Standing at 14,265 feet, Quandary Peak is Colorado’s 13th highest mountain and the highest summit in the Tenmile Range. Many hikers choose Quandary Peak as their inaugural 14er thanks to the accommodating east ridge. This broad, natural ramp provides a gradual hiking route that is 3.3 miles to the summit (6.7 miles round trip). The modest terrain coupled with easy trailhead access make this one of the most crowded summer mountain destinations in Colorado.
Come winter, there’s a very good chance the only ones on the peak will be you and the local mountain goats. Quandary Peak reverts to a place of pristine beauty, a state rarely experienced in the busy summer months. As far as the 14ers go, it is the easiest and safest winter summit - which isn’t to say it’s going to be easy or entirely safe. But the minimized risk, good winter access and the fact it is hiked enough on a regular basis to establish a winter trail makes it a good peak to aim for as your first winter 14er.
Training For Quandary
Winter mountain hiking requires more vigilance than summer outings. All the same warm weather best practices apply: adequate hydration, altitude acclimatization, weather awareness, physical fitness, knowledge of the route, and proper clothing. Winter tacks on increased severity in weather conditions, avalanche potential, reflected sunlight exposure from snow, and the challenge of keeping your hydration methods from freezing. To put it bluntly, it’s going to be more work -- but that doesn’t mean it won’t be fun. The reward of a blazing blue horizon atop the highest snow-capped mountain in the area is worth the extra effort.
Chances are that most people will have already hiked some of Colorado’s mountains in the warm weather months -- this is a great start. The physical effort for a winter hike of Quandary is going to be slightly more taxing than a summer ascent but the real work comes in preparation for winter conditions.
To get a taste for winter conditions, especially those above treeline, several ski areas offer uphill access outside of normal operating hours. The best of these near the Front Range is Arapahoe Basin, which offers uphill access most days, barring severe avalanche conditions. Not only do you get a feel for your layers and exertion levels, there’s a “bonus” of getting an alpine start (A-basin opens to uphill traffic at 5:45 a.m. and access is allowed again after the slopes close, around 4:30 p.m.). Off resort, hiking the ridgelines to the east from the summit of Loveland Pass climb up over 13,000 ft. and mostly avoids avalanche terrain.
Which leads us to the other big difference in winter versus summer: avalanche potential. Proper avalanche gear (beacon, probe, shovel) and the knowledge to use them are vital for winter safety. While Quandary Peak’s east ridge has low avalanche potential, it’s important to realize that this does not mean “no avalanche potential”. Take a class before on avalanche safety before you. Friends of Berthoud Pass has excellent intro classes for free and highly recommended classes beyond. The Colorado Avalanche Forecast is essential information before heading out -- and it changes daily, so check in regularly.
And for a final recommendation, it’s great to get in your first winter 14er with more experienced hikers. 14ers.com forums are a great place to meet up with others interested in winter ascents. Additionally, the Quandary Peak information page has excellent trip reports, current conditions and details on the east ridge route.
The Day of the Hike
Get an early start - sunrise or earlier is best, given how briefly winter sunlight can shine. Be sure to check the weather and avalanche forecasts before you head out. Experienced backcountry skiers can make great time by skinning up and skiing down, though be aware that Quandary is often wind-scoured above treeline, making a continuous ski descent difficult.
The critical thing to be aware of is that mistakes in winter conditions are amplified. A forgotten water bottle, poor layering or improper eye protection can all speed the onset of debilitating conditions such as hypothermia, dehydration and snow blindness. Here’s a quick rundown of the typical gear used for a winter ascent on Quandary:
- Warm, wicking (non-cotton) layers
- Windproof, waterproof jacket and pants
- Warm boots
- Extra gloves, extra hat, balaclava, ski goggles, neck gaiter
- Hand and foot warmers
- Avalanche gear (beacon, probe, shovel)
- Insulated water bottles (smaller 16 oz water bottles can be stored in jacket pockets)
- Maps / GPS (note that cold weather causes GPS units to wear out quickly)
- Headlamp with extra batteries (lithium batteries are suggested for cold weather conditions)
- Ski poles
- Adequate food and snacks
- First Aid kit
Best Time to Go
Typically, December - February are cold, dry months in Colorado. It’s often chilly and clear. During periods of snow stabilization (low winds, no storms) these months can be a great time to hike Quandary, though the sun goes down earlier in the day (usually around :30 p.m.). Start early and make sure your headlamps can handle a few hours of lighting the way.
February - March (the official end of winter) offer more sunlight and warmer temps than early winter, but often have more snow and elevated avalanche danger. Look for a series of stable days. Don’t be surprised if the sun gets warm enough to hike in a t-shirt but be prepared for the temps to drop like a rock come nightfall (or even cloud cover).
A typical winter hike of Quandary Peak takes between 5 - 7 hours for a fit climber. The round trip mileage is 6.7 miles - though the descents can be made quicker by plunge stepping snowy slopes or skiing down.
Avoid hiking or skiing Quandary Peak when avalanche conditions are high any time of year (which can be autumn, winter or spring).