After hearing that a friend wanted to try climbing a fourteener in winter, I decided to put together a fun little February trip to Quandary Peak. Initially, I got a great response and many people indicated they'd like to give it a try. As the weeks wore on and the date approached, the list whittled down to a mere six. Among them were myself, my brother Mark, my climbing buddy Nate, two of Mark's work friends, and a work friend of mine.
The idea was to accommodate both snowshoers and skiers who felt like getting in some turns above treeline. The plan was to meet as for an alpine start and try to be at the trailhead at 6:00 AM, considering the size of the group and the lack of winter fourteener experience possessed by some. We were to attempt the East Ridge route with several possible ski descent options. We knew the weather was not great with a new front blowing in from Utah, and the avalanche conditions were moderate with pockets of considerable on the aspects we would be on. So, we all brought beacons, shovels, and probes, and I brought my usual ridiculous amount of emergency gear (stove, fuel, pot, down jacket, lots of extra clothing, repair kit / first aid kit, bivy sack, crampons, and ice axe). If all this extra weight slowed me down at all, I'd pare it back. But, I still tend to stay out front without too much strain so I loaded up.
The alarm jolted me up at 3:00 AM after a mere 2.5 hours of sleep, and I stumbled around like a drunk until I came to my senses. Not long after I got a call from Nate. I couldn't really tell what he was trying to say but I knew he wouldn't be joining us. “Great”, I thought, “It's not even 4:00 and we've already lost one.” I knew Mark and I would still be able to keep an eye on our three friends, so I charged forward. I got to Mark's house around 4:00 AM, we left Boulder shortly thereafter, and met up with Jeff and Scott J. on our way to Golden. Traffic was light (gotta love I-70 before sunrise) and after a phone call or two we met up with Brad near the trailhead. We parked next to a Jeep with somebody laying underneath it finishing what appeared to be a long painful stealth bivy. We were slow getting started, and finished our beacon test and left the parking area by 7:30 AM.
Brad snowshoed and the rest of us skinned up through the trees eventually reaching the lower bowl at treeline. We stopped here to evaluate the snowpack with disturbing results. First I dug a pit and found suncrust and blown snow covering a rock hard slab sitting on top of a load of depth hoar. Next we approached the bottom of the first slope under a lower angled section and dug out a quick block. I carved out the sides and the downhill about 2' square and 4-5' deep and when I went to separate the column from the uphill snow, the block literally jumped out at me before I could even start giving it taps with the shovel. Knowing this, and the avalanche forecast, we picked a cautious line on climber's left near the crest of the ridge. From there, we skinned up and around a rocky knob and eventually made our way onto the upper bench at approximately 13,000 feet. Looking up from here, we decided to stash our skis under some rocks (the wind had picked up over treeline and was gusting near 30 mph). There were probably almost 20 people visible on the mountain at or above the bench, so we played leapfrog up the final climb to the summit ridge. Looking over at the summit bowls, I knew immediately there was no chance I'd be skiing them that day. Brad and I charged ahead and were standing on the summit by 12:30 PM. I pulled out my hand-held weather station and measured -2.2 degrees F with a peak wind gust of 39 mph. The device told me this was equivalent to a wind chill of -46 degrees F or so, but I think these kinds of numbers are a bit silly. After all, wind chill is perceived on bare skin, and I had none exposed. Brad and I hustled back down and passed Mark, Jeff, and Scott J. on their way up the last leg.
Brad and I stuck together and kept moving down so that he wouldn't fall too far behind on his snowhoes. I got my skis on at the lower end of the bench and took off down the mellow slope below. In spite of my ancient Tuas, Silvretta bindings, oversized Koflachs, and ~40 lb pack, I found the going pretty smooth. The sastrugi was not too bad and there were lots of little snow pillows between the hard stuff. I skied ahead of Brad and stopped frequently to allow him to catch up. We descended pretty quickly back to where I had dug our pits and waited for the others in the trees. After about 30 minutes or so the rest caught up and we skied off into the trees. The trail was narrow and packed, making skiing difficult, and the off-trail snow conditions were about the most difficult I have ever been in. There was an inch or two of sun crust on top of softer older snow such that my skis would not stay on top, and once they broke under they were damn near impossible to turn. For anyone who has skied this lower section, you know how important quick turning is through the tight trees. I had made it all the way down to treeline without a fall, but ended up with at least half a dozen in this horrible snow. After a disastrous descent through this lower section, we popped out on the road and slid back to the car, which we reached around 3:30. We made the round-trip in just about 8 hours, confirming my decision to start early.
We took some pics, said goodbye to Brad (who lives in Colorado Springs and went south over Hoosier Pass), and got back on I-70. Traffic was not too bad, just a little slow in a few spots. Apparently we missed the mess from the huge pileup on the eastbound lanes that happened earlier. We got back to Boulder and went almost directly to the Southern Sun for beer and burgers to celebrate three people's first winter fourteener. I was home by 8:00 and passed out on the sofa by 9:00. It was a great day and a lot of fun skiing between the upper bench and treeline. The ski descent put a fun twist on what's usually just a long slog, and in spite of the conditions I would do it again (and probably will).