Winter Hiking in the Colorado Mountains
By Steve Gillman
We were looking for some winter adventure, which might normally
include hiking in some Colorado mountains, but normally
only the low ones near where we live in Canon City. But Mike
had the idea that we should go for a ride and climb a "fourteener"
(a mountain that is over 14,000 feet). I agreed to go for the
ride, and we loaded our day packs with the usual snacks, water,
and spare socks. It was the last day of winter.
As we drove towards the town of Fairplay (also known as South
Park), I pointed out that the nearest we could get to any fourteeners
was at Hoosier Pass, on the highway from Fairplay to Breckenridge.
But even at that we would be many miles from the summit, and
starting out at 11:00 AM. I usually like to be on the trail by
6:00 AM if I am going up a fourteener.
I wasn't worried about it. We had no equipment, and no real
hope (in my mind) of even a serious attempt to summit any high
mountain. We had no ice axe with us, and I was in my $10 Wal-Mart
running shoes. I had only a light jacket. Mike said I was being
too pessimistic, I called it realistic. I also assumed that there
would be a lot of snow up there. There almost always is.
But as the miles rolled by and we drove higher and higher,
there still was no snow on the ground. Even as we came through
Fairplay at 9,000 feet there were only a few patches here and
there. In fact, we could see a lot of bare rock on the peaks
above. Twenty minutes later we were at Hoosier pass, and although
there was a small wall of snow surrounding the parking area,
we could see bare ground above.
The fourteeners were ruled out. Too far away, too steep, and
too many large snow fields to cross. But on the east side we
saw a small mountain that was grassy and rocky most of the way
up. Behind that was Silver Heels Mountain, which was also mostly
clear of snow, and rose to 13,800 feet. Mike enjoyed being almost
right about the possibility of getting to 14,000 feet. We headed
up through the trees on the packed snow of a snowmobile trail
towards the smaller peak.
It was 12,800 feet at the summit according to a group coming
down in their snow shoes. That was certainly higher than I thought
was possible in March. We were above the trees in twenty minutes
and at the top in less than an hour, and it was all dry rock
and grass for the last half of the hike. I lost $5 to Mike. We
had looked up at some point and guessed how much longer it would
be, and Mike pushed himself at a non-talking, wheezing, coughing
rate to win. I had counted on a couple more "false summits"
that never appeared. I really hadn't expected hiking in Colorado
mountains in winter to be this easy.
I had stripped to a t-shirt despite the 35-degree temperature,
because of the sun and the climb. Sitting there in the growing
breeze cooled us back down fast, so I put on a sweatshirt and
gloves again. We looked over at Silver Heels.
"You should do it," Mike said. "You can get
up there fast enough, and I'll wait here." I argued for
the idea, against it, and we finally decided to walk a half-mile
stretch of grassy ridge to get closer before deciding. From there
a snow field covered most of a gully. Mike decide he would wait
in the old broken-down cabin we saw further down and to the left,
while I went up. We went our separate ways.
I hiked, slipped and slid down the snow, and climbed up the
other side. Soon I was on dry rocks and grass again, headed up
the ridge that lead to the summit. From this point on there was
only one small stretch of snow to cross. But it was too late.
I was going to miss my self-imposed deadline for reaching the
ridge, so I turned around. I also had noticed on the way up that
the building we saw was actually just a rock and a shadow, so
I didn't know where Mike would be.
I saw a dot on the other mountain side, moving against the
white of the snow. It was moving up. Then I lost it. A bit later
Mike yelled, but I couldn't see him. I told him to walk on the
snow, and I was able to pick out the dot again. I struggled down
the gully and back up the side of the other mountain, stripping
to my t-shirt again as I frequently sunk to my thighs in the
snow. An hour after we had parted ways, we met up again, and
headed in the direction of the van.
We didn't want to actually go back up to the summit of the
small mountain to return to the pass, so we took a "shortcut"
around the south side of it. That lead through alternating grass,
rock and snow, to a slope with a massive overhang of snow above.
We crossed the grass to it, and Mike got out the camera. Fifteen
minutes later I was most of the way up, yelling and sliding down
150 feet on my back with my nylon jacket on. Mike handed the
camera to me and went up to take his turn.
It was at about this point that we realized we should use
the daylight remaining to get back to the van. We picked our
way along the side of the slope by the grassiest, rockiest route
we could find. Eventually we crossed through some increasingly
soft snow (no more walking on top of it), and came to the grassy
southwest side of the mountain. A beautiful old dead pine stood
there above most of the rest of the trees, so we stopped for
a photo of the crazy shirt-less man in it (that was me).
Then we had a decision to make. We noticed that we had somehow
gotten way off track, and we to avoid some long hiking in snow
we would have to go back up again before going down. Or we could
head straight west to the highway, which we could see below us
a mile away. We would have to go through thick forest to do that,
and then walk up the highway a mile to the van. In the end, we
liked the idea of going down and up better than up and down.
Wrong Way Down?
The snow got deep fast, and soon we were questioning our decision.
We sank into the snow every other step, sometimes having to almost
climb out of the holes created and other times slamming out shins
into the icy crust near the surface. It was slow.
"That;s enough," I told Mike. "I'm going to
try it on my back." I put on my nylon jacket, held my day
pack to my chest, and laid down. Pushing with my feet and looking
over my shoulder, I slid down the mountain much faster than we
had been moving. Mike didn't even need to push once I had packed
the snow for him. We alternated between this mode of movement
Then the thick woods came. We were soaked by now, in the shade,
and getting cold. The snow got deeper, and we sunk in almost
every step, hitting the sharp sticks and dead trees below. It
actually got a bit dangerous at this point.
"I can't feel my legs," Mike informed me.
"That's normal," I told him. "I can't feel
my ass either." I knew we didn't have to worry about frostbite,
since it was still several degrees above freezing. Then I saw
a house. Was it enough of an emergency to take the shortcut and
fall down into their yard? No. But we headed down to where we
would intercept the long driveway out to the highway.
Soon we were on the highway, and Mike put out his thumb. A
while later we decided that it would be easier for one of us
to get a ride, so he went to the other side to wait for me to
return with the van, and I continued up. On a hunch I decided
not to hitchhike. Sure enough, the parking area was around the
next corner. A two-hundred yard ride would have been a bit embarrassing.
We headed down to Fairplay, made a quick stop for a photo
with Mister Hanky, the character from the South Park television
show, stopped at a convenience store for a snack and headed home.
Mike was almost right about the possibility of hiking a fourteener
in March - at least in a mild winter like this one. We had some
fun in any case, and I probably made it to 13,000 feet. We did
prove to ourselves that hiking in the Colorado mountains in winter
with cheap running shoes was feasible - sometimes even at higher
Note: We did have hats and gloves and even a cell phone
for emergencies. I wouldn't recommend hiking in snow in running
shoes for everyone, but my feet don't get cold easily, and it
sure makes the hike less tiring.