My First Winter 14er: Quandary Peak
1 January 2021
It was the perfect winter day for a 14er. The high was 12 degrees, but there was zero wind the majority of the time. The radiant energy of the sun made it very comfortable on the summit. This is my story, my first winter 14er. I will share my experience, my insights, and my follies. I hope you can glean from my journey. At the summit it was perfectly still. “…a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks…but the Lord was not in the wind…and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” -1 Kings 19:11-12. The journey was hard, and you must be well prepared. But don’t be surprised when you find peace and God up in the mountains, especially on a still day like this.
I have broken this blog to subcategories so if you skip around and miss a section, I won’t be offended.
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions about any of the content, just drop a line in the comments below and I will do my best to respond. These are solely my comments and opinions, I am not receiving any kickbacks for my thoughts (I’m not being paid to say nice things).
Let’s start how I prepared.
Physical Shape: I have a few 14ers under my belt. I have done 15 or so and a few of them 2-3 times. This was my third accent for Quandary Peak (but my first for a winter accent). I also enjoy running. I have done 1 ultra (50 miler), 2 marathons, and dozens of half-marathons. However, 2020 was the year of cancelled race events so my running game and regime was way off. I live off the Cherry Creek Trial in the South Denver area. This means the little running I was doing was completely flat. The day before this accent, I ran 5 miles with a total elevation gain of 32 feet. Couple this with my gym membership on hold for the past 10 months (thank you COVID), needless to say, I was not in the best of shape. I was getting creative with my 20-pound dumbbells and a few YouTube videos but, I was not in mountain shape. Normally I would hit the gym for some weight training and the stair master with a couple of my favorite podcasts. This mountain reminded me there are different types of shapes. I was in decent flatlander short running shape…not high elevation, mountain hiking shape.
Diet and Sleep: I have a general rule of thumb for athletic events. The previous 2 days of diet and sleep will greatly affect your performance. Thus, two days before, I do my best to get 7.5 hours or more of sleep, greatly reduce processed sugar intake, and drink half my weight in ounces of water per day.
Sugar in an inflammatory substance, if you want to amplify your stiffness and aches, keep throwing down the bowls of sugar cereal for breakfast, and have a couple of sodas throughout the day. Initially, I didn’t realize how much sugar I was consuming let alone the recommend amount. When I started looking at the nutritional content printed on packages, I saw the amount of sugar, but I did not see the recommended value or percentage of the value per day. Was the sugar industry hiding something intentionally? I think there was a recent law change so we should start seeing the sugar content as a percentage of recommended amounts on the nutrition facts. After a quick Google search, I discovered the recommended allotment was 35 grams for men and 25 grams for women. This includes all sugars, natural (fruit) and processed. For reference, one cup (8 ounces) of orange juice is around 23 grams! One slice of toast breaks down to 1.4 grams according to the USDA. Let’s be real, the average person drinks more than 8 oz and eats more then one slice of bread a day; heaven forbid we spread some jam or marmalade on top. Was there a conspiracy to hide the recommend amount of sugar in our diets? I duno but it sure felt this way when I started looking into it.
I enjoy a morning banana – 14 grams right there! I dare you to start counting your sugar intake. If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it. I typically don’t consume less than 35 grams but I also don’t eat 100 plus like I used to. I tend to fall in the 40-50 range (I like fruit and honey).
Armed with this knowledge, I was going to do everything in my power to set myself up for success. The night before was New Year’s Eve. I was with a small cohort gathering and left before 9 thinking I was be asleep around 9:30 and up at 4 to start the adventure. We made some sushi rolls and I only had 2 small sweet items that night. Unfortunately, my little one had a tooth pulled and some dental work done that afternoon. Right before I was about to fall asleep, her meds wore off and the pain kicked in. I was up at 11, 12, 2, and 4. She ended sleeping with me and I got punched in face a few times. Note to all young parents, don’t sleep with your 6-year old’s. I’m a veteran parent and I knew better…and I paid the price.
