My First 14er Attempt… and Failure

Yesterday morning, I attempted my first 14er – a peak 14,000′ or higher – during the 14ers.com “Winter Welcome” on Quandary Peak (elevation 14,265′) and, spoiler alert, I didn’t make it all the way to the summit – though I got darn close!

Trail and Conditions

We took the East Ridge trail up and down, including the alternate that directly ascends from the tree line to the ridge, in order to avoid possible avalanche terrain. Total round-trip length is 6.75mi and elevation gain of 3,450′.

It was a BEAUTIFUL day – completely clear skies, no precipitation, and sunny. The only problem – which would prove to be my downfall – was the wind. The forecasted high was 22, but winds were forecasted to be steady in the low 20’s and gusting up into the 30’s, imposing a wind chill of about -20 once on the exposed ridge.

The route was snow-covered from the trailhead onwards, but I was able to get by with just MICROspikes due to the established trench and the other 40+ people hiking with me compacting the snow.

Gear Carried

Pack: SWD Long Haul 50L
Hiking Equipment: Kahtoola MICROspikes (traction), MSR Revo Explore (snow shoes), Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles, Garmin inReach Mini (satellite communicator)
Emergency Supplies: Tarptent Notch Li (shelter), Enlightened Equipment Revelation 30deg (quilt), MSR Pocket Rocket 2 w/ fuel (stove), Black Diamond Spot (headlamp)
Water: 2x 1L LifeWater bottles w/ electrolyte tablets, wrapped in 2x wool socks each
Food: Protein cookie, 3x KIND bars, bag of trail mix

Gear Worn

Baselayer: ExOfficio Boxer Briefs, Smartwool Socks, Patagonia Capilene Midnight Bottoms, Patagonia Trail Shirt
Midlayer: Mountain Hardwear Fleece Bottoms, Patagonia R1 1/4 Zip Fleece
Insulating Layer: Mountain Hardwear Snow Pants, Patagonia Nano Puffy w/ Hood, Buff
Wind Layer: Mountain Hardwear Shell
Extremities: Forsake Range High Boots, Mountain Hardwear Insulated Gloves, off-brand knit hat

The Hike and What Went Wrong

The beginning of the hike up from the parking lot was a nice, gradual, switchbacked trail up through the forest. Once we got above treeline, we started going up some steep-ish snowy slopes in order to gain the ridge. We continued up the ridge until we got to a short flat section just before the final push up to the summit. The wind was FIERCE on this flat part – I had a hard time walking in a straight line and some gusts were so strong that I was shoved a few steps off balance. After we got back down to the trail head, I heard a story that the gusts on the summit were even worse.

During the entire hike up to that point, I didn’t have any trouble regulating my temperature – my core was always warm, and I felt my extremities were well insulated. However, once I was completely exposed to the wind, I found that its was cutting straight through my gloves, and I was beginning to worry about my fingers – they were starting to go numb and it felt like my joints were starting to stiffen. At this point, I was standing just below the final 1,000′ climb to the summit.

I looked up at the remainder of the route and knew I could physically do it… but I was worried about what sort of condition my fingers and toes (I was also only wearing one pair of socks, and I could start to feel the cold creeping in as I stood still) would be in once I summited and then came back down, about another hour and a half of exposure to the wind. After considering it for a long while, I eventually turned around and made my way back down to the car.

Lessons Learned

First, gear. The next time I attempt Quandary, and yes, I will be back, I will be wearing two pairs of wool socks and liner gloves inside the waterproof/insulated pair. I’ll also take a set of hand warmers up with me – if I had them last time, I probably would have felt comfortable making that last push.

Second, I hope I’ll be better acclimated. I’d been in the Denver area for 5 days when I started the hike, and slept at 9,100′ in Frisco the night before, so I had some confidence that I was farther along in the acclimatization process than had I just flown in from Florida. In front, I didn’t feel almost any affects of the altitude, besides being more winded than typical for that difficulty of trail, until I turned around. On the hike down, I started developing a moderate headache, which backed off once I reached the trailhead, but then came back with a vengeance once I started driving out of the mountains on I-70 west.

Third, I’ll wear sunscreen. This was a stupid, stupid, stupid, amateur mistake. And I’ve got a stupid-looking snow burn to show for it.

Conclusion

In the end, I was simultaneously disappointed in myself and proud of myself for making the choice to turn around. Disappointed because I knew I could do it. But proud because I made the decision in the name of safety and avoiding personal injury. Regardless, I had a GREAT day. The natural beauty of the Continental Divide is staggering, and whenever I’d take a moment to take it all in, I felt so lucky to be there. I met some incredible hikers and am very appreciative to 14ers.com for organizing the event! Quandary Peak, I will be back!

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