Winter Hiking for the First Time

I took my 13 year old son out winter hiking for the first time on a Colorado 14er. I selected Quandary for a few reasons.

  • I’ve been to the top in every month, in almost every condition and know the routes well.
  • I’ve helped several other people do their first 14er on Quandary.
  • He’s been up it twice in the summer and knew what to expect.
  • Winter access to Quandary is the same as in summer, so no long approaches.

Winter hiking for the first time can be daunting, but he has seen me preparing for my winter outings. I trail run, snowshoe run, ice climb, and climb lots of mountains all year round. I knew how to prepare and properly outfit him for the adventure. The weather called for temperatures into the mid 20’s with possible winds to 20 mph. He’s a bit smaller than I am, and younger. He hasn’t adapted to winter activities like I have.

Winter hiking for the first time, my son got to meet Alan Arnette
Winter hiking for the first time, my son got to meet Alan Arnette

My son has a few favorite clothes items so I based his outfit around those to make it easier for him. I suggest that if you are considering winter hiking for the first time you do the same. It’s a lot easier. He wore base layers, insulated snow pants like for sledding, a mid-weight fleece jacket, and a mid-weight down jacket. On his extremities he wore a thick knit cap, ski gloves, and on his feet, wool ski socks and some Sorel boots. We brought along a couple pair of snowshoes but I really didn’t want to wear them unless we had to. He didn’t have enough experience with them that I thought it might slow us down some.

At the trailhead we discovered that there was some mountain club group hike going on, the lot was full and the road was almost completely parked up. We parked way down by Hwy 9 and decided with that many people ahead of us snowshoes were definitely not needed. We started out dressed light, with his puffy (nickname for down jacket) in his backpack. Along the trail we bumped into Alan Arnette, whose Everest Blog is quite popular CLICK HERE. We passed through a few deep spots with a bit of wading. I expected these, since they’re always in about the same spots every year. In my opinion it’s worth slowing down a bit to break trail in hip deep snow for a couple hundred feet in return for going a bit faster and lighter the rest of the trail.

Winter hiking for the first time, my son got pretty hot in the sun but below the wind
Winter hiking for the first time, my son got pretty hot in the sun but below the wind

When we got up in the wind I had him put on his jacket and have some food and water. At about 12,500 – 13,500 feet a lot of people run out of gas. Add in slick snow surfaces and cold and wind and it’s very difficult sometimes to convince the newbie to keep moving. We finally hit the summit about a half hour behind my initial target for him, but we did take a few more breaks and 3-1/2 hours is still a respectable time in the winter. We hung around at the top with about 100 members of whatever the group was, eating and drinking and taking pics.

We then headed down the trail, which was a little bit more slippery. I didn’t have any spikes to fit his Sorel boots, so I didn’t wear any either. It went okay though and in about 2-1/2 hours we got to the car. One funny thing was that having parked at the mouth of the turnoff to Hwy 9 we could see our car almost the entire way down. That was a great incentive to keep moving. His adventure with winter hiking for the first time was a great success and on the drive home he asked me about ways to improve his time and beat it the next time out. That makes a dad proud.

Video of my son winter hiking for the first time

Suggestions if you want to try winter hiking:

Winter hiking can be dangerous. I am very experienced and knew the route well. I knew the local weather patterns and what to expect. I’ve also had several sessions of outdoor training. I’ve been up Quandary with a handful of friends, some having never done a 14er before, some having never been hiking in the winter. I recommend that if you are going to try winter hiking for the first time that you find a mentor to help you.

I suggest that you also have snowshoes and/or microspikes. I’m used to running on winter trails in running shoes, spiked running shoes, and running shoes with Kahtoola Microspikes. In general you want to be safe and prepared. Snowshoes are a bit clunky to haul around, but microspikes are pretty light and great insurance. They would have been handy on the way down.

I recommend trekking poles. They will help you stay up when the going is slippery. They’ll help you stay in balance on the way down. They can help you transfer some of the work to your arms on the way up and down, taking a load off your legs.

I can’t stress enough the importance of going with someone experienced, so I’ll say it again. An experienced friend can monitor you for signs of exhaustion and cold injury. An experienced friend can help you remember to eat and drink and adjust your layers for your body’s thermal state – too hot or too cold. An experienced friend can keep you from being lost. I’ve had to help people find their way down Quandary a few times now. For some reason there are a couple of spots on the way down where people make wrong turns on a regular basis.

If you need any more information about winter hiking for the first time let me know in the comments. I want your first experience to be a good one.

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