Increase the length of your peak-bagging season by learning how to navigate snow-covered terrain
The term “mountaineering” traditionally refers to the act of getting to the top of a mountain using ropes and traveling across glaciated terrain. Today, it encompasses everything from multi-pitch rock or alpine climbs, to ski mountaineering. For this piece, we’ll use it to refer to non-technical (non-roped) ascents over moderate to steep snow slopes.
It’s no secret that outdoor enthusiasts love spring — mountain bikers rejoice in melted trails, backcountry skiers praise a more stable snowpack. But for some of us — the trail runners, hikers and peak-baggers out there — spring can feel like a three month waiting game, feeling as if a mountain is off limits until every last snowfield has melted off its flanks.
It doesn’t have to be.
For me, embracing the snow doubled my peak-climbing season from three to six months. It allowed me to push my limits and achieve things I didn’t think possible. Most importantly, it created a new way of relating to the mountains in my own backyard. I found freedom at 13,000 feet while looking out over a San Juan skyline — dramatically draped in white, muffled and deafening, all at the same time.
Sure, it’s more complicated — there’s extra gear to carry, no trails to follow, avalanche and snow-related hazards to consider. But, for those of us who feel inexplicably called to the mountains, I’d be willing to bet the reward is well worth the effort.
In fact, discovering snow climbing or “mountaineering,” in the general sense of the world, turned out to be a blast. If you’ve ever Stair-Mastered your way up a San Juan choss hill, I can assure you that scampering up a snow slope in spiked boots is objectively way easier (and more fun). All you’ve got to do is put in the time — learn the basics, get some new gear, and you too can enjoy a snow-covered summit right in your own backyard.
With a bit of planning and preparation, you don’t have to wait for summer to reach a mountaintop. Here are five tips for spring snow climbing.
1. KNOW BEFORE YOU GO – GET EDUCATED
Take an avalanche education course. There are many resources out there, and deciding where to start can feel overwhelming. We’ll cover the essentials:
- There is only one certifying body of avalanche education in the country: the American Avalanche Association (A3). Keep that in the back of your mind always.
- For the A3 avalanche education track, you can start in two places: a one-day Avalanche Awareness course or the multiday “Rec” Level 1. A Level 1 is required for anyone wanting to continue on the A3’s recreational or professional education tracks.
- Where do I take a course? The A3 doesn’t offer courses itself but instead authorizes certain providers to teach its curriculum. One well known provider is AIARE, but there plenty of local guide companies offer courses as well. To find a course with an official provider near you, visit www.avalanche.org.
- Familiarize yourself with your local avalanche forecasting center for daily reports about avalanche risks and potential dangers where you live. For Colorado, it’s the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).
2. GO TO SNOW SCHOOL
There’s no arguing that crampon-ing up a steep snow slope is a blast; but did you know it’s also an integral part of safety when it comes to mountaineering? For all types of climbing, your first layer of security is you. Knowing how to efficiently travel across snow slopes using proper footwork/crampon techniques is the key to preventing injury. Remember: mountaineering involves a lot of sharp, pointy tools that are designed for protection, but can achieve the opposite if used incorrectly.
Before your first summit attempt, you’ll need to know these basic skills:
Snow travel techniques: Safely walking on flat or steep snow slopes in variable conditions including footwork techniques such as step-kicking, front-pointing, crossover step, duck foot and plunge-stepping.
How to use an ice axe: Basic self arrest techniques to know how to stop yourself in the event of a fall on an icy or steep slope. For this one, there is no substitute for hands-on practice, and I recommend learning from a professional.
Crampon techniques: Know how to walk in crampons (it’s harder than it sounds), and be sure to understand how to put them on, take them off and make adjustments. Snow can be hard or even become full ice, and crampons are your lifeline. Practice footwork techniques wearing them.
Take a class. Sure, a class isn’t required, but it’s definitely your best bet for learning these skills and getting hands-on practice in the backcountry. Look for a course offered by a local organization like the Colorado Mountain Club or check out a regional guide service.
3. GEAR UP – GET THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
To climb a snowy summit, you’ll need:
Mountaineering boots: Leather, waterproof and insulated are a few characteristics of a good boot. Double or plastic boots are overkill for the Four Corners, just make sure it’s solid, sturdy and warm enough to be covered in snow all day.
Crampons: Steel crampons with 10-12 points (look for horizontal front points versus vertical which are used for ice climbing). Universal or step-in crampons are easiest to start with since they will fit any type of boot. Make sure you know how to fit your crampons properly to your boots before going out.
Ice axe: Keep it simple — look for a single axe designed for general mountaineering or glacier travel. The shaft can be straight or slightly curved — experts recommend 60 centimeters minimum for the length.
Helmet: Climbing-rated helmet for rock/ice fall — make sure it fits over a hat.
4. PLAN (AND UNDERSTAND) YOUR ROUTE
Start small. Even for the most experienced peak-baggers, climbing mountains in winter will feel like an entirely different world. Terrain looks different, new hazards exist and you need to know how to navigate off-trail (i.e. map and compass). Start with an easy (Class 1) hike on a popular trail where you are certain you will not get lost. Build from there and wait to tackle a peak until you’ve built a foundation of confidence moving through snow in the backcountry. Also:
- Learn to navigate with a map and compass. Batteries die in colder temperatures, so don’t put yourself in a position where you’re forced to rely on technology.
- Study maps of your route and understand how the terrain will look in real life. Remember it will be covered in snow.
- Know the meaning of avalanche terrain, slope angle and terrain trap, and learn how to identify these features.
- Have a backup plan.
5. START EARLY
You have fewer hours of daylight in spring than summer, so prepare to start before dawn. Hiking on snow takes roughly one-third longer than what a typical hike would take on a trail (if a climb takes 7 hours in summer, allow 9-10 hours, if not longer). In spring, north-facing slopes are ideal snow climbs because the sun hits them late in the day. That blissful ease of ascending a snow slope goes out the window once solar radiation hits. Warm slushy snow is not only dangerous due to the increased risk of avalanches and rockfall, it’s also terrible to move through, thus prolonging your exposure to these objective hazards.
At the end of the day, have fun. Pushing your comfort zone is the very essence of adventure, and the mountains offer an excellent stage for challenge and growth. Embrace it, enjoy it and don’t risk losing it. Practice safety first, so we can continue to experience new adventures in the alpine and enjoy all of the abundance in our own backyard.
Bring a more experienced partner. Always tell someone about your plan before heading out.
Seek out learning opportunities. Join a mountaineering club or climbing group near your hometown.
Embrace the beginner’s mindset. Be okay with turning around.
Hire a guide. If you’re still feeling apprehensive about a snowy summit climb, trust your gut and go with a professional! Sure, it costs more, but there’s no substitute for the hands-on learning.
Conditions are important. Be a student at all times. Don’t just check your iPhone’s weather app. Familiarize yourself with resources like www.weather.gov and understand how patterns might affect avalanches and other snow hazards.
Know your limits.
SUZANNA LOURIE is a former journalist turned wilderness guide whose love of the San Juan Mountains inspired her to pick up a pen and paper after a six year hiatus. You can usually find her above the treeline on some remote peak between Durango and Ouray running (downhill) with her pup, Oso.