hideous terrain, the descent took almost as long as the climb. I think we all wanted to kneel and kiss the ground when we were finally back on the solid trail. As nice as that was, regaining the road was even better. We rested for a while at the junction to eat, drink and adjust layers, tasks we’d neglected for a few hours in the deteriorating elements.

Thus replenished, the stroll down the road was lighthearted and victorious. The storm produced a veritable whiteout at times, with an inch of snow falling per hour and visibility reduced to a couple hundred feet. Safely on the road, however, we had little to worry about. We spaced out a bit, with the last person returning to the vehicles around 5:30 p.m. It’s not often you can do a long winter daytrip without needing a headlamp. Not to say we were especially quick — just lucky with the conditions.

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We tried to stop at Eddyline Brewing for a post-climb meal, but shockingly there was a 45-minute wait on a Sunday night in the middle of winter. We instead visited a Mexican joint down the street on Joel’s excellent suggestion, which hit the spot just the same. Thanks to Joel, Adam, Jerry and Shawn for a fun day. Now, back to ice climbing…

Buyer’s Guide: Ice Axes and Ice Tools

So, you’ve decided to get into winter mountaineering. Forget that you’d benefit exponentially more from snowshoes, trekking poles, a softshell, goggles, a pair of mittens or myriad other essentials – it’s time to get sexy with it. There’s no faster way to decorate your pack and impress your friends than purchasing an ice ax.

Choosing your ideal ax can be daunting. They come in many different shapes, sizes and, most importantly, colors. Depending on the kind of climbing you plan to pursue, do you need a traditional piolet, all-around ice tools, wickedly curved mixed tools, or a highly specialized hybrid? The answer is almost assuredly some sort of combination. It took me three years and a few wasted Benjamins to arrive at my ideal quiver, and now that I have a decent grasp on the ins and outs of the ice ax market, here’s a gentle rundown of what’s out there.

The Traditional Piolet

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Characterized by a long, straight shaft and a pick with a positive curve (envision a rainbow), piolets are the old guard of the ice ax world. Almost everyone owns one, whether you’re Noob McSelfie or Ueli Steck. Excepting steep, technical routes, this is all you need for winter/spring 14ers, the standard routes on most Pacific Northwest volcanoes, El Pico de Orizaba, the West Buttress of Denali and so on. If you’re reading this because you’re in search of your first ice ax, you likely need a piolet. I believe that’s French for backpack ornament.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Every brand brings something a little different to the table. They range in size from 50cm to upwards of 75cm. Some have a hammer, some have an adze. A few have rubber grips and pinky rests. What exactly is all that used for, and what do you need?

Let’s start with size. When holding a piolet in self-arrest grip (read Freedom of the Hills or take a class), you should just be able to touch your ankle bone with the spike. If you’re torn between two different sizes, I recommend going shorter. A trekking pole is a better option in most situations where you’d want a longer ax, and shorter shafts are easier to wield on steep terrain.

Keep your piolet as simple as possible. Rubber grips, pinky rests and bent shafts are best kept on technical tools and hybrids. These other options, which I’ll dive into next, will also likely have a hammer. For that reason, I suggest getting a classical ax with an adze.

Most outdoor retailers will carry three or four different brands of straight-shafted piolets. The truth is, other than what color matches your pack the best, there’s not much difference. Hold them in your hand, swing them around, decided how much you’re willing to spend and pick whichever tugs at your heart strings.

The All-Around Ice Tool

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The three big differences between an ice tool and a piolet are a curved shaft, a radically shorter length and a pick with a reverse curve (imagine, well, an upside-down rainbow). Don’t let the “all-around” title confuse you; these are meant for ice climbing. They can perform the functions of a traditional mountaineering ax in a pinch, but nowhere near as effectively. Trying to self-belay or self-arrest with an ice tool is expert-only stuff.