I started my morning off with a 22 oz mug of warm ginger-turmeric-honey-lemon tea. I graded the ginger and turmeric roots. Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory and ginger is magical. I read that ginger is great for gut health, tons of antioxidants, helps with joint health, lowers blood sugars, etc…the stuff is really magical (I also place a slice of it on my sushi). Here is a Healthline link about positive effects of ginger. My bride started making this tea a couple of years ago, and from experience it works. When I fall off the health wagon for a day, I typically end the night with this tea to “undo” my reckless consumption. …I don’t think it really works this way, but it sure makes me feel better 😊.
I met 3 guys in a parking lot and we headed to up Hwy 285 around 4:45. We stopped in Dillon at McDonalds to use the facilities and to consume a heartier breakfast. My buddy grabbed the oatmeal, and I couldn’t resist the temptation of the sausage McGriddle …I know. I can only hope the tea and the McGriddle fought it out to result in a net neutral effect. But it was delicious.
We finally arrived at the trailhead at 7:35 and hiking by 7:45. I was already exhausted and had a slight sugar overload.
What did I bring for my first winter 14er? Great question.
I was over prepared, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I would rather be over prepared a carry little more weight, than hit a hiccup and be under prepared and in trouble. Here is a list of the items I bought (with some commentary): My total gear (including 2L of water) was just over 18 pounds.
For my base layer I wore a pair of Under Armor long running pants and Nike skin tight moisture wicking long sleeve top. In my opinion you should feel like a ninja or spiderman…that’s how you know you’re doing it right. I should also add, lube up on any sliding body parts. In my running ventures, I have discovered Vaseline does wonders. My base layers tend to be synthetic blend of polyester, Lycra, and spandex textiles with a layer of Vaseline to protect anywhere I don’t want a red burning rash to appear.
I then wore a thin long sleeve moisture wicking running shirt, followed by a Nike running collared top that was half waffle fleece and a thicker weatherproof material (likely more polyester). I love this thing. I have had plenty of snow runs with it. It’s by far my favorite cold weather running top. And if I am wearing a pack, the collar protects my neck if the shoulder straps happen to shift and rub on my neck.
I also had a friend monogram a Chinese idiom on the collar to motivate myself to get out more.
It reads 風雨無阻 Feng Yu Wu Zu meaning wind, rain, no obstacle. As the saying goes, there is no such thing bad weather, only bad clothing. This is excellent clothing.
On top of this running pullover, I wore my old faithful North Face Steep Series hooded jacket. It is equipped with RECCO. It has some sort of rescue reflector …if something goes amiss, SAR will be able to pinpoint my location with their transmitter and receiver equipment. It requires no batteries, so I can just throw it on forget about it. I assume I will never have to use this feature, but it does give me peace of mind when I’m out in a deep snow drift. I love how many pockets this jacket has along with the YKK zippers that never fail. I particularly like a pocket on one of the sleeves (meant for goggles that I typically use for lightweight gloves …when the hands get toasty and I want to go thinner).
On a funny note, I just looked at the tag and it clearly states “women’s.” I have owned this for years and have never noticed nor has anyone ever asked if that was women’s coat. Ha! It’s awesome and I will continue to rock it. It won’t be the first time I have worn women’s gear in my adventures. (I have a pair of women’s trail shoes I love to run in). If you’re confident, you can almost get away with anything.
