Winter summits and flatlanders: It’s a lot harder than you think

The allure of a winter summit adventure is strong, but getting it done is far more complicated than just dressing warmer.

A question popped up recently on an online hiking forum, submitted by a guy from Texas.

He asked what Rocky Mountain peaks he should consider climbing in late fall. He said he would be traveling alone, and was open about the types of summits he’d achieved to date.

In short, he’d hiked about a half-dozen “beginner” peaks that topped 14,000 feet, and had done so in summer conditions. He got a lot of advice, even more warnings, and a few admonitions to pass on the idea altogether.

I love a good adventure, and testing yourself in conditions that are new to you can be enjoyable, and a way to grow. I mean, I’m the guy who watched YouTube videos on how to self-arrest with an ice axe before buying said axe, a pair of crampons and heading out for my first snow climb as green as it gets. Me and a buddy got our summit, got back down and didn’t get hurt or killed, so there you go. Sometimes you can booger-head your way through things as a noob.

On the other hand, we did this snow climb in late spring conditions – the easiest weather conditions you can get on a snow climb – and on a beginner-friendly route. Believe me, that played a significant role in our success.

But there are things about being in the high country this time of year that go beyond a smattering of extra challenges. For the newbie, flatlander crowd, here are a few I can think of…

In the mountains, fall often means winter. Aside from some pleasant September or even October days, there are times when conditions above 10,000 feet are full-on winter, calendar be damned. Weather systems can move through fast and plunge temperatures well below zero. Add in high winds and you could be facing wind chills that go -40 degrees or worse. That kind of cold will cause frostbite quickly to any exposed skin. Whiteout conditions are possible. Get caught up high in a storm near a summit, it can be many hours before you get back to a trailhead, and if you’re forced to stop and take shelter, rescue could be a day or more away. Don’t let the calendar fool you. For that matter, don’t let a pleasant fall day down low fool you, either. Things change fast up there.

Don’t equate your skiing experience as adequate for winter mountaineering. Sure, you’ve trekked from the plains of north Texas plenty of times to get some turns at your favorite ski resort. You’ve enjoyed the sport during powder days, in the cold, and felt pretty good (if a little chilled) on the ski lift up and the run down the mountain. But your ski attire is designed to be comfortable while you’re skiing. When you’re climbing a mountain, there’s no lodge with hot food, a steamy drink and a warm fire minutes away. It’s different when you’re many hours away from warmth of any kind and, mostly likely, isolated from any form of safety or rescue. You may have skied in below-zero temps, but it’s not the same.

High country hiking can be hard. Winter travel is MUCH harder. When you’re coming from the oxygen-rich environs of low altitudes, the lack of O2 hits you like a ton of bricks when you get above 10,000 feet. Simple uphill hiking on moderate grades feels exhausting. Now try breaking trail in knee-deep snow, with a weighty pack and all that cold-weather gear. I’ve heard it said that in winter, one mile is actually two. Oh, and those summer trailheads (and the roads leading to them) are likely closed, so you’ll be adding more miles and vertical gain. Slower going, more taxing conditions, longer routes and a less daylight. Something to think about.

Your gear list will be different. The obvious things that come to mind: Snowshoes, ice axe, crampons/microspikes, gaiters. But also, the clothing layering system has to keep you warm, but wick away sweat. You need to have gear that minimizes exposed skin, and it has to be rated to handle extreme cold. And your pack needs to have the gear needed to survive overnight on the mountain. That means an emergency shelter and a winter-rated sleeping bag. That summertime fast-and-light thing won’t cut it this time of year.

The benign mountains of summer can be dangerous in winter. Aside from high winds and extreme cold, the buildup of snow can change the hazards of even the tamest of peaks. Wheeler Peak, N.M., is about as “safe” as they get in the summer – a Class 1 route all the way to the top. But in winter, many of its slopes are avalanche-prone, something that’s true for a lot of Class 1 and 2 peaks anywhere in the Rockies, Sierras or Cascades. Getting buried in an avalanche is not akin to being covered in powdery fluff. Avalanche snow thickens and hardens, and when it finally stops it’s like being trapped in concrete. It’s key to understanding avalanche risk, and if you don’t know what to look for, a winter ascent may not be for you.

There’s more that is not mentioned here. A lot more. I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, and I know people’s safety boils down to personal responsibility. We all have the right to make those choices. But it would be a mistake to think that a winter summit bid is roughly the same as it is in summer, just colder. In truth, it’s a whole other animal.

For a more detailed post on this subject, including gear recommendations, check out this post.

Bob Doucette

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