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Winter Hiking in the Colorado Mountains

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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.

We ate.

Going Higher?

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.

Winter Fun?

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 and walking.

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 elevations.

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.



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The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Hiking in the Colorado Mountains