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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Lee

Winter Hike Planning

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Date of Hike: January 13, 2022

Planned Hike: Guanella Pass Road with the option to continue on Square Top Trail to Square Top Lake.

I was scheduled to have Friday off work for my MLK-flex day off. I started looking at the weather on Sunday and was very disappointed to find that Friday didn't look great. I spent the week coming up with avalanche safe hikes that were below tree line, because high winds were forecasted. I was mostly just bummed all week because I wanted to get above tree line. This is realistically just part of winter. But, after checking the weather for the whole week I saw that Thursday was forecasted to be beautiful even above 11K feet and I had nothing going on at work in the morning so I changed my day off. So yes, quite a bit of this planning was made easier by my flexible work schedule.

When picking this hike I considered the following: weather forecast, timing, avalanche risk and who else would be recreating in the area (skiers, hikers, snowmobiles etc.). I also always give my route and timeline to someone prior to leaving. It is important to note that I avoid high risk avalanche areas in high risk conditions. In moderate risk conditions there is a lot of risk assessment that goes into planning and continued assessment during the hike.

Weather Forecast & Timing

My favorite weather forecast for the mountains is I usually search by the nearest town and the nearest peak to get a variety of data. You can adjust the elevation on the left hand side of the screen. So, for this hike on Guanella Pass it is part of the Mount Bierstadt route. So I used this website to search Bierstadt. I then adjusted the elevation to mid-mountain since that would be my end elevation. I focus on the wind speed, conditions and adjusted temperature for wind chill. I was limited to the morning based on my work schedule. So I planned to start around 7:30am to be back at the car by 11am for a work call. This gave me a time limit on how far I would go. In general, I don't usually hike longer than 3-4 hours in the winter so this was perfect.

Elevation Mid Mountain: 11,484 feet

Wind speeds: 10 mph

Air Temp: 10-27 degrees F

Adjusted Temp: 0-16 degrees F

Conditions: Sunny/Clear Skies with no precipitation

It is important to know where road closures start/end in the winter. I have hiked in this area a lot in the winter so I know where the closure is, about 1.5 miles from the top of the pass. But be prepared for road closures and know how this will affect the distance of your hike. If you looked up Square Top Lakes on AllTrails it would tell you you can drive to the top of Guanella Pass. If you look on Google Maps it would tell you the pass is closed at Georgetown for the winter. So you have to dive a little deeper into closures via reputable sources. In addition, this will affect the maps you download or utilize because you aren't on an actual trail. I used CalTopo the entire hike as a guide.

I arrived to the winter trailhead at 7:30am. The air temperature was 14 deg F in the shade with no wind in the trees. When we reached the top of the pass the sun came out and it was very warm with no wind. Both sun and wind can dramatically change the temperature, so I was prepared with additional layers for every part of my body. Overall, the forecast was spot on! I knew I needed to back to the car by 11am, so I kept an eye on time as I made my way along the route, knowing that I might not complete the whole 7 mile route. When I reached the Square Top trail I knew I wouldn't make it all the way to the lake based on the occasional knee deep posthole even in snowshoes. I was moving very slow in deep snow and stopped for a lot of breaks. I eventually decided I was done and sat in the sun for a bit enjoying the views and relaxing before heading back. I did have phone signal so I texted Josh with an update on my route and ETA.

Avalanche Risk

I use CalTopo to assess avalanche risk for a particular route. I use and @coavalancheinfo Instagram account for overall forecast and risk. The overall risk for the front range was moderate (2/5). The highest risk areas were directly below ridge tops on northern or eastern facing slopes. While the risk had decreased it was still very prevalent based on the snow patterns and temperature patterns we have seen since the start of 2022. See below.

Based on the route there were a couple of steep angle slopes (see below). One is on the road portion of the hike and one is near the lake. The road portion is a steep slope angle and there have been slides there in the past. It is below tree line and doesn't see the sun. To get updated conditions of the road in terms of snow level I utilized AllTrails Reviews, hiking Facebook groups and for recent trail reports (for Mount Bierstadt - the most common hike here in the winter). This requires hours of reading recent reports over the course of the week. Upon arriving I could see a lot of south and west facing slopes had very little snow on them. I determined that the amount of the snow on the road and slopes next to the road was pretty unlikely to cause a slide but it was something I continuously assessed as I hiked up the road. As for the steep angle slope near the lake. It is south facing, therefore lower risk, and in a typically wind blown area. I knew pretty early on that I wouldn't be making it to the lake based on the depth of snow, lack of trail/tracks and my resulting slow pace. However, I did assess this from a distance. It was snow covered but lightly covered with remaining patches of grass/rocks. I couldn't tell from that far away if it was a risk to slide, however I think it was unlikely given the conditions and lack of snow pack. All of the snow on the route was hard packed and felt sturdy which was important because there are some streams that run along or cross the trail. See photos below for more details.

Who Else Is Using The Trail

Anyone can trigger an avalanche. Last weekend was a nice reminder of that when two people on snowshoes with their dog lost their life near Hoosier Pass. Especially with the current conditions and risk for remotely triggered avalanches, meaning you don't have to be ON the steep angle, you can be below it. However, it is important to know who is above you if you are under steep angles. This trail is common for snowshoeing/hiking, people with dogs and backcountry skiers. When I arrived I was the only car in the parking lot so I knew no one would be above me on these steep angles or skiing down those steep angles. As I left there were three groups starting out to backcountry ski, if I had been out at the same time as them I would have been even more aware of their location and my surroundings.

Yes, the short answer is there is A LOT of planning that goes into some of my hikes. This was planned over the course of the week but took hours checking the most up to date conditions, risks and trip reports. I enjoy this process and it certainly paid off to have over 3 hours of solitude in perfect winter weather. If this process is not for you, there are still plenty of safe areas to hike in the winter but make sure you are aware of all of these potential risks.

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