You wake up in your tent at 3:45am, for the fifth time this night. It’s still just as dark as it was an hour ago, and still just as cold. Your breath coming out of your mummy bag is just as frosty. But this stirring is different from the others. This time you’re not awake because of the rain or that rustling sound outside your tent that may or may not be a bear. It’s time to get up. You’ve got a big day ahead of you, and you have to get started way before the sun.
It’s your first time climbing a 14’er in cold weather, and you’re stoked. But, the excitement must be contained just a little while longer. This mountain is no joke, and you have to prepare yourself. You laid out your gear the night before, but it’s time to double-check everything, don the proper layers of clothing, and make the trek to the trailhead.
This was my experience, and we hope that if you haven’t had one like it, this story will help you get a little closer.
I've done a lot of hiking, and climbing, but I'm not from the mountains. We at FTOD love our home base in Austin, Texas, but it’s not a good place to stay in shape for high altitude trekking. Boasting an elevation of just 489ft and very few steep grades, it leaves a bit to be desired for those seeking a challenging hike. But, the mountains were calling this September, and I had to prepare.
We were set to climb Mt. Sneffels in Colorado, altitude 14,158ft. The main challenges we expected:
- Scree (loose rock)
- Starting up the mountain in the dark
How We Prepared for Our Hike:
Body Training For Hiking at Altitude:
I started my prep by finding the steepest publicly accessible hill in Austin, appropriately named the hill of life. It’s not far from the city center, but it offers the most challenging hike you’ll find within the city limits. It offers 300 feet in elevation gain over the course of 1/3 of a mile. It’s no 14’er and this thick Texas air doesn’t compare, but you work with the best of what you have.
I spent six days over two weeks going up and down the hill of life twice a day, trying to keep my pace under 18-minute miles. That’s a little fast for a hike, but I knew that the extra challenge would pay off when our hike reached 12,000 feet later that month.
If you google “how to prepare for altitude”, you'll find some limited info. There are some tips and tricks for dealing with altitude when you’re in it, but not much for us low-lying southerners about to head north. Tips about hydration and pressure breathing when light-headed do come in handy once you’re there, but how do you prepare?
In addition to cardio training, we made a habit of emphasizing our breathing with each hike, before our trip. Pressure breathing, or purposeful hyperventilation, became a regular practice while hurdling up the hill of life. I didn’t need it here, but it allowed me to make a habit of it whenever I felt a little winded. When you’re at altitude, prevention is key. Staying well hydrated and well oxygenated are the two main ways to avoid altitude sickness. If I was quick to over-oxygenate before it was desperately needed, I was confident I would be fine.
In addition, I stepped up my normal breathing routines. Have you ever noticed that when sedentary, you don’t breathe deeply? Especially when sitting at a desk, our breath tends to become shallow and unproductive. A while back, I incorporated breathing exercises into my regular stretching and meditation exercises. Believe it or not, consciously taking long, deep breaths and exhaling slowly will gradually build your lung capacity. Oxygen absorption rates can’t be improved, so training your lungs to take in more air is very important. I doubled my breathing exercises in the weeks leading up to the trip.
Lastly, I pre-acclimated myself to altitude. I went to 10,500 feet to camp on my first night in Colorado before meeting up with the group. This gave my body a chance to get used to the altitude before we did any hiking.
Gearing up for a 14’er:
Recreational hiking in easy conditions makes up a large part of my usual hiking experience. Once again, we’re based in central Texas, so I have to travel at least 500 miles in any direction to find a mountain. So, needless to say, I picked up some new gear for this hike.
Hiking Gear I already had:
- Hiking boots
- Water bladder
- Thick socks
- Snow pants
- Snow Jacket
- Snack bars
- Protein shake
- Polarized ski goggles
- Headlamp (2)
- First aid kit
New Gear I Added:
- Trekking Poles
- Gel Packs (Cliff)
- GPS Map of the area, downloaded on iphone using “offroadatlas” and Google Maps
- Pictures of the hike, saved in iBooks – from 14ers.com
The night before the hike:
To prepare for the morning, I took an inventory of everything and packed my daybag. Loading up water, gel packs, snack bars, trekking poles, and an extra headlamp the night before saved us time in the morning. I organized the layers I would wear into a bundle within my main pack, and as always, had a headlamp within arms reach while sleeping. I never want to have to fumble for one of those in the dark.
The morning of, I layered up (start warm, stay warm), drank a protein shake, and downed a little coffee. I take cold-brew on some of my trips, so that I don’t have to boil water in the morning. If I want to heat it up we can, but in this case it went down cold.
We piled into my 4Runner and set out for the trailhead. To get to the trailhead at Mt. Sneffels, you go several miles up a dirt road, then a 4x4-only road, so it’s not an ideal hike if you need to finish early. We wanted to summit before noon to avoid afternoon storms, so we drove. The 4Runner made quick work of it, and before we knew it we were at the trailhead.
Getting Blown Away
As we reached the trailhead, the 4Runner began to sway like a flimsy tree in a coastal wind. We stepped out to be greeted by 50mph gusts of wind. This was a little heavier than we had expected, but we had known it would be windy. Throwing on our packs and starting up the mountain, we were happy to pass through part of the trail that was shielded from the wind.
If you’ve ever started up a mountain (or any other difficult terrain) in the dark, you know that a good headlamp is essential. Leading our group from the trailhead, the only way to see the trail route was to look at the differences in the rocks. Mainly, I was looking for moss growth or lack thereof, which I absolutely wouldn’t have been able to see without an LED headlamp.
