A Gateway to MountaineeringOhio to Colorado by: Kayla “Clover” McKinney
“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
– John Muir
One often turns to John Muir for inspiration when planning for any mountaineering trip. As an avid explorer and lover of the hills, he paved the way for many, giving new inspiration and wonder for the wild. This blog is an introduction on how to train and outfit you to summit a Colorado fourteener in the winter, from the perspective of someone who lives in Cincinnati, OH. It does not include overnight trips, technical skills, or altitude training, but is meant as an overview for beginners.
Fourteener: “In mountaineering terminology in the United States, a fourteener is a mountain that meets or exceeds an elevation of 14,000 feet (4,270 m) above mean sea level.”
Fourteen thousand feet is the highest elevation of any summit in the lower 48. Colorado is blessed with 53 fourteeners (though the tallest fourteener is in California) with the tallest mountain in the state being Mt. Elbert at 14,440 ft. To summit one (or more) of these bad boys in the dead of the winter is no easy feat. There’s snow, lots of snow, blizzards, wind, ice, exposed sun, and harsh terrain to consider.
So how does one train for a winter mountaineering expedition, especially when they live only approximately 480 feet above sea level?
As far as physical training goes for one who lives in an Midwestern urban environment like I do, you’ve got to think a little out of the box. We don’t have mountains in Cincinnati; our tallest “peak” in the city is the Rumpke Landfill, aka Mt. Rumpke, at 1,075 feet (328 m). You have to take advantage of your urban environment. While we don’t have mountains , we have miles of stairs, and some of the steepest roads around. Repeated runs of Straight Street, Ravine Street and Vine Street can give your muscles and lungs a taste of the uphill. Run stairs at Carew Tower, Crosley Tower on UC’s campus (there’s 17 flights!), Paul Brown Stadium and many old stairways on the streets and in the parks of Cincinnati. This interactive map shows all of the stairs throughout the city: http://www.communitywalk.com/cincinnatisteps
In order to train for a mountaineering expedition you need a proper blend of aerobic and anaerobic cardiovascular training, strength training, flexibility training, and skill development in addition to cross training and adequate rest and recovery. Training should be taken with a consistent approach, steadily increasing the regimen, adhering to set goals and maintaining a good diversity. Don’t just run stairs. Do some distance and trail running, yoga, strength training, biking, rock climbing, etc.
For more information about physical conditioning, check out Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, the best book you’ll find for planning and preparing for a mountaineering trip.
How do you outfit yourself for sub-freezing temperatures, strong winds and even stronger wind chill, without being overheated and sweaty while essentially working out in the intense cold? You don’t want to carry too much, but you want to have enough to suit your needs. You’ll start your climb in the dark, when it’s the coldest, and be climbing down in the afternoon, with all sorts of possible weather curve balls thrown in between. So what do you bring?
You need above all windproof, waterproof, insulated, and breathable clothing which can be accomplished with multiple layers. The first thing you put on the morning of your expedition is your insulating base layer. You want to go for either wool or synthetic. Absolutely no cotton (“cotton kills” because cotton retains moisture, leeching heat from your body when wet and cold). I personally recommend the Ibex Woolies 150 gram, as they are super insulating, form fitting and odor resistant.
Second, you’ll need warm, insulating mid-layers. This would be a fleece and a down jacket or equivalent.
Third, you need your wind and water protection: your rain shell. You can either go for more breathable, and less insulated, or you can go for more insulated and less breathable. This is all about personal preference and how your body reacts to physical exertion. If you sweat a lot, I would consider going for a lighter shell in order to promote breathability to let out sweat.
Any more layers than this is optional, but realize that the more you wear, the heavier and bulkier you will feel going up the mountain. In summation, layering adds versatility to your outfit and the ability to remove/add on warmth when needed.
There are a variety of additions and preferences to be considered based on what works best for you individually. These could include more/less layers and insulation, synthetic or down insulation, hoods or no hoods, etc. If you don’t know you’re personal preferences, stop by the store and we can help you narrow down the options!
Here is a personal gear list for reference:
Head, Necks & HandsWarm hat and/or balaclava A balaclava can replace the hat. Balaclavas provide versatility and cover areas of the face that can be susceptible to cold injuries. Sun hat * A baseball cap or light hat with a brim can be useful around camp or on warm climb days to protect face and eyes from the intense sun. Sunglasses High quality UV protective eye wear is a must. The sun rays are especially intense at high altitude, especially reflected off the snow. Glasses must fit sufficiently tight to prevent rays from reflecting under the glasses from the ground. Ski goggles can be used in lieu of glasses. They do have the advantage of wind and reflective protection, but can become hot and foggy on a warm climbing day. Liner gloves A pair of well fitting liner gloves or light running gloves that fit under your insulated gloves/mittens are essential in preventing cold injuries when removing outer insulated gloves to perform tasks requiring more finger dexterity. Insulated gloves or mittens Warm hands are key to winter comfort. Mittens provide greater warmth and are preferable for those that tend to experience cold fingers easily. Gloves provide greater dexterity, but it can be harder to keep fingers warm. Either gloves or mittens must provide room to wiggle fingers and be water/wind proof.
Upper BodyMid-weight top A mid weight wool or synthetic top such as Ibex Woolies or Patagonia Capilene 3 should be used as a base layer in winter. Expedition-weight top Keeping the core warm is essential to keeping hands and feet warm. On cold nights, this can improve warmth in a sleeping bag. If you tend to be cold while standing in a lift line or waiting for the bus, you should consider adding this to your gear list. Vest * A vest is a lightweight option to aid in keeping the core warm without adding bulk. It is good middle ground if you think an expedition-weight top is overkill, but still tend to run cold at the bus stop. Fleece Jacket A thick fleece layer that that fits under your weatherproof outer jacket. Down / Synthetic Parka The parka should be sized to fit under your weatherproof outer jacket so that warmth can easily be added when hanging around camp or on the summit posing for a pic. Outer Jacket Windproof top. Can be Gore-tex, eVent, Pertex Shield or simply have a DWR finish. The goal is wind protection and high breathability. Hard shells or soft shells both work based on preference. Sports bra Women should bring a synthetic or wool sports bra or tank top.
FeetLiner socks Liner socks help to provide rapid moisture transport and reduce blister-causing friction. Insulating socks Expedition weight wool or poly socks. Socks should be long enough to extend well past the tops of boots and overlap with long underwear bottoms. Gaiters Expedition style gaiters such as Outdoor Research Crocodiles to keep snow out of boots. Boots Boots are perhaps your most critical piece of winter gear. A poor fitting boot cannot only cause blisters and discomfort, but also cold injuries such as frostbite. Boots should be plastic style or leather mountaineering with a ridged sole for use with crampons. Plastic boots can be rented at many quality outfitters. If you plan to rent, you should determine what boots are available and attempt to get fit for and test the boots locally. You should have enough room to wiggle toes, but not so much your foot moves around to help keep blood flowing to your feet. The fit should be slightly roomier than summer hiking boots. Booties* Camp booties can help to keep your feet warm around camp and in your sleeping bag if your feet tend to run cold. An extra pair of socks can also do the trick in your sleeping bag.
*indicates optional/weather specific item
General Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog are from personal experience and research and is based on mountain’s around 14,000ft in the winter and does not apply to all winter excursions. Please do further research before embarking on a winter mountaineering trip. For more information on mountaineering, check out Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills and 14ers.com for more information on Colorado’s fourteeners.