Photo courtesy of James Dziezynski
Heading into the wilds of the high country in the winter—when the mountains take on a new grace and pose new challenges—can be the best way to remember those parts of Colorado you may have forgotten.
Some of us mountaineers are hardwired with a quirky love of the off season. It’s the same urge that keeps us lingering in stadiums long after the last out or wandering the chilly shoreline after the tourists have departed. When the winter comes, Colorado’s backcountry harvests this spirit and lays out a new world that quietly waits for those bold enough to make the journey.
Passage here does not come easy. There are trials—bitter cold, deafening winds, unstable snow, rushing darkness. You become a lonely beacon of life in a frozen landscape. Primitive parts of the soul slowly awake.
Colorado’s mountain resorts and backcountry huts don’t offer this experience: they’re a cozy middle ground, where we give the elements a preview of our vulnerability before retreating to the warmth and hospitality of those insulated havens. Beyond these sanctuaries are mountaintops and lakes frozen harder than stone. They wait in the outlands of the geographic world and the human heart.
Every winter I renew my contract with Mount Audubon. This 13,222-foot peak dominates the skyline beyond Boulder, dwarfing the flatirons and foothills. Its striated dome takes on the texture of polished marble in January, courtesy of the harsh winds that blast most of its snowy powder into the sub-alpine forests. In the summer, it’s an accommodating summit, with well-developed trails and plenty of parking. With the change of seasons, Audubon’s high reaches are isolated behind a formidable combination of hardened wilderness and katabatic winds.
I am patient with my invitation, as mountains tend to frown upon party crashers. I wait for a day when the sky glows in delicate, deceptively inviting pastels.The stiffness and stillness of the frozen landscape camouflages the winds. Only the dusty, distant plumes of fresh snow blowing horizontally from the peak give fair warning of the conditions above. For the winter wanderer, a clear sky is good enough. I prepare, select the proper gear.
Simply skiing into the summer trailhead is a fine winter outing, as would be stashing my skis and plunging through unpredictable snow drifts to timberline. Above the last low-lying sturdy shrubs, the peak is an intermittent carpet of bulletproof ice and frost fringed boulders. Any exposed skin burns with acute intensity in the low temperatures and ever-present wind. Hidden under layers of high-tech gear, I am the lone flicker of life in a dormant world.
But like climbing any other mountain, if you can find your rhythm and control your emotions, there is something sublime waiting to be experienced. It’s easy enough to let this raw wonder overwhelm you. I view it more like a peek behind the scenes of winter’s elegant remodeling prowess. It is a marvel to see delicate flowers trapped under ice, yet very much still alive and occasionally vibrant with pink or blue petals.
Even though the world below is warm and welcoming, I keep going higher. Cold air burns my lungs. My footsteps are dull and imprecise. Soon the summit is within reach. My winter trance intensifies.
Even on a summit as modest as Mount Audubon, the electric thrill of being alive is tangible. Rock, wind, snow and other building blocks of the natural world are pure and primitive here. These are all the base ingredients of both the physical and spiritual world. This is the gateway through which these simple elements are compounded into every complex creation, every emotion. Everything from the metal skin of a bulldozer to the lonely sorrow of a broken heart swirl around unrefined. Mountaintops are the headwaters of the soul.
Forgive me for such poetic notions—they don’t seem quite so obvious in the moment. Simply stop moving and the cold penetrates all that hard-earned caloric heat in a flash. Perhaps rather than being mystified in awe at the purity of the summit, you may glimpse your tiny car parked dishearteningly far away. And I’d bet my last drop of nearly frozen green tea that you may fantasize about the delirious comfort of a warm bed.
On the way down, my worldview shrinks to the small radius of my rapidly dimming headlamp is far from ideal. Taking a wrong step in the woods and realizing both my camera and GPS are frozen to death is discouraging. Old Man Winter loves to make people feel as old, sore, cranky and stiff as he is.
Count myself among those whose first serious winter outings were less than perfect. In fact, the first half dozen were fairly miserable. I cut my teeth in the bucolic 4,000 foot peaks of Vermont, literally. Trying to gnaw a meager chunk off a frozen strip of PowerBar left me with gashed gums. The wood was too cold to burn, stoves continually malfunctioned and leather boots froze solid. Getting up to pee in the middle of the night, even into a designated bottle within the confines of my tent, required a big rally. The low vibration of endless shivers kept me awake and just a bit afraid.