As we made our way across the scree at the base of the trail, started sweating like…well, you’ve heard the analogies. We were burning a lot of energy, and we were bundled up. It was time to remove a layer to cool back down. Why? Because sweat is not your friend when you temps dip below freezing, which was expected at the top.
It felt good to cool off a bit and dry out as we headed up the face. The sun began to peak over the horizon, and eventually we were able to see well enough without our headlamps. The view was breathtaking. They say never look down, but I always enjoy looking back every once in a while. I love seeing progress, but I love even more to take in all the different views on a hike. This one was pretty sweet. It was still much darker than this picture shows, so it's a bit grainy.
Loose scree is to hiking boots, as a freshly misted road after months of drought is to a car tire. No matter how good is your tread, you’re going to loose traction. This is when the trekking poles really show their value. If you’re a “billy goat” who has been hiking and climbing your whole life, they may not be needed for this. But for most people, they’re a must when climbing up loose terrain. Without them, your small slips can become falls which can become tumbles. With them, you have an extra foot on each side, allowing you to dig in with your arms before lifting a foot and placing it down on unsure ground. And if you don’t think you need them on the way up, just think about coming down. But, we’ll get to that later :)
Halfway up the face, the temperatures had continued to drop and the wind had strengthened. We were pelted by sleet and freezing rain. The heat we were putting off was no longer enough to counteract the cold, and it was time to bundle up again.
As I learned, absolute care must be taken when you stop to remove your pack and add clothing while on the mountain. Find sure footing first, a place you can stand and shift your weight without falling. Don’t lean back – you’d be surprised how much we normally lean when trying to put on a bulky jacket. If you must lean, lean towards the face of the mountain, so that you only fall into it.
Climbing up the scree field on Sneffels.
Foot Placement When Hiking Loose Terrain
On loose rock, you can never be fully sure of any step. I personally made a number of missteps. Ground that looked firm turned out not to be. A large rock even fell completely after a small amount of weight was applied to it. I had to scream behind me as a 20lb chunk of granite hurled itself downhill at my friend behind me.
Step carefully! Try your best not to depend on any one foothold to keep you planted. Use both of your trekking poles and both feet to keep a firm stance on the face of the mountain. Use your arms (poles) to pull you up while you push with your feet.
Making a Judgment Call
This was an exhilarating climb. The winds had increased as we made our way up the face. What had been 30mph winds with gusts of 50 eventually became 50mph winds with gusts of 80mph! To illustrate just how fiercely the winds were blowing, consider this: I was able to make it up the last 50 feet with almost no effort. That was also the steepest part of our ascent. The wind was coming to our backs at that point, and I lifted my legs, and the winds carried all 180lbs of me up the face. We had to be careful not to be blown off the other side!
Almost to the summit, we were forced to make a decision. One climber in our group had a recent ankle injury and was in intense pain having made it to 13,700 feet. She needed at least one person to go back down with her. That left the two most novice climbers (myself and a friend) to go up together. My friend wasn’t having it with the wind, and I wasn’t going up alone with the wind, so it became a simple decision. We hid behind a rock, snapped a few photos, and readied ourselves for the descent. Sometimes, knowing when to stop is crucial. We’ll make the summit another day.
Going Down Without "Going Down"
Descending a face like this entails a mixture of careful steps and controlled slides. Gravity is pulling you down, your momentum is carrying you down. The rocks below your feet have the same forces pushing them down the slope. It’s inevitable, you will slide at least some. The trick is to control the slide using your trekking poles. If you choose to go without poles, you may be using your hands (or your butt) a lot in order to control your descent.
Several thousand steps and a few hundred slides later, we were back down to the gentle descent down the foot of the mountain. A little further down and we were piling back into the truck, ready to get back to camp and celebrate the day with a cold beer and some lunch.
What Went Well on Our Hike
- We were well geared up.
- Trekking poles are not optional for 99% of climbers if you’ll encounter loose terrain.
- For those of us that had ski goggles, they were a godsend. With the wind, they proved invaluable.
- Layers of clothing worked well. Everything from the thermal undergarments to that windproof waterproof layer on top.
- Solid hiking boots were the way to go. Soft tennis shoes could have been easily torn up by the loose rock.
- Driving to the trailhead proved a good choice. We got off of the mountain before 11am, just as large storms began rolling in with the day.
- Sticking together. As usual, the right choice was to stick together. We came back down as a group and made plenty more hikes over the next few days. We can summit again next time.
- Hiking/climbing with someone who has been there before. Pictures and maps are a must, but going with someone who knows the terrain helps a lot with planning, prep, and execution.
- Gel packs worked well for a quick burst of energy while going up, without slowing down too much to snack.
Challenges/Lessons Learned From Sneffels:
- Weather is never predictable, not even up to the last minute.
- Winds were forecasted, but turned out to be twice as heavy.
- Freezing rain was not forecasted, but it came anyway.
- Storms rolled in earlier than expected – Had we hiked an hour later, we would have made the descent in a thunderstorm. Always be ready for adverse conditions!
- Injury: Always be prepared to turn around if you’re nursing an injury and it isn’t reacting well to the climb. Proceed injured at your own risk.
All in all this was a great outing! We can't wait to hike it again and get the summit. There will be a number of 14'ers in between now and then, but Sneffels remains to be taken.