Colorado weather usually flips like a switch from winter to summer. But last winter’s record-breaking snow has meant snowy conditions are likely to stay put year-round on top of those beloved 14ers. Does that mean hiking the highest peaks is impossible this summer? Not necessarily, but it does mean some extra know-how, gear and precaution are required.
Shane Leva, store manager at Mountain Chalet, describes this summer’s 14er experience as a tale of two peaks in one: normal summer alpine conditions around trailheads and lower elevations—and snow-covered trails and slopes around 11,000 feet and higher. So Leva says hikers need to prepare with two kits: one for conditions at the beginning of the trail and another kit of winter gear for the snowy slopes.
Not sure what that includes? Leva will be leading several seminars at the downtown outdoor shop on what to pack, how to look for potential dangers and other considerations for a snowy ascent this summer, but here are some of his basic tips.
1. Stay Aware of Avalanche Aftermath
With the debut of summer heat in the Springs—finally—Leva understands that many hikers aren’t thinking about snow. But some of Colorado’s highest peaks still hold several feet of snow on some slopes. With sun and higher temperatures comes melting snow. And big snow fields always include potential for snow slides. Depending which peaks hikers decide to summit, avalanche gear should still be considered. Leva suggests packing a beacon, a shovel and a probe.
“When you get enough warming and the interface of the snow—between the top snow and the bottom snow—it turns to a liquid state and gets moving at that point,” Leva warns. “Some can go at 50 mph.”
The remaining snow isn’t the white, fluffy flakes some might think of. In snowfields where the snow melts during the day and freezes at night, ice forms and can easily cut through skin. Also, buried debris is another unseen hazard that an ankle or shin won’t be thankful for.
“A good rule of thumb is if you’re in sloppy snow that is getting wetter, you’re punching through multiple inches, like above your boot, you should have some hesitation on that slope, especially if you’re punching through further,” Leva says. “That means those layers are getting weak, and you could have some wet slide activity there.”
A safer time to hike through snow is early morning when the snow is still frozen, Leva says.
2. Make Sure You Can Get to—and Around—the Trailhead
Many renowned trails in Colorado haven’t even opened as of mid-June because some are buried in feet of snow and avalanche debris. Conundrum Creek Trail and Huron Peak are a few examples. To check past and recent trail conditions for planning a route, Leva suggests 14ers.com.
Even if the trail remains open, debris is another battle of avalanche aftermath this summer, and it’s dangerous to attempt a crossing. Downed logs are like a game of Jenga: one disturbed log and the whole pile could come crashing down. “It’s like throwing a whole bunch of toothpicks on the ground and you don’t know how they’re stacked or what’s holding it,” Leva says. Anyone could be at risk of getting a foot or leg trapped.
3. Add a Few Essentials
Seasoned hikers used to shooting up a 14er fast and light will have to leave the running shoes at home this summer. “Running shoes won’t cut it this year,” Leva says.
Hiking boots will be a must. Leva recommends boots that are mid-top or above the ankle to protect against cold, wet conditions and the risk of twisting when postholing, or plunging through the snow. Slushy snowfields will make for wet, difficult hiking, though Leva says most fields should be doable, posthole by posthole.
If you think you might need snowshoes for a scramble up Mount Princeton, for example, Leva suggests renting from a local outdoor store instead of buying. “That way you don’t have to spend a lot of money to hike this summer since conditions aren’t normal this year,” he says.
You also may need a bigger pack. Typically, a 10- to 30-liter pack is big enough for a day-hike, Leva says. However, 14er hikers need to consider packing summer and winter gear—and having more space than usual to carry it.
Seasoned summer mountaineers probably know that sunscreen, hiking poles, snacks and water are some of the no-brainer items to always pack. Add sunglasses to the list this year. With snow on the ground, the sun reflects from below. Sunglasses that wrap around and cover above and below your eyes will be a necessity. “It feels like little needles are pricking your eyes all day,” Leva says of sunburned eyes. “It’s extremely painful.”
Rain gear should always be an essential for hiking in the alpine. But make sure it’s wind resistant too. Strong wind gusts are common above treeline and will cool you down quickly, and can blow sand and loose, rocky debris against you.
Traction devices will be necessary, if not lifesaving, this year on 14ers. With postholing comes unbalanced walking. Hiking poles will help, but they’ll be useless unless the snow baskets are attached, Leva says. Microspikes around your hiking boots are going to make life a lot easier too.
4. Equip Yourself for Emergencies
Leva said he will most likely carry a shovel, beacon and probe on all his 14er ascents this year. Although crampons and ice axes can be used to ascend icy, steep sections, Leva recommends not taking up space in your pack with those items unless you’ve had the specialized training to use them.
In an emergency, some might say that Rocky Mountain streams could be OK to sip if you run out of water. But with lingering snowfields, those streams probably won’t surface any time soon. A water filter or a stove to boil snow could be the tools that will make or break you; Leva highly recommends always carrying one or the other. For reference, an MSR Pocket Rocket stove weighs about 3 ounces and costs around $40, but it can be priceless in an emergency.
Hiking Summer 14ers After an Epic Winter
Join Shane Leva for a full seminar and in-person education on hiking snowy 14ers this summer. There will be two sessions at Mountain Chalet, 15 N. Nevada Ave.
Saturday, July 13
11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
More info: mtnchalet.com