for this hike I stomped around in a pair of Columbia 200 grams Techlite waterproof boots. I made a slight modification to my boots. Don’t be afraid to customize your gear. It’s yours, and it should serve you for the best. This was a simple mod. I found a pair of “Nike” full length zoom air units on eBay and put them in my boots. Here is a similar one I found on Amazon. I also had to use a thinner insole because the air units took up some vertical space. It looks like the Amazon pair already integrated them into insoles. I love Nike air units. I do not think these were actual Nike units (I think the PSI was off/low), but my point still stands. Air is the best midsole material. It provides constant damping and constant return. It might be old tech, but it is still the best midsole tech on the market. Air does not have to slowly come back to shape (like gel). Once your foot rises, it instantly goes back to its original shape. It also will not become more compact and lose damping ability over time like most EVA/blown cell midsoles. When it is right under the foot, it is so responsive. I have also noticed it provides a little more insulation, which was perfect for a day like this hike. On a side note, I have run with these air units in my pair of Altra Timp’s for 50 miles did not have to change shoes at my 35 miles gear drop. It was like having tiny pillows under my feet. For reference, I have a slight supination in my step, my second toe is longer than my big toe and I have bunions. Yup, they are ugly, but I run with what I got 😊. That being said, I do own a pair of vapor fly’s and the carbon fiber plate/leaf spring is legit and really impressive. But this conversation is about damping and comfort (not mechanical advantage).
I wore a single pair of argyle Smartwool socks and did not regret it. My phalanges were fantastic (not too hot, not too cold …goldilocks toes). My only regret was leaving the boots in the back of the truck for the 2-hour plus ride to the trailhead. When I slipped off the running kicks and put my feet in these boots, they were indeed freezing. After 7 or 8 minutes of hiking everything was comfortable. Josh, friend on this trek, kept his boots in the truck on the floorboard and explained he had already learned his lesson. Thanks for sharing your lesson after watching us toss our boots in the back! I put on some micro spikes early on the hike (Amazon “Diamond Grip Traction Cleats”)…they worked but were not ideal for this occasion. They shine on ice. The snow was perfect for a snowboard powder day. On the way down, I found myself slipping as I was glissading down the mountain side. I must of fell 9 times. My buddy said I looked like a drunken skier. Thankfully, the snow was soft, and it just gave me the giggles.
The other three guys wore very similar crampons ice cleats. I think between the 3 of them, they fell twice. I was worried the cleats would eventually fold over but on a beautiful powder day like this, there was nothing to worry about.
Over my base layer I wore a pare of North Face hiking pants (4 way stretch) and then my Summit Series L4 Hybrid pant. They are made of the “next generation” Futurelight 3L material. I was told it will eventually replace Goretex. It breathes and is water/wind proof. The pants have some stretch, integrated gaiters, and a weird bib-like suspenders. The suspenders only connect in the front and it’s a bit awkward. With the connection only on the font, it felt like I had droopy butt. …so after wearing them for a day, I modified them to work like regular suspenders. I simply unstitched a portion of them, added some DuraFlex hardware and attached them to the back of the pants. Other than that, I love these things. They make me look at Denali and Kilimanjaro and think “yeah, that’s a good idea.” I didn’t overheat, but I probably didn’t need the under pant…so I will try just a base layer and this outer pant next time.
I brought two types of trekking poles. If deployed correctly, they can displace about 30% of the load. And I have found they will save your toes and knees on the decent. Be sure and use the wrist straps…keep them pretty snug. I like to keep my hands in the straps like a karate chop. This will make it so you do not have to rely solely on grip strength, and if you happen to fall, they will stay with you. We had about 12” – 18” of snow so large baskets are recommended. I had a large basket on one and a smaller basket on the other. The larger was the better choice. I brought one Columbia pole because it has mounting provisions for a camera (think GoPro or cell phone). It has a cork grip, and telescoping aluminum pole. The wrist strap would not tighten up small enough for me, but it was not that big of a deal (because the ground was so soft). The other pole was a tri-fold, foam grip, carbon fiber pole. I bought this for $25 at the Outdoor Retailer Show from a Taiwanese manufacturing shop. Typically, the last day of the OR Show many overseas shops do not want to ship their product back, so you can get a great cash deal. I love these poles and would have brought the full set, but in my vanity, I wanted a selfie stick, so I opted for the mixed brand. If money was not an option, I would opt for the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles. I met a BD rep and was able to borrow a set for a trail run…they are amazing light, strong/stiff and fold up to nothing. They do not adjust in length, so you need to know your size. The only thing I would change about them is trade the foam grip for a cork (for better grip …but it’s also heavier and less durable). Back to my trekking sticks. I recently bought a tripod for $13 on the Amazon and it came with a remote. …the remote doesn’t care if your phone is on the tripod it came with or on the trekking pole so my Columbia pole became a selfie stick…a cool one.
