With 11 fatalities on Colorado’s fourteeners this season, “it’s time to do something”

The high country is seeing increasing injuries, fatalities and rescues on fourteeners

By | jblevins@denverpost.com | The Denver Post

MARRON BELLS-SNOWMASS WILDERNESS, CO – SEPTEMBER- Capitol Peak can be seen in the distance from the Upper Capitol Creek Trail on September 6, 2017 near in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado. Capitol Peak is one of Colorado’s Fourteeners that reaches 14,131 feet at it’s summit. This summer has been deadly for the peak with 5 people dying while attempting to climb the mountain. Capitol Peak is in the Elk Mountains range of White River National Forest. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

ASPEN — With 11 people dead on Colorado’s highest peaks so far this summer — including seven on the treacherous fourteeners around Aspen — rescuers and climbers are scrambling for a plan to prod the swarming masses to make better decisions in dangerous terrain.

Luckily, they have a route already mapped out. Avalanche-awareness workshops — brief introductions to the risks of backcountry travel in winter — was birthed in the late 1980s by Mountain Rescue Aspen, and the group of weary rescuers is seeding a new plan for warm-weather backcountry travel training called Peak Awareness.

“Because of everything that has happened in the high peaks around us, we realized we need a second cousin to our avalanche-awareness program,” said David Swersky, a 37-year member of Mountain Rescue Aspen who helped formulate the now ubiquitous avalanche training nearly 30 years ago.

It’s been a rough season in Pitkin County’s Elk Range, home to seven of the state’s most technically demanding fourteeners. Since July, the midpoint of the busiest summer ever