Hiking in a Winter Wonderland

Since finishing the trail, I decided to move to Colorado. I’m in the middle of trying to put all of my thoughts and motivations for making the move into writing, but didn’t want to pass up on telling you about how I spent my holiday. So here’s my Christmas 2016:

Since I just moved out to Colorado less than a month ago, I could not justify spending the money to go back home for the holidays. For Christmas I decided to go up to the mountains and try to climb a relatively easy 14er, Quandary Peak. A 14er is the term used to describe one of Colorado’s 50+ peaks over 14,000′. These places have a reputation for having volatile weather because of their elevation and much of the mountain is above treeline, so even easy climbs are sometimes too difficult to summit.

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Although the week leading up to Christmas was beautiful, I picked the one bad day to try to hike to the summit. In addition to the 4 inches of snow that were called for, there was a high of 1° Fahrenheit and wind gusts above treeline were forecasted to be well above 60 mph. I knew all of this before I left my house, but I did my research and got as much winter gear as I could and decided to go anyway. In preparation, I bought new gloves, microspikes, and snowshoes. I also got a few new pairs of merino wool socks from my family for Christmas. So I packed up my 50 liter Osprey pack with enough gear for 2 nights and drove the 3 hours into the mountains for my holiday hike.

Less than 2 miles in I was above treeline and realized I was not finishing my hike. Every 10 steps I would have to turn my back to the wind just to thaw out my face. My glasses kept fogging up, so I was forced to take them off. Now every time I blinked I could feel my eyelashes sticking together. There was no sign of the trail because the snow was coming down too hard and the wind was blowing everywhere, so I kept walking off trail and having to adjust by looking at my GPS. And I wasn’t even half way up the mountain yet! So about a half mile later than I should have, I decided to admit defeat and turn back.

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Getting close to tree line, the winds were picking up and visibility was going down

After that decision, it should have figuratively and literally been all downhill from there, right? Nope. As soon as I turned around to look for my snowshoe prints to backtrack I realized they were smoothed out by the crazily blowing wind. Since I was originally walking uphill crookedly because of the wind and blind because of the snow I had almost no idea of how I came up. So about 50 steps went by, I took out my GPS, and realized I was almost 100 feet off of the trail already. The wind was still pushing me in all directions so an attempt to correct my path was pretty futile. I decided to just get below tree line and then figure out how to get back to the trail.

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Once below treeline I was a few hundred feet off trail and walking in what I thought was less than a foot of snow. My MSR Evo snowshoes were sinking about 6 inches in, so I figured the snow was packing against the ground not too far beneath that. But when I tripped and threw my arms out in front of me to break my fall I was very surprised to not get caught until my arms were totally engulfed and my chest compacted the snow. I was able to move a dead, leaning tree that was near me to reveal that I was actually walking in about 2.5 feet of snow! I’ve never used snowshoes before but was very impressed with how well they worked. If I was just attempting to post-hole my way back to the trail I would have been screwed.

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Damn, it was cold.

Eventually I found my way back to the trail and below tree line the wind was much more tame. It was a whole different world. I had just left the spin cycle of the coldest, meanest washer I had ever seen and entered a scene from Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. It was one of the most beautiful winter landscapes I’ve ever hiked in. The clouds even cleared up for a bit and the sun came out to shine against the blanketed scene.

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Dan and I at Broken Compass Brewery

Eventually I made it back to my car and drove in to town. I have very few friends in this state, but I was fortunate enough to have one, Dan, that lived a few miles away, in Breckenridge. He was working until mid day and his girlfriend was working in Denver that day, so we decided to meet up and have some drinks and dinner. As much as I was alright celebrating Christmas unconventionally by myself getting my ass kicked on a mountain, it was nice to be with a friend on the holiday. We went to Broken Compass Brewery, and spent a few beers catching up before heading back to his place to cook up burgers. He’s working for an outdoors company that equips and brings tourists out on adventures like sledding, mountain biking, and skiing. He was actually working on Christmas, bringing a family sledding, that’s why he didn’t join me. I’ll definitely be making it up to see him again, he mentioned bringing me back country split boarding.

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