With this trekking pole, the thumb screw is in an awkward position and thus not entirely user friendly. I also mounted a pivoting ball on the top of the trekking pole for more mobility.
I actually carried 2 packs…and yes, I modified both of them.
I added a carbon fiber plate to my pack that I wore under my coat. I made this plate many years ago in an engineering training session. I cut it down to match the shape of my pack. I hate when I feel the bladder or other gear poking into my back. Plus, if I fall, I know the plate will provide some protection for my spine…and it’s stupid light and strong. I put this plate in all of my running packs for long adventures.
I’ve read that a water bladder and insolated tubes were a bad idea for winter 14’ers, but in the name of science, I wanted to try an experiment to prove it out. I used an Aquamira bladder with their insulated tube. The insulation was actually molded on the tube. Then I got another insulated tube, cut it into sections and pulled it over the tube. The drink port also had a cap on it. Every time I drank from the tube, I blew some air back in the tube (not much, I’m guessing enough to push the water back about 3-4 inches
At some point on the way down from the 14er I noticed that the water port froze because I forgot to recap the drink port. I simply put the whole mouthpiece in my mouth and in 15 seconds I was drinking again and had no further issues. I call this a win.
I should I also note that I added a few drops (7) of Adventure Athletes Yukon electrolytes to my water. By adding these drops, I may have slightly changed the saline level of the water but not by much because I started with 1.75 liters of water in this bladder…and 7 drops over that much volume cannot have that much change.
I stuffed this inner pack with items I was hoping not to use: spare knife, 2 forms of fire starters, first aid kit (by MyMedic), 20ft section of our Survival paracord, emergency survival blanket, self-adhering bandage, and extra fuel/food). I wanted to be ready just incase something went squirrely. On my first 14er (Yale), I met a young lady. She caught a morning sunrise on the summit and was headed back down. We were just above tree line (I’m guessing 12,500 ft), I was still headed up. She had a major limp from a rolled ankle about a half-mile before I met her. I stopped her and was able to wrap her ankle and send her on her way. Too many of us hike unprepared.
I’m a sucker for a running pack. I happened upon this one at a Marshall’s for $20 (MSRP $130). I actually handed it to my bride and asked her to buy it for me…for Christmas. Then I told her I was going to modify it. She graciously shook her head and put it in the cart. I just learned how to make buttonholes so I was itching to do something useful with this new skill. I’m a complete novice at this sewing machine; and you won’t find a straight line in my work, but it’s so fun. I knew the pack was missing some mounting provisions for trekking poles. I wanted to hold poles in two ways: straight down the middle and at an angle just in case the poles are too long. In hindsight, I would change a couple of things, but I was happy with my results. The buttonholes allowed the extra webbing to fed into the pack.
I put the fuel I was planning to eat this pack along with lights and battery pack by Kogalla, small knife, tripod, extra thin outer layer jacket, MSR camp stove, Titanium pot, several Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets and my bathroom kit.
I do my best to “unload” before the I start any 14er but I don’t always get what I want. …have you ever pooped above tree line, fully exposed? Let me tell you it’s not fun, but sometimes it is necessary. I think a winter moment would not be fun either.
I typically pack some TP, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and Vaseline. Depending on the experience, Vaseline can be critical, and it gives you an opportunity to lube back up (if needed). I also bring my trusted Deuce of Spades by The Tent Lab. It’s less than an ounce and gets the job done. Ideally, you want to dig a 6”-8” deep. If you are amongst rocks, it’s no easy task, but it’s manageable. I was fortunate enough to not have to use this kit on this hike. I did have to make 3 pee breaks which told me I was well hydrated.
