Snowshoeing Mt. Yale – Getting Schooled

Silent aspens rest in wait. We enter the forest through a narrow opening to find a world blanketed with fresh snow, blemished only by tracks that map the comings and goings of wild critters. We embrace the wonderful work of breaking trail and embark on our climb up the mighty Mt. Yale, nestled in the heart of central Colorado’s Sawatch Range.

We push on and I swear, the snow gets deeper and deeper with each step.  Though this slows our progress and hastens our breath, it only solidifies our resolve. Today, we are pioneers, punching our way through heavy, pristine, thigh-deep powder that finally gives way when we break through tree line. Our old friend, the wind has scoured away much of the snow, so we claw our way – sometimes on all fours – over rocks, steep slopes and icy patches. The wind howls, the air thins, our pace slows, and we settle in for the steady, rhythmic march ahead.

Kassar_Yale_Way_Down (1)We breathe heavily and talk sparsely (mostly because with facemasks, hoods and 50 mph winds, we could not hear each other anyway) while arduously working our way through a boulder-infested, snow-entrenched slope and then across an intensely blustery and narrow ridge.  Through it all, a smile hides beneath my many layers; nature reminds me once again that tromping through the mountains, regardless of the perceived struggle (or perhaps because of it) is where I am most alive.

Then, as if it crept up on us, we suddenly stand atop the 14, 169-foot-summit.  An unrelenting wind batters our bodies, but our spirits remain untrammeled. We soak in jaw-dropping vistas, reconnect with the Earth and revel in a moment of pure blissful peace.  This fleeting, precious instant heals all, making every step worth the while. Eventually, we must leave the mountaintop and return to life. The cold seeps in, fingers and toes stiffen and our bumbling descent back to reality begins….


This might sound like a lot of toil and trouble to reach the top of a peak, especially one you can climb with relative ease in summer (it’s still a butt-kicker then). However, attempting a fourteener in winter has rewards that far outweigh the challenges.  Here are some things to consider before heading out.

trail_through_forest_yaleYou’ll Likely Be Alone – In summer Mt. Yale is buzzing with enthusiastic hikers from near and far hoping to summit one of Colorado’s coveted ‘Fourteeners.’  During winter – even on bluebird days with reasonable temps – my dog, my guy and I usually walk alone.  Having a peak completely to yourself for the day is a rare occurrence and one of the rewards of braving shorter, colder days.  It also means you need to be self-sufficient because the chances of running into someone who can help in an emergency are slim.

Don’t Be Intimidated, Be Prepared: If Mt Yale is so amazing, where is everybody else? I think the idea of a big peak in winter intimidates people and keeps them away. Snowshoeing a mountain in winter is a formidable challenge that should not be taken lightly, but for experienced, prepared outdoorsy folk, it isn’t insurmountable and can even be fun as long as you are ready. Here are some tips:

  • This isn’t your average day hike. Although you’re only going out for a day (or that’s the plan anyway), Yale (and any other peak) require more preparation and know-how, especially in winter. It’s imperative that you understand the mountain environment you are about to enter and are ready for anything.
  • Ground conditions vary beyond expectations. You can encounter ice, rock, thigh deep snow, and white outs so be ready and have the gear for it all.
  • Route finding skills are imperative because trails disappear in winter. Don’t be lulled into mindlessly following those who came before – they could be clueless and/or lost.
  • Don’t let conditions at the trailhead – or weather forecasts – fool you. Weather can change on a dime and it is often unforgiving and sometimes dangerous.
  • Be avy saavy. According to Roach, “Avalanches are the greatest external hazard to winter mountaineering in Colorado.” It’s important to be able to identify hazardous terrain and re-route travel to avoid it.
  • When all else fails, use your head – it’s your most important survival tool.

Kassar_Yale_ViewFromSummit_in_Fall (1)Beware Summit Fever  –  True climbers know that reaching the top is sweet, but it’s not the defining moment of a climb. If you’re completely focused on the summit, you’ll miss the rest of an amazing journey and may make poor decisions. Enjoy each step and see the summit as a bonus.  Remember – getting everyone safely back home is what makes a trip successful.

Nuts and Bolts

Why: Reasons to climb Yale abound. The Sawatch Range, a beautiful spine traversing the heart of the Colorado Rockies, gives rise to 15 Fourteeners – more than any other range in Colorado and more than the entire state of California.

