Colorado: A winter climb of Quandary Peak

Some tips for winter high country hiking

A classic high country view from the flanks of Quandary Peak.
Kim Fenske on Quandary Peak.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

At 14,265, Quandary Peak is a sleeping giant south of Breckenridge. The trailhead is located in a subdivision immediately north of the Highway 9 switchbacks to Hoosier Pass. Quandary is the most accessible fourteener in the southern part of Summit County and is a very popular mountain to climb throughout the year.

Every winter, I hike up Quandary at least once because the trailhead is accessible all season.  Snowdrifts can be deep in the forest, but the tundra is usually blown clear on the upper ridge to the summit.  The trail is usually compacted by snowshoes, boots, and skiers, making the path visible where it winds first to the north side of the eastern face of the mountain, then switches about a mile up from the trailhead and crosses to the south ridge when the trail breaks into open tundra.

The same scene a few minutes later as the wind picked up.

To follow the trail after a fresh snowfall has blown drifts across the path, I use several tactics. On the lower section, wider gaps between the trees, pruned or broken branches, and traces of packed snow are visible. I know that the trail crosses the higher ground on the northern ridge and continues west almost to tree line.

When drifted shut with fresh powder, I search for dimples in the snow that often indicate the trail not quite covered in a smooth layer of snow.  Furthermore, I am able to stay on the trail by feeling the hard, tamped pathway with my feet.  If I stray from the trail, the absence of hard pack provides a hip deep drop into a powdery drift.

As the vegetation transitions from a tall stand of fir and spruce to stunted krumholz, the trail crosses to the south side of the ridge and climbs through deep drifts of powder blown off the exposed tundra above. The trail vanishes under a wall of deep powder. Like penguins in the seas of Antarctica, a pair of ptarmigan swims beneath the fresh powder to retain heat as the temperature drops with the falling sun.

A ptarmigan in Quandary Peak.

The trail to the summit of Quandary continues west, following the sharp ridge. At times, the path is outlined with a winding ribbon of snow captured between patches of small rocks and tundra turf.

On the first false summit, I stopped and sat on a rock to take a break. I recharged on a container of almonds and finished a bottle of water that was already difficult to open with a ring of ice surrounding the opening. My base layer was wet with sweat, which was easy to sense with the wind going through my down jacket and chilling my shirt until the sweat almost froze my clothes to the skin. Removing my down mittens to eat quickly caused my fingers to go numb and somewhat unresponsive.

A pair of Ptarmigans burrows in the snow on Quandary Peak.
Ptarmigans on Quandary in winter plumage.

At twelve-thousand feet, storm clouds rolled over the crest of the Tenmile Range, while the Platte River Valley on the south side of Hoosier Pass remained sunny. A moment later, visibility dropped to less than one hundred feet. Wind bursts of forty to sixty mph created an intermittent sandblast of snow.

The hike to the summit continues on a moderate grade until the altitude surpasses Peak Ten, 13,633 feet; Pacific Peak, 13,950 feet; and Crystal Peak, 13,852 feet; to the north. After several false summits, the trail levels on the flat bed of talus marking the summit of Quandary. On a clear day, the tips of Mount Bross, 14,172; Lincoln, 14,286 feet; Cameron, 14,238 feet; and Democrat, 14,148 feet; are visible to the south beyond North Star Mountain, 13,614 feet. The hike to the summit in winter is about five or six hours, with an easy descent of two hours.

Approaching the summit.

With deep, untracked snow, I have spent as many as eleven hours on the trip to the summit and back to the winter trailhead. During one sunny weekend, I met twenty hikers on the Quandary Trail. One young man was confident that he was going to ski the bowl on Quandary at least twice that day, although he did not reach it once. Most of the hikers turned back at the first false summit, without reaching 12,500 feet. I met only two persistent, grizzly old men returning from the summit that day.

When hiking fourteeners, it is wise to remember that even an easy path to the summit can be challenging in winter.  Furthermore, no one should climb in the mountains without being prepared for a change of forty degrees in the actual temperature and much more dramatic effects from the wind chill factor.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

More stories by Kim Fenske:


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