Winter Solo & My First 14'er
February 13, 2006
Location: Colorado, United States, North America
Lat/Lon: 39.39700°N / 106.1°W
Elevation: 14265 ft / 4348 m
By the end of January, 2006 I knew I was going to have to make a business rip to Denver sometime during mid February, so I immediately started planning for my first 14’er. I have a good friend that just moved to Denver and I lined him up for a climb the day before I had to show up for work.
After some research I settled on Quandary. Good winter access. High elevation trailhead. Relatively safe from avalanche danger. I felt like I had a plan, only now I needed some extra gear. I had never before been in an environments where snowshoes would be a requirement, so I had to get a pair. I also felt like a glove upgrade was in order, after all I was going to a higher altitude than I had ever been before (by over 2000 feet) in winter! But, after one delivery from Backcountry.com, I was set.
Quandary Peak is the highpoint of Colorado's Tenmile Range, an aesthetically-pleasing and rugged chain of peaks stretching south from Frisco to the Continental Divide, just south of Breckenridge. While this is a popular hiking route in other seasons, it is not to be taken lightly in winter. One popular guidebook to the Colorado 14’ers rates this route Hard in the winter on a scale Hard, Harder and Hardest. Nothing comes easy at over 14,000 feet in winter.
Three days before the planned climb, my partner had a work obligation pop-up, so I came to critical decision. After some 2 seconds of consideration, I decided to go solo. If it got too bad, I’d just turn around. But I was hungry for an ascent, and this gave me the opportunity to turn this into something even more coveted, a solo-winter-14’er. After studying the snowpack and avalanche conditions on-line, I knew the conditions were right for the attempt. There would be no excuses. No reason not to make the top other than my own physical and mental limitations.
After I had dinner with my friend and crashed at his place in Denver, I settled in for a restless night. I caught as much shuteye as possible, but I was a little anxious to say the least. At 4 AM I was out the door and headed for Breckenridge.
I got to the trailhead (10, 900’) just south of Breckenridge at 6 and was packed up and on the trail by 15 after. The trail was nicely packed from the weekend traffic, and I had an early start so the snow was nice and firm. This made for quick travel up to the start of the ridge at treeline (about 11,800’). By this time the sun was coming up, so I made a pit-stop for some Gu and to get out my ski goggles. I quickly was below the first steep section that had a few tracks up it to the ridge proper. Another half-hour later and I had made it up this slope and was on the well defined portion of the ridge. I had a beeline for the summit, still 2000’ above me. Weather was a little windy, but otherwise great. There were a few clouds building to the North and Quandary blocked my visibility to the West (where any foul weather would be approaching from). Not too much cause for concern, yet.
I had only consumed about one fourth of my Gatorade that I had packed along, and at this altitude the snow was very firm, so I elected to leave 1L of my fluids and my snowshoes (still yet to be used) stashed under some rocks to prevent them from getting blown away.
With my lighter pack, I felt like I was walking on air. But that didn’t last long at over 12,500’. It was only a few hundred more feet from my cache before the altitude began to wear me down, physically and mentally. But I kept on just putting one foot in front of the other. At one point the ridge dramatically narrowed from the terrain below. The snow was rock hard, so I took another break to Gu-up and strap on the crampons and take out the ice axe. It was cold enough that as soon as I took off my gloves to manipulate my pack, my hands would freeze. So I started a two glove system, where I’d switch to my thinner gloves to gain dexterity at my breaks, and switch back to my heavier gloves when I was ready to continue.
By this point, I was really feeling the altitude. After a short break (for Gu and Gatorade) I felt OK, but after only a few steps I could hear my heart pounding in my head. I had to have been beating at upwards of 165 bpm for hours. It got to the point where I was picking out rocks 10 steps ahead me, telling my self that I stop for a few seconds each time I’d make it to an objective. At around 14,000' my legs got a little shakey and my mind a little dazed. It felt like I had pounded a couple beers on an empty stomach.
Finally the grade eased and I was on the final ridge to the summit in a total white-out. By this point visibility had deteroriated to less than 30’, but that didn’t stop me from cracking a smile and having a laugh as I made it to the very top. However, I knew that this was only half-way, but getting down should be easy, right? After a few pics (including one of my snot-cicle) and another snack I was traversing off the summit, back down the ridge.
After my successful summit
The highlight of the descent was passing a group of several 10th Mountain Division Rangers out on a training exercise. I took the opportunity to stop and take a break while shooting some pics of them ascending the ridge. Nice guys.
10th Mtn Div.
I continued down the ridge and apparently missed the less defined portion of the ridge that I came up. I ended up in terrain where my options were limited to traversing some very loose, steep snow to a rock rib to descend to treeline, climb back up several hundred feet of the ridge to try to regain my line of ascent (and the packed trail below treeline) or slide down a gully that looked like prime avy terrain. I elected to head to the rock rib, where I thought I could easily travers the woods east to the trail.
WRONG! The traverse to the rib was a little scary with the extremely loose snow, and once I made it down the rib, the powder was so fluffy that every third to fifth step I sink up to my crotch with both feet buried. As my legs/feet went down, the snow would pile into the cavity in the snow left by my snowshoes. They were performing like anchors in sand. After over an hour and a half of this terror, panic started to set in as it became clear that I was not going to regain the packed trail that I had come in on. At one point I actually got out my radio and scanned the channels for activity so that, if I needed to, I could call for help. I thought the worst…
“I am gonna die out here, this is it. My poor wife. Can I make a snow cave? I am gonna be one of the idiots that had all the tools to survive, but left them in the truck. I have enough food for a few days if required. Can I build a fire without any fire starting devices? I can’t eat enough snow for fluids. I won’t make it through the night anyway, better just keep going.”
But then, like the calm after a storm, my panic dissolved and I figured out where I had to be using my GPS and map, and saw on the map that there was a road only a couple hundred feet below me. But I was not sure about where I was, nor did I know if the road would be visible. Could I miss it like I must have the packed trail? I saw what I thought was the road through the trees, but didn’t get my hopes up. I just kept heading NE and descending to maximize my chance of hitting the road if there were any errors in my estimation of my current locations.
HALLALUAH! It was the road and snowmobiles had packed it down. My post-holing was finally over! A half hour march put me back to the truck, just at the Army guys were skiing down and just in time to call my friend, who was already considering what time to call for mountain rescue.
I learned a great deal about self-sufficiency that day to say the least.
It was a great day.
Lightweight “tight” long underwear top
Campmor fleece hat
Midweight Capilene Zip top
Waterproof, breathable shell bibs
Midweight Capilene pants
Liner + Heavy socks
Plastic mountaineering boots
Gloves + extra set of thin gloves
Ice axe + crampons
GPS, map, compass, whistle, radio, camera
Gu, Gatorade, beef jerky*, M&M’s*
Hooded, waterproof, breathable shell*
* not used