Kassar_Yale_ScenicAmidst these giants, Yale rises majestically from its surroundings, towering 14, 196 feet into the sky.  Because it stands relatively alone, the summit rewards hearty climbers with unfettered views of thirty of Colorado’s Fourteeners…yep, that’s right: THIRTY at one time.  Knowing which way to look may be the toughest decision you make all day.

Although it’s not the tallest in the area, Yale will give you the physical and mental challenge you seek. It’s a leg burner and a lung buster that is most definitely well-worth the effort. Plus, as mentioned before – opportunities for solitude are elusive – especially on fourteeners in Colorado. Snowshoeing Yale in the off-season means you’ll be able to avoid being inundated by hoards of people.

Kassar_Yale_Nick_Dan_MeadowLastly, Mt. Yale’s main trailhead is only a dozen paved miles from Buena Vista, the gateway for playing in the Collegiate Peaks.  While many of Yale’s neighbors require navigating rough dirt and/or four-wheel drive roads which may be buried in snow, the road to Yale is paved and plowed making it  one of the only consistently accessible peaks in the area.

Where: The Standard Route begins from the Denny Creek Trailhead. From the one stop light on Route 24 in Buena Vista, head West (toward the mountains) on Chaffee County 306 for 12 miles until you reach the parking lot for the Denny Creek Trailhead on the right.

Kassar_Yale_NearingSummitHow: There are various routes available to climb this peak, but it seems that in winter, the Standard Route/The Southwest Slopes is the best way to go.  From the Denny Creek Trailhead at 9900 feet, you’ll head north, begin climbing through the forest and will bear right at the signed fork.  After breaking through the trees, climb Yale’s broad southwest shoulder (12,200’) to reach the northwest ridge (13,900’). Scramble southeast across this ridge to finish the 4-mile, 4300’ climb and gain the summit (14,196’).

Before embarking on this journey, pick up the definitive guide, Colorado Fourteeners: From Hike to Climbs by Gerry Roach. This climber’s bible is available with a set of precise, individual maps that I would highly recommend grabbing, as well.


LOCAL’S GUIDE: The surrounding area and the tiny mountain hamlets of Buena Vista (BV) and Salida (25 minutes from BV) have tons to offer. Be sure to spend some time here and round out your jaunt to Chaffee Country with a good meal, a soak and a drink or two.

Grab gear and advice: The friendly and educated staff at The Trailhead, an independently owned full-service specialty shop on the main drag in BV will hook you up with any last-minute gear needs, excellent maps, snowshoe rentals and info about the latest trail conditions.

Soak and Sleep: Soothe those tired bones with a dip in the healing waters of Cottonwood Hot Springs, located only a few miles from the Mt. Yale trailhead.  With a number of pools that vary in temperature and size, you can pick what works for you and they offer tent sites, lodge rooms and cabins if you’d like to spend the night. (Soak: $12-15 in winter).  Alternatively, if you’d like to splurge, stay at the Mount Princeton Hotsprings Resort, providing luxury accommodations and private tubs for guests. You can also just swing by for a soak ($15-20 p/p).

Stay: The Simple Lodge & Hostel in Salida offers affordable lodging in a mellow and charming community-based atmosphere.  They have private rooms, a private suite and dormitory beds available. If you’ve brought along Fido, check out the Woodland Motel, where pets stay free and where you’ll feel at home thanks to all the comforts and amenities.

Kassar_sign_YaleFuel Your Adventure: Before heading out, grab a cup of coffee and snack at the place locals love,  Café Dawn .  Stop by Ploughboy, a local foods market, to pick up snacks and lunch for the trail.  Grab a loaf of homemade bread or a cinnamon roll from the spectacular Salida Bread Company while you’re there.

Post-Hike Grub: The Eddyline Taproom and Brewery in BV boasts superb wood-fired pizza, exceptional microbrews and a chill atmosphere.  Don’t miss the Snickers calzone for dessert – you’ve earned it.

Or, cruise to Salida where options for awesome food abound.  Moonlight Pizza  & Brewpub makes the best pies in town; they brew their own tasty sodas and beer, too. To treat yourself, head to Currents –  known for its phenomenal wine list and creative, scrumptious seafood dishes  or The Fritz, a café which delivers some of the best sandwiches, burgers and small plates around. If you’re in the mood for pub grub, Benson’s Tavern & Beer Garden serves up excellent fish and chips, burgers, an outstanding portabella sandwich and irresistible sweet potato fries.



About the author

Chris Kassar

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Verified by MonsterInsights