You should buy a pair of all-around tools if you want to (duh) go ice climbing, or a single all-around tool to pair with a piolet or a hybrid if you see semi-technical routes in your future. Comfort levels vary from climber to climber, but once a slope angle noses over 50-55 degrees, I prefer to have a second tool in addition to my piolet. One piolet/hybrid and one ice tool is the system of choice for classic routes such as the Kautz Glacier or Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier, the Adams Glacier on Mt. Adams, the East Slope of Mt. Bross and so on.

The reverse-curved pick is super grippy, even if only plunged into ice a few millimeters. The downside is this stickiness also applies when trying to self-arrest. If your technique is off, the tool is likely to get ripped out of your hands and become a flailing projectile hungry for puncture wounds.

As mentioned above, I strongly suggest ice tools with hammers. An adze is dangerous on ice or mixed routes, where a popped tool’s most likely landing place is your upper lip. Hitting yourself in the face with a hammer might be unpleasant, but hitting yourself in the face with a glorified knife is a hospital visit and a significant other who might never look at you with the same lustful gaze. In situations where an adze might be desirable, which are rare to begin with, you’re likely going to have a hybrid or a piolet along as well.

The best advice I can give for purchasing ice tools is to demo as many as possible before investing. The weight, swing angle and grip can wildly differ between tools that look more or less the same. Figure out your preferences before being stuck with a $500 pair that, to you, feels like swinging wooden clubs coated in bacon fat.

The Mixed Tool

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Welcome to the second-briefest entry in this blog post. A mixed tool is an all-around tool on steroids. The curves on the shaft and pick are more wicked, the handles are beefier and the people that use them effectively are the demi-gods of the climbing world. If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t want or need mixed tools. These are used for scraping up blank rock faces with the occasional smear or pillar of ice. Most lack both an adze and a hammer for the face- and relationship-destroying reasons discussed above.

The Hybrid Tool

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I’ve used the term “hybrid ax” about a half-dozen times now, and they’re the most confusing category in the modern ice-ax market. In general, they are a cross between a piolet and an all-around ice tool. Gear companies have the freedom to be creative here. The design elements and included features vary considerably from brand to brand, and not all hybrid tools are created equal.

Speaking generally, a hybrid tool is shorter than a traditional piolet, has a slightly bent shaft and includes some sort of feature that makes it easier to swing like an ice tool, such as a rubber grip or a pinky rest. They come both with positive- and negative-curved picks, with some brands allowing for these to be interchangeable. Because hybrids are meant for more experienced climbers with developed preferences, I’ll leave the adze vs. hammer and positive vs. negative curve decisions up to you. I personally like my hybrid tools with an adze and a positive pick.

These are best for routes where you’ll be spending a lot of time on steep terrain and most people would prefer two ice tools, but there’s also a long easy-angled approach. Think glaciers. A hybrid won’t arrest, plunge or act as a cane as well as a piolet. It also won’t climb steep ice as well as an ice tool. What it does do is provide a bridge over the gap when you can’t decide which of those others to bring.

Hybrid tools carry more street cred than a traditional piolet and benefit from slick marketing campaigns, meaning many beginners skip straight to them. That’s fine, especially if you see yourself quickly moving into more technical routes, but understand that hybrids are generally much heavier and more expensive than a piolet.

My preferred system for AI2-3 glacier routes or very steep (55+ degree) snow routes is a medium-length (57-62cm) hybrid paired with an all-around ice tool. If I’m doing a more traditional snow climb, I save weight and bring my piolet at the expense of not impressing as many trailmates.

The Red-Headed Stepchildren

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Innovation is required to stay at the forefront of the outdoor industry. There are many piolets and ice tools that don’t fit into any of the above categories. I’m looking at you, Grivel. CAMP USA also makes several featherweight options designed for ski mountaineering, adventure racing and high-altitude. Once again, if you’re in the market for one of these specialized tools, you probably quit reading about 1,000 words ago.

For the record, my quiver:

  • 65cm Black Diamond Raven (piolet)
  • 52cm Petzl Sum’tec (hybrid w/ adze)
  • 50cm Cassin X-All Mountain x2 (ice tools)

Happy hunting.

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.