Climbing the 14ers – Gray’s Peak
There is a lot of training value in climbing the 14ers of Colorado. Especially in the Winter season, when conditions are much like they would be in Alaska or other cold windy places. My friend Todd came up from the Front Range to spend the night. Saturday December 29 we woke up to below zero temperatures, but sunny skies. The forecast called for high winds near evening.
To climb the 14ers in Winter you have to consider cold and wind. You should think about protecting all exposed skin surfaces from wind as well as sun. Reflected sun off snow can give you severe sunburn before you realize it. I’m wearing a Powerstretch Fleece base layer shirt and bibs. Mammut soft shell ski bibs. A pile jacket and thin windbreaker on top. For boots I’m wearing Scarpa Phantom 6000 Mountaineering Boots, since I want to be sure my toes stay warm. These are double boots and were very warm last year for ice climbing. In my pack I have a GoLite Bitterroot jacket.
I normally wear a Buff, a thin cloth tube, around my neck, because it’s very versatile. You can wear it around your neck, up over your ears and nose, or even as a thin beanie. I have a thin Pearl iZumi beanie, and in the pack I have a Columbia Omni-Heat knit cap. For gloves I like the older model OR Extravert glove. It’s really warm, fits well, and has great feel with the leather palm and fingers for managing my trekking poles. In the pack I have a pair of MH Medusa gloves. I used this combination of gloves when I was in Alaska, and it kept me pretty warm.
Climbing the 14ers in Winter has many obstacles, one of which is trailhead parking. For Gray’s Peak there is a large parking area near the I-70 Bakerville exit. Unfortunately this parking area is about 3 miles from the actual trailhead. This extra 6 miles added to your round trip hike might make a big difference. If you have a low clearance vehicle you might want to park here anyway. We decided to see if we could make it to the second parking area, about a mile up the road. The snow was packed pretty good, and it was obvious we weren’t the first to try. Todd has a four wheel drive vehicle with good tall tires, so we made it to the parking area with no problems. We didn’t want to try to go further though. We parked the SUV and started up the road around 10:00 AM.
About a half mile from this parking area the road passes through private land. It’s very narrow with not too many places to turn around. There are deep ruts and large rocks in the path. As we hiked up the road we found the snow wasn’t too deep, fairly well packed down, and there were quite a few bare spots. It’s just barely possible a motivated, experienced driver of a jeep style vehicle with high clearance, knobby tires, chains, and hopefully a winch, to make the Summer Trailhead today. We were hiking in our boots, without snowshoes or Kahtoola MICROspikes, unlike almost everyone else we ran into that day.
We got to the official trailhead by the bridge and parking area in an hour. We hung out for a few minutes to eat and drink and take pictures. The temperature was very cold, but the sun made it feel pretty good. Besides, there was no wind. Yet. The trail was pretty well packed down by snowshoes and skis so it was easy enough to do in just boots. After nearly a mile we passed over a small tree-covered hill to where we could see both Gray’s and Torrey’s, two of the 14ers most easily accessible from Denver and the Front Range of Colorado. Two snowshoers and two hikers in microspikes passed us coming down. Neither had gone on to the summits and wished us well. One suggested we hurry to beat sunset. A great idea actually.
Shortly after the fork to Kelso Ridge, one of the more difficult trails to the summit of Torrey’s, we began the more steep and rugged portion of the trail. It alternated between rock and snow, some packed and some loose. Overall the going was still pretty quick considering we were in boots. We passed over a few long icy stretches and were glad we both had trekking poles. Other climbers above us were now visible on the summit and on the faces of both of the 14ers here. The wandering zig-zag switchbacks on Gray’s were like a spiderweb maze.
At 13,000′ we ran into a large group of climbers descending. They had bailed just a hundred feet further along, and looked pretty miserable. The wind was picking up quite briskly. I pulled the Buff up over my nose to protect it from the cold. We lost the path a few times and I broke trail straight up some snowy chutes to try to intersect the correct switchbacks. This added quite a bit of time to our ascent, and we were both out of breath and had to rest a lot. There were two climbers struggling above us. They didn’t seem to be getting any further ahead of us, so we figured we were having about as much trouble as they.
We watched a climber coming across to us from the Gray’s-Torrey’s Saddle sinking in up to his waist across the wide snowfield. Then I sank in to my waist. Karma? I retraced my steps and stayed closer to the rocks then. Suddenly we were on the correct switchback trail and it was pretty quick going from then on. It was very cold and windy so I stopped to quickly put my puffy down jacket on. I normally wait until the summit if I can, but it was too severe out. One of the hazards of doing the 14ers in Winter. Be prepared for cold and wind. Finally we arrived at the summit of Gray’s Peak.
Winter ascent of one of the 14ers – Gray’s Peak
The two guys we were following up the last thousand feet were clearly cold and in a hurry to descend. They advised us not to remove our gloves. They had and were very sorry for it. We stopped to take a few pictures, eat, and drink. Todd set up a tripod and took some pictures. I crouched behind one of the few piles of rocks set up as wind breaks, common on some of the 14ers, and quick stuffed food into my mouth and pockets and guzzled the rest of my first bottle of now slushy water. We had hit the summit at 3:00 PM, five hours after starting. Four hours from the bridge.
Sunset was less than two hours away, so we needed to be very fast in descending. Todd had a headlamp, but I had managed to forget mine in my ice skating bag. We did some ice skating in the dark the night before on Keystone Lake. I also only had my sunglasses with. They’re prescription. When it gets dark I’ll have to remove them. If I can make it to the snow covered gravel road before dark I should be just fine.
We booked it down the switchbacks, following the path of the two guys ahead of us. It was a much shorter and much better path, following what seemed to be the right switchbacks all the way down to the Kelso Ridge fork. We boot-skied a lot of it, slipping and sliding and using our poles for support. We paused for a minute to snarf down some quick food, take a few pics, then continue. It was getting much darker now. Daylight is an important consideration when doing the 14ers in Winter. I need to get a headlamp to keep in my bag. Remind me …
We made good time down the rest of the trail. As we passed the stand of trees on the little intersecting ridge we got a good view of the sunset over Gray’s and the reflected pink sky from the East. I love the 14ers for the pretty views. The view from the summit was magnificent. I wish it wasn’t so cold and windy. It was dark enough now for me to remove my sunglasses, and the going became much rougher. I could make out dark and light patches, so I could avoid holes in the trail. Fortunately the large group we had passed on the way up had beat the trail down pretty good.
At the bridge we stopped to eat and chug water again. I finished half of my second bottle of water. As cold as it was I was pretty glad I didn’t try to wear a bladder. It would have frozen for sure. It was a little after 5:00 PM. We had descended to here in two hours. We made good time on the road out, even in the dark sharing the light of a little headlamp. Even without my prescription glasses. We got to the car a little before 6:00 PM. We were so glad we had parked at the middle parking area. Driving out was really quick and easy and after meeting up with the rest of my family we went to Kenosha in Breck to eat.
I love doing the 14ers, and have enjoyed my winter climbs quite a bit. In spite of some wind and snow and cold. If you can, try one of the 14ers in Winter. Be safe, be prepared, and enjoy.