But slowly, I began to master overcoming winter discomfort. Throw a warm water bottle in the sleeping bag and relieve your body of having to generate the bulk of your heat. Learn how to manually prime a camp stove. Keep your boots in a stuff sack at the foot of your sleeping bag. Get a headlamp with an extended battery pack that stays warm against your body. Heck, pack in a half a Duraflame log to get your fire started. Don’t worry about style points.
As miserable as those first forays were, there was that pesky voice that kept urging me to go back. Even though my outings felt like job interviews that I had horribly botched, something subconscious was deeply impressed. It’s like learning to play the guitar. At first your hands seem to defy your brain, unable to flex into position for chords but despite that frustration, there were enough notes that I could hit just right, and they were satisfying. And soon the process overcame all that initial ineptitude and I could accompany Michael as he rowed his boat ashore all night long.
Fifteen years in Colorado’s winter mountains have helped boost my skills but I’m always learning. Winter safety, especially in mountaineering, is simply a matter of decreasing the percentage of danger. It can’t be eliminated nor can it be entirely controlled. This is why year after year, some of the very best students of winter lose their lives in avalanches or freeze to death because they turned up the wrong drainage. And these harrowing events are only some of the more obvious disasters. Slipping on ice, frostbitten feet or having your precious water supply freeze all have serious implications in the winter. The stakes are raised big time.
So why are we drawn back? Even in the most resplendent moments of mountain harmony, the sacrifice and danger just to get a crack at temporary enlightenment is a major investment. We must weigh the low percentage shot at a brief swig of profundity while guaranteed enough misery to elicit a wave of profanity. In the words of every honest dentist out there, “This is gonna hurt.”
And ultimately that’s what it’s all about. There’s a depth of experience that is scabbed over with all the comforts of modern living. We may mock the stereotypical obese Americans in all their inert and ignorant glory but isn’t it the goal of nearly all living things to reduce challenge, increase comfort and marginalize risk? Once we’re fed, sheltered and kept busy, it truly is a privilege to hunt out the depths of human experience. It is imposing to concern oneself with how fortunate we are to being that much closer to completing the circle of human experience.
We are the lucky ones.
Through circumstance we have arrived comfortable, healthy and adventurous. Not only have we secured sustainable livelihoods, we have transcended mere living and glimpsed the universal complexity beyond ourselves.
And this is why I renew my contract with Mount Audubon every winter. The mountain is simply an agent for a higher office. My invitation is an audit to ensure my gratitude for this opportunity of strength and the spiritual sophistication to fully appreciate it. I want to remind the mountains I am not just a fair-weather friend, that I can share of their wisdom even when it hurts. They in turn keep me humbled as to how a very lucky a kid born in a dying New England industrial town has found his way to higher ground.
Sappiness aside, winter climbing can be tremendously satisfying if you put in the time to prepare. In this regard, it’s a full-time job. It’s highly advised to start small and safe, if only to see how loudly that voice that beckons you to return echos in your thoughts. It may be that relaxed snowshoe adventures or overnight yurts will be more than satisfactory for your winter yearnings. In fact, it may be beneficial to temper winter passions so that you don’t become so daring as to come home with a stump-foot bereft of toes. Or not come home at all.
I like to say we all find our mountains. A winter trek on a clear, balmy winter day can change the way you see mountains. An easier (and I use that term relatively) 14er like Quandary Peak is a wonderful place to start. Or a trek along the ridges of Loveland Pass. Be modest in expectations and mileage. If you can cover a mile an hour in deep snow, you’re practically sprinting. Reward yourself with a ski descent off Berthoud Pass. And always keep learning. Get avy savvy. Learn when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
“Doubly happy, however, is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach,” quoth John Muir. I concur with that sentiment. Fully expect to be hazed with impunity and likewise, prepare to be amazed with how strangely fulfilling the journey will be.
EO contributing editor James Dziezynski is the author of Colorado Summit Hikes (see page 10).