Colorado Skiing 14ers – An Introduction
They’re big and daunting. Colorado’s 14ers are the pride of any Colorado mountaineer, hiker, and avid outdoorsman. During the summer through fall, the summits of Colorado’s 53 14ers (Peaks over 14,000-feet) are filled with hikers knocking off a checklist of achievable summits, either walking through the top or climbing one of the complex technical routes.
But the winter is a different story.
For many backcountry skiers across the state, the 14ers are an enticing goal, and to ski from the tops of these peaks is to ski some of the longest and most challenging lines in the state. While some peaks are easier than others, to ski the 14ers takes an innate knowledge of high altitude skiing, fitness, and ability to make turns in variable snow conditions and rapidly changing weather. You don’t need to be an expert skier to ride the 14ers, but you do need to have acute backcountry knowledge.
Colorado has one of the most dangerous snowpack in the nation, with an early season snow and deep persistent slab problem, which leaves many high altitude objectives inaccessible during the winter. The best time to be setting up the first high altitude ski drops would be after March all the way to July, when much of the snow has consolidated.
It’s also essential to have exceptional route-finding skills, know how to read changing weather patterns, use an ice axe or whippet pole and safely navigate the downhill. All these factors go into a successful 14er ski descent.
For any 14er, even the ‘easier’ ones, it’s absolutely essential to have taken at minimum, an AIARE Level I Course and understand the snowpack at different times of the year. An avalanche at any time of the year, even in the summer months like June and July could be potentially fatal. Always make others aware of the plan and the route, travel with a partner, and don’t be afraid to back off if things start to look sketchy. All skiers must always carry a beacon, shovel, and probe, as well as have appropriate food, water, clothing, and emergency equipment.
The various ski routes of 14ers vary in difficulty and technical ability, from long rides down the face to some of the most technical couloir routes in Colorado. Many of the routes require long climbs to the summit via the standard route before dropping in, while others are more straightforward, where skiers can climb and ski down the same route.
As an easier peak, after having taken the necessary training and having the requisite high-altitude experience, many will try Mt. Quandary, Mt. Elbert, or Mt. Sherman as their routes involve a more straightforward ski down the face then steep couloir lines. It’s imperative to define ‘easy’ in the sense that these peaks are more accessible and involve a more straightforward line down the face, but even for peaks that are considered low angle or straightforward, the avalanche risk is consistently present and should never be underestimated.
Some of Colorado’s more technical peaks involve their own unique challenges, including steep couloir lines, more technical ascents, farther travel to peaks that require further approach travel and overnight trips, and challenging weather conditions and lack of access to roads, amenities, communication, and emergency providers. Such peaks are many of the mountains that dot the San Juans, the Sawatch, and the Elk Range, which feature more jagged skylines and more complex terrain then the gentler rounded 14ers of the Front Range.
Skiing the 14ers involve a keen sense of changing weather, especially at high altitude. Skiers want to start in the pre-dawn hours to catch the best snow and avoid any potential melting avalanche hazards. Colorado’s weather can be fickle, changing quickly from calm to monstrous blizzard in a matter of minutes. Proper trip planning is essential, which includes having a route and sticking to it, carefully reading changing weather patterns, and checking avalanche information and advisories with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).
Skiing the 14ers is an exhilarating experience, which brings riders to the top of Colorado and allows them to ride some of the most thrilling lines in the state. While the thought of skiing the 14ers is thrilling, it can also be treacherous, and any line from the top of Colorado’s tallest peaks demands careful concentration, thought, and experience, both in riding ability and able to make careful judgments in the mountains.
Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides are experts in climbing and skiing the 14ers, with the top ski guides in the state, and the knowledge and knowhow to live the trip of your dreams. Call 720 242 9828 to book your Colorado 14er skiing adventure today!
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If you have taken one or our Avalanche Courses and are planning routes in an around the Front Range Mountains, please bookmark our Daily SNOW Reports Page – click here.
Front range CAIC weather stations due not have current wind data, so we have built in CDOT weather stations to help better access wind slab problems for your route planning.