By Maisie Ramsay
It was about this time last year that Adam, Aaron and I decided November was a perfectly reasonable time to hike up Mount Yale.
Adam is my husband.
Aaron is a guy who knows a thing or two about cold weather, having spent the summer on an Alaskan glacier.
I’m an idiot.
“I’m an idiot,” I thought to myself, as I leaned into a frigid gale with all the cooling power of liquid nitrogen. The wind sucked the heat from my body until my teeth chattered like a wind up desk toy. My fingers, stuffed into flimsy gloves with all the insulation power of tissue paper, were bone white and immobile with cold. I kept imagining myself as a human popsicle, blown off the mountain and permanently iced to a boulder some thousand feet below.
To my horror, I began to cry.
By this point we were just minutes from topping out, having already broken treeline and post-holed through frozen drifts in the final push to Yale’s 14,200-foot summit. A few hundred yards back, I had foolishly decided against donning my down jacket. Now, too stiff and cold to contemplate removing my backpack and fumbling it on, I bitterly regretted the decision. Adam and Aaron, appropriately bundled in winter layers, happily marched to the summit. I also marched, though I wouldn’t describe my mood as happy.
“Let’s get the hell off this thing,” I said.
That short, steep and extremely cold learning curve was my introduction to the joys of winter hiking.
Winter is a wonderful time to head out into the backcountry. It’s a time of solitude, a time of untouched terrain and stark beauty. Trails that would normally be swarming with hikers are virtually abandoned. Bustling tourist hubs like St. Elmo fall silent. Even jeep roads, accessible by snowmobile in the winter, see a fraction of their summer traffic.
A wide-open backcountry playground, all to yourself.
Of course, all that beauty and solitude isn’t particularly gratifying if you’re cold and wet and hungry and would rather be sitting at home with a nice cup of hot chocolate.
The key to enjoying it, versus enduring it, is preparation.
I now wear winter leggings, winter hiking boots and heavy-duty wool socks. On my top half are sweat-wicking layers topped with a down jacket and hard shell. A wool balaclava and ski goggles are on hand to keep my head and eyes protected. And yes, I’ve ditched the dime store gloves for actual mittens.
Last winter I traipsed up Quandary Peak twice, sat on the Continental Divide as blackened storm clouds rolled over Tincup Pass, and snowshoed over the frozen expanse of Cottonwood Lake. There were other outings, large and small – excursions that transformed winter from a season to be tolerated into a season of excitement, of exploration.
Don’t start like I did, by wearing summer layers at 14,000 feet in November. That’s just silly, not to mention dangerous. Get the gear you need to be safe and comfortable, and get outside. Worried about avalanche danger? You can get educated on the basics through free classes like those offered by Friends of Berthoud Pass, and there are plenty of places to explore that aren’t prone to a slide. ?
Maisie’s Winter Recommendations, from Easiest to Hardest:
A short drive west of Buena Vista on C.R. 306 gets you to the C.R. 344 turnoff for Cottonwood Lake. Strap on the snowshoes or nordic skis for a mellow out-and-back to the lake.
This popular summer hike near Monarch Pass is also frequented by the snowshoe set. Head out from the U.S. Hwy. 50 parking area, winding your way up the well-trodden trail. Two miles and 1,275 feet of elevation gain get you to the first lake.
Browns Creek Falls
A three-mile hike in from the Browns Creek trailhead, off C.R. 272, outside Nathrop, brings you to Browns Creek Falls, a cascade of ice cleft into a frozen forest. Fresh snow can make the trail difficult to follow, so pay attention to your route.
Maisie Ramsay is an amateur parrot tamer and beet pickler who would rather be hiking right now. Follow her escapades at theviewtax.com.