Fuel and Water:
This is what I brought:
2 Cliff Bars (Crunchy peanut butter and Sweet & Salty Peanut with Sea Salt)
2 RX Bars (Peanut Butter Chocolate and Chocolate)
3 Lara Bars (Apple pie, Lemon, and Pineapple)
1 That’s It Bars (Apple and Strawberry)
1 Bag of Chef’s Cut Beef Jerky
1 bag of corn nuts (half original and half Chile Picante. Something magical happens when you mix them)
1.75 Liters of water
6 ounces of water in small running bottle
What I actually consumed:
One Cliff bar
½ bag of corn nuts
About ½ the water
Cup of Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate
I probably should have drunk more, but I think the 22 ounces of Ginger-Turmeric tea before I started greatly helped. Plus I drank another 20 ounces of water once we were back at the truck.
From Denver, west on I-70, south on Hwy 9 (Frisco), drive through Breckenridge and Blue River, take a right on 850 and park on the right. There are a couple of homes on the left. They don’t like it when you park along their property lines. Be cool, and don’t park in front of their house. By 7:40/45am we were hiking. It was a beautiful still day. Early on, I kept looking back when I heard these odd noises. The sound of powder snow under my toes and with each stab of my trekking poles became very familiar. Turns out it was the compacting of snow and the rubbing effect as my poles pivoted with each step. Almost like an old wooden floor, and I liked it. 2 to 3 inches of fresh powder rested on the branches just begging to be struck by one of your trekking poles above your buddy’s head.
Quandary Peak Trial is about a 7.5 mile round trip with a total elevation gain of 3,450 ft. By round trip, I mean an out and back. It’s a single trail; no loop for the east ridge. It is heavily trafficked, albeit we had a ton of powder snow, it was very compact, and it was impossible to lose the trial. My micro spikes are a little tight around my boots and brought in the toe box area (just enough to make my second toe touch the inside wall). This is what I get for ordering things from Amazon and not going into shops and trying them on. I thought it would make it painful on the way down. Fortunately, this is where trekking poles shine. I used to think trekking poles were for “old” people. But if you use these things right, they really reduce the load (as I mentioned before they can reduce your foot pressure load up to 30%). I’m a short guy 5’-4” on a good day. So my poles are set to 41in/105cm. But with any hike with any significant elevation gain or loss, your pole length should be dynamic. On flat terrain, your elbow bend should be around 90 degrees when the tip of the pole hits the ground. For an uphill climb, shorten them up, conversely on the descents give them more length. By changing the length of your poles per your environment, it will give you better balance, better posture, and reduce load better. Here is a great article by REI for selecting a pole, pole length, and other features.
I’m always surprised how fast we get out of tree line (around 12,500 ft above sea level). Then on the way back down, I’m always surprised how long it takes to get from the tree line back to the car. Again, bring those trekking poles (I guess I got old, because I love them). You will be fully exposed once out of tree line. The sun and wind can be brutal. When I was hiking Blanca peak in October a couple of years ago, it went from a beautiful day to a complete hailstorm for 25 minutes. That day, my bladder pack tube did freeze (and I lost one trekking pole). I did not make the double 14er -Ellingwood Point that day. The weather broke me. This day, I was prepared plus we were blessed with some awesome weather. This was a great first winter 14er because the trail is relatively short and it’s a class 1 nontechnical trail. And the views are breathtaking.
Per the 14ers.com website the route goes as follows, “…Continue through the forest to a large rock on the right side of trail, turn right and follow the great trail up through the forest. Above 11,300', pass through some clearings before hiking up a hill where the trees begin to thin out. Gain the crest of the east ridge near 11,600' and continue through a flat area to reach the base of a slope. Follow the well-built trail toward the left (south) side of the east ridge and gradually ascend west. Near 12,800', re-gain the ridge and continue west to a 13,150-foot point on the ridge. Walk west along a flat section and begin climbing the final 1,000' of upper ridge. The route is obvious - stay on the ridge where you can see across Quandary's upper east slope to your right. Gain the summit ridge and walk over to the top”
After 12,500 -13,000 feet I start playing mental games in my head. I found myself counting 100 steps before I let myself stop and take a breath. It’s crazy how good you feel when you stop. Then 5 steps later you are completely fatigued again. This is completely normal. And if you’re are taking 50 steps before your next breather at 13,500 ft, I am right there with you. My mind also wandered to ancient stories of Moses, Abraham & Isaac, and the Brother of Jared. If you don’t know these guys, that’s fine. They happen to some peeps I respect who had a miraculous moments, high on a mountain top. The struggle is real, but the reward is worth it. There have been a few mountain summits where it feels downright spiritual. It was unexpected the first time. It helps when there’s not a loads of people at the top…but who am I to prevent their pilgrimage? We were meant to summit these mountains in awe and respect. Come one, come all.
