Relationships between abiotic (soil temperature and number of freeze-thaw cycles) or biotic factors (chemical elements, microbial biomass, extracellular enzymes, and decomposer communities in litter) and litter decomposition rates were investigated over two years in subalpine forests close to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in China. Litterbags with senescent birch, fir, and spruce leaves were placed on the forest floor at 2,704 m, 3,023 m, 3,298 m, and 3,582 m elevation. Results showed that the decomposition rate positively correlated with soil mean temperature during the plant growing season, and with the number of soil freeze-thaw cycles during the winter. Concentrations of soluble nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) had positive effects but C:N and lignin:N ratios had negative effects on the decomposition rate (k), especially during the winter. Meanwhile, microbial biomass carbon (MBC), N (MBN), and P (MBP) were positively correlated with k values during the first growing season. These biotic factors accounted for 60.0% and 56.4% of the variation in decomposition rate during the winter and the growing season in the first year, respectively. Specifically, litter chemistry (C, N, P, K, lignin, C:N and lignin:N ratio) independently explained 29.6% and 13.3%, and the microbe-related factors (MBC, MBN, MBP, bacterial and fungal biomass, sucrase and ACP activity) explained 22.9% and 34.9% during the first winter and the first growing season, respectively. We conclude that frequent freeze-thaw cycles and litter chemical properties determine the winter decomposition while microbe-related factors play more important roles in determining decomposition in the subsequent growing season. © 2013 Zhu et al.