SKI YOUR FIRST 14ER
Want to ski your first 14er? Start with Quandary Peak.
Images and Writing By Ted Mahon
There are 637 peaks higher than 13,000 feet in the state of Colorado. The tallest 54 of them exceed 14,000 feet and are collectively referred to as the 14ers. If you live in Colorado and have been into backcountry skiing for a while, at some point you’re going to want to ski one of these high summits. But, if you’re not too familiar with them you might not know where to start. Some are steep and technical, others have long approaches or are in remote locations. There are a few that are well suited as entry-level 14er ski descents. One of them in particular is regularly recommended for aspiring 14er skiers to attempt as their first: Quandary Peak.
This 14,265 foot summit is the 12th tallest mountain in the state and lies in Summit County. Its status as an introduction to 14er skiing is widely accepted for three reasons— ease of access, a straightforward and safe route of ascent, and multiple options for ski descents. Quandary Peak has good road access all winter long. From Breckenridge drive south Highway 9 for eight miles to the trailhead on the Blue Lakes Road. If approaching from the south head north on Highway 9 over Hoosier Pass. As you near the trailhead you’ll get views of the mountain from several different vantage points, offering valuable visual recon before you start.
From the trailhead at 10,850 feet, it’s a little more than 3 miles and 3,450 vertical feet to the summit along the East Ridge. From the parking area the route follows a well marked trail through the forest. Before long you’ll crest tree line and begin the rather direct ascent up the ridge. The East Ridge is a popular route that sees a lot of hikers, even in the winter. During those months it’s often wind-scoured and the snowpack can be thin. That makes it safer as a route of ascent, but the resulting firm snow can also pose a challenge for your skins, particularly on the steeper section near the summit. If that’s the case rack your skis on your backpack and hike. Whatever your method of ascent, it’s about as direct as 14er routes come.
Once at the top and depending on your goals, abilities, and conditions, there are several different routes to ski. The easiest and safest is to simply reverse your route of ascent, and ski back down the East Ridge. The winds that frequent this part of the state can leave the East Ridge thinly covered and firm. While that’s not always appealing to ski, it’s often pretty safe from avalanches. As is the case with all Colorado 14ers, coverage is always better in the spring than in the winter.If you’re looking for a more exciting descent and your assessment of conditions deems it safe, there are some south facing runs off the East Ridge that head down to Blue Lakes. The longest of them begins near the summit and is known as the Cristo Couloir. On an average snow year there might be two other similar snow-filled gullies that descend parallel to the Cristo Couloir, just slightly down the ridge to the east. You should be able to see these routes as you approach the trailhead on Highway 9 and do a visual assessment. They all finish down at the Blue Lakes Road in the valley below, which you can follow back to the trailhead.
The third and most adventurous route descends the north side of the peak. Locals refer to this as the Quandary Couloir. This route is steep and not skied as often as the others. It requires additional recon beforehand to ensure knowledge of the route entrance and exit. It finishes in McCullough Gulch which can be taken back down to the trailhead as well. As is always the case, approach these mountains with care. Quandary Peak offers ski options that are straightforward by comparison to other high peaks in the state. But it still requires careful consideration with regard to weather, avalanche stability, altitude, and general backcountry skiing safety. That said, on the right day with the right partners and skills, Quandary Peak might just be the ideal first 14er ski descent for you. It was for me, and it was for my wife Christy too, as well as countless other backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering friends. Be safe out there.