Yesterday provided me with the first opportunity to climb a 14er in the winter. This was to be my attempt at number 14 out of 53 of these precious gems of mountains. A winter climb adds a whole level of difficulty and preparation that has to be experienced to appreciate. Joining me was my friend Manijeh Mahmoudzadeh Varzi, a fit outdoors aficionado up to the challenge.
In the summer, Quandary Peak (14,265′) is a short, steep Class 1 hike. The East Ridge route is a 7-mile route with 3,450′ ascent. However, in the winter, the element of snow provides a good, hard day in the mountains. There is also some avalanche danger to be aware of.
We arrived at the trailhead around 7:00 am with the temperature hovering around 15 F. Almost right out of the parking lot, we donned snowshoes and began the winding ascent through the evergreen trees on a well-defined path. After about one mile the trail emerged from the trees, with the summit now appearing, and briefly leveled out before beginning a steeper ascent on to the top of the East Ridge. As the sun climbed up above the ridge line to the east, the wind began to markedly pick up.
The trail leveled off again on to the top of an ever-narrowing spine. On our left, there was a cornice with a very steep, dangerous drop-off. The snow was so windblown and hard packed, we could have easily worn crampons, instead of our bulkier snowshoes. This trail is touted as a good winter 14er climb; hence, we encountered several other backcountry skiers and hikers.
At last, the trail began a much steeper, 30 degree climb west towards the summit. I’d say there was a good 1,500′ of ascent packed into the last mile — ouch! Manijeh did a terrific job with a steady pace up the mountain, and even though the wind was intensifying and the wind chill biting, she never uttered a complaint.
Finally, after a false summit, we crested out and the summit post appeared. By now, the wind was an unabated 40 mph gale. Snow tornadoes were spiraling around us. We were only able to stay a brief while inspecting the landscape, a breathtakingly, beautiful contrast of white on black, peaks jutting into the sky as far as the eye could see. I managed to take a few pictures on my iPhone before my hand instantly became numb from the cold.
The trip back to the car was much quicker, at least by one hour. Altogether, it was a good, full 7-hour day. If you are looking for a true, winter adventure, then I would highly recommend Quandary Peak. You would be well served to make sure you check the weather and avalanche conditions before trying this. If all is well, you will have a truly memorable experience — I wish you the best of luck 🙂