Field Agent: Thomas Evan West (@navethom)
Time Zone: Mountain
Location: Quandary Peak - Breckenridge, Colorado
The draw: Hiking a 14er in the winter offers new views, new terrain, and new challenges. It requires a greater attention to detail and pushes you further than you would normally go in the summer.
8 am – A frigid morning arrival: After a three and a half hour drive from up north, I met my friend at the trailhead of Quandary Peak. We had initially planned on setting up camp partway up the mountain then summiting the same day and returning to camp to bunker down and relax. Upon arrival though, we noticed the multiple “No Overnight Parking or Camping” signs. The idea of walking back out in the morning to a towed car and a hitch-hike journey back into Breckenridge coupled with the 5 inches of snow expected that night led us to audible our plans into a day trip.
8:30 am – Embark on the day journey: I had brought snowshoes with me in the car but from prior research and my tendency for laziness, I decided to just stick with some yak-traks and poles to get me up the mountain. My hiking buddy opted for skis with skins for the way up while he would back-country ski his way down. The first part of the trail through the trees was pleasant and completely packed out, bolstering my confidence in my footwear choice. When we reached tree line, however, the trail became more difficult to find and a slight step too far right or left meant anywhere from one to three foot post-holing into powder.
The wind and snow picked up as soon as we were on the exposed mountain and the trail inconveniently steepened. As we trudged our way to the first false-summit around 12,500 feet, two fellas ahead of us decided to turn around due to cloudy conditions and the incoming storm. My hiking partner and I settled on continuing for the time being with the possibility of turning around if the storm seemed to get any worse. About another thousand feet up the mountain we encountered the only other two people on the trail that day heading down after summiting. They were two grizzly men of about 60 who encouraged us to keep on as the summit was near. With our blessing from the mountain men and perhaps a bit of competitive “if they did it we can do it” attitude, we slowly made our way up the steepest, slickest, and final stretch to the 14,265 foot summit.
12:30 pm – Summiting in a cloud: We reached the peak about 4 hours after leaving the trailhead and soaked in the lack of views with the 20-foot visibility we had due to cloudy weather and blowing snow. We took a couple minutes to snap a few quick pictures and refuel on trail mix and water before turning back for the much easier and faster descent.
1:15 pm – Become your own best friend on the way down: When the mountain opened up and the visibility began to return to us, my buddy jumped on his skis and I kept slogging down the slope as we made a pact to meet back at the trailhead.
Now, I know you’re not supposed to split up from your hiking partner. I know you shouldn’t choose to hike a 14er in any less-than-ideal weather conditions. And I sure as hell know you shouldn’t do both of these things in the dead of winter when temperatures are hovering around zero degrees without wind-chill… but, young and dumb, I did them anyway. And I paid for it by losing the trail due to windswept conditions.
2:15 pm – Wrong turns lead to unwanted powder: I found myself zoned out encroaching on tree line when I realized that I had indeed lost the trail. I ended up in waist deep powder in the middle of a snowfield. With daylight soon fading, snow coming down harder than before, and my energy completely depleted, I decided to plow my way through the powder back uphill to try to get a better view of my surroundings. After 20 minutes of exhaustive efforts crawling on and falling into the snow, I finally reached a crest where I saw a trail sign (one of three on the whole mountain) about 200 yards away through another snowfield. In total, I was lost about an hour and a half but eventually made it to the trail sign. I booked my way down the rest of the mountain having lost one of the yak-traks but gaining a story and experience that will forever shape the way I approach winter hiking and trekking in general.
3:45 pm – Trailhead reflection: Mountains are wild. They’re powerful and unforgiving. They are simultaneously generous with their offerings and brutal in their punishments. I could have been stranded out there for the night but by some grace was able to find my way back to the trail in one piece. I love the mountains with all of my being but this sobering experience leaves me humbled. Humbled that I even get the chance to explore such a harsh but beautiful landscape. Humbled that these towering granite peaks jutted out of the earth in this very spot. And humbled that they are here right in my backyard.