Close this search box.

Early Season Snow and Backcountry Travel; What Do You Need to Know?

Looking at the Smear of Fear (lower center) in Rocky Mountain National Park

Preparing for early season snow and backcountry travel could make or break your next adventure.

Written by Colorado Mountain School Guide Andy Hansen

If you’ve been following the weather in the western half of the United States, then you know what’s been happening: snow, or lack thereof.

After a scorching summer, these chilly temperatures and precipitation are a welcome change. And the change has us all thinking about how best to get prepared for the impacts of early season snow on our backcountry travel plans. 

For some of us, it’s time to break out our backcountry touring gear. But for others, it’s still rock climbing season! Even for the non-rock climbers, this new snow can have implications for us as mountain travelers.

Early season snow taken in during recent backcountry skiing tour on Berthoud Pass
Looking like winter during a personal ski tour on Berthoud Pass. Taken October 15, 2018

Here’s a brief breakdown of what the change in the weather means for a variety of users:

Backcountry Riders

Early season snow, and the resulting viral Instagram posts, get most backcountry skiers and snowboarders dreaming of powder laps. Or, harrowingly steep ski mountaineering ascents/descents through a classic Rocky Mountain couloir.

But when we come to our snow senses, this early season snow can also be a double-edged sword. A wicked dragon lurking in the basement. In a perfect world, the snow up high would continue at a consistent rate and density. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in our Continental snowpack. This new snow will eventually become basal facets or even worse, depth hoar: one of Colorado’s greatest contributing factors of avalanche fatalities.

Students identifying layers in the early season snow-pack on an AIARE avalanche training course under the instruction of an AIARE Instructor.
Colorado Mountain School students identifying layers in the snowpack on an AIARE avalanche training course.

Check out our avalanche training courses and free awareness clinics to get up to speed!

Alpine Ice & Mixed Climbers

If you’ve noticed icicles forming on the shady aspects of your homes or apartment buildings, then you have an idea as to what’s going on on some of the big North Faces of Rocky Mountain National Park!

The early season is a special time for ice and mixed climbers in the Front Range. The daytime temperatures are still warm but the nighttime temperatures are beginning to plummet. With all this added precipitation, that can only mean one thing: ice is forming! Some of the Park’s classic ice routes are beginning to shape up and it’s only due time before they are fully formed and ready for an ascent!

Some of Rocky’s early-season classics include:

The Northeast Face of Notchtop Mountain (WI3 1000’)

All Mixed Up (WI3+ 600’)

Alexander’s Chimney (M4 700’)

Travel Up Early Season Ice Alexander's Chimney in Rocky Mountain National Park
Early Winter (Oct-Dec) is Typically the Best Time for Climbing Alexander’s Chimney in Rocky Mountain National Park

Smear of Fear (WI5 500’)

Looking at the Smear of Fear (lower center) in Rocky Mountain National Park
Front and Center: The Aptly Named “Smear of Fear”

In addition to these routes, there are a number of “rare form” ice routes beginning to take shape in RMNP. Plus, the approaches are still relatively snow free!


New snow in the mountains gives the classic mountaineering routes a decidedly more alpine ambiance and presents greater difficulties to ascend these routes.

This time of year, snow climbing isn’t ideal because the snow isn’t consolidated or subject to the diurnal temperature shifts, but some of the ridge routes can still be climbable in these conditions.

The Flattop Mountain Trail to the summit of Hallett Peak is a classic peak baggers route and can be a great choice for climbers looking for a non-technical summit day!

Routes on Longs Peak North Face, including the Keyhole, require greater care to ascend and a more advanced knowledge of technical systems.

Remember, mountaineers are susceptible to avalanche danger, too. On Monday, October 15, 2018, a mountaineer was caught in an avalanche in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. If you go mountaineering on snow, make sure you have avalanche training, or hire a guide to show you the way.  

Rock Climbers

If you’re like me, then your rock climbing season extends well into late autumn! Don’t be deterred by the new snow! Typically after a few days, the faces dry out, cracks cease to seep and the warm, sunny south faces are back in business.

Autumn is prime time for cool-yet-sunny rock climbing conditions, and Eldorado Canyon, the Flatirons and Boulder Canyon all have mega-classic lines ready to be sent!

Colorado Mountain School guide Mike Soucy guided his client in Eldorado Canyon State Park on a warm Fall Day
Early October snowfall is no match for the fall Colorado sun on a recent AMGA training course.

Difficulties from easy to “la dura dura” can all be found within a short drive, or hike, from our Boulder office in Neptune Mountaineering. If you would like a tour of the sunny spots, tackle a specific objective or work on a new skill set, consider hiring a rock climbing guide.

More To Explore

summer backcountry trip with Rainbow

Ignite Your Passion

Learn and Explore with Colorado Mountain School

Start Your Adventure

Stay Connected

Enjoy free tips and tricks from professional mountain guides, special offers and updates, and much more.

  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.