It was not a fast assent for me. Josh is a mountain goat, and he would often wait for me for 10-15 minutes to catch up. …and that’s okay. I may have prevented him from getting altitude sickness. According to MedlinePlus “Acute mountain sickness is caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes. The faster you climb to a high altitude, the more likely you will get acute mountain sickness. The best way to prevent altitude illness is to ascend gradually.” You’re welcome Josh 😊. Take your time, take in the moments.
I also met some awesome people on the tail. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find a rotten person on a Colorado mountain trial. They are chalk full of great people. I also met a few with pups. This is a dog friendly trail. Technically, every dog is required to be on a leash on this trail. However, I do not recall a single dog on a leash. But at least every dog and every owner were happy company. I also met several people hiking up on skis. They have ski skins placed over the skis to provide grip on the way up. At first, I thought they were crazy with all that extra weight…but on the way down the jealousy kicked in. I also met a small group that jumped off a perfectly good mountain top. They carried a 25lb parachute pack but the decent was so sweet and gentle (15 minutes of feeling like a bird).
I watched in awe as they took their leap of faith. In every long hike, I learn a little bit more about myself. This day, I learned I part chicken. I’ve jumped out of a plane (tandem) …but there’s no way I’m jumping off a mountain. I’m a chicken; and I’m comfortable with that.
I took my time on the top and pulled out my trusted MSR Pocket Rocket and firebiner. With a single spark I was able to get my water boiling and celebrate with some Swiss Miss hot chocolate. The weather was so still, that I even shed some layers. This is my 3rd time to summit Quandary; I know it can be crazy windy here. If you read the reviews on Alltrails, you will find many people were not able to make the summit the next day due to the high winds. I made a short minute and half YouTube video highlighting my cup of hot chocolate and paraglider.
These, skiers and paragliders may have made it down faster, but I got to meet a mountain goat on my decent. I’ve been told that if you pee, they will come lick the rocks you pee on (up to 10 days!) because they want the salt. They looked so calm but the little pointy things on the top of their heads reminded me I need to keep my distance. You can actually tell the age of a mountain goat by counting the rings on their horns…but I didn’t want to get that close. Fun fact: mountain goats are not really goats…they are like first cousins to goats. They are closer related to antelopes. They also are more nimble than they look. Jack may be able to jump over a candlestick, but these billies and nannies can jump 12 feet in one bound! Of the 16 or so 14ers I have summited, I have seen mountain goats about 5 times. As a reminded, they may look docile, but they are still a wild animal. Give them their space and let me know if they really do lick up your urine (if you happen to need to relieve yourself …do it for science).
We also discovered that it was easier on the toes to just sit down and go for a ride. Don’t be afraid to act like a kid. It keeps us young and keeps your kids envious. In addition, I found if I slowly jogged on the decent using my trekking poles, it was easier on the toes and quads. If I trotted slowly, my toes would slide just a little and cram into the toe box of my boot and my legs would burn with lactic acid. A slight jog removed all of the pain.
For my first winter 14er, I think I hit the goldmine for the perfect day. The ground was soft, the views were beautiful, and the company was fantastic.
For other great insights about this route and ways to prepare check out Kuhl's blog, "Quandary Peak -Your First Winter 14er". I thought it was pretty cool coincidence that Quandary was indeed my first winter 14er!
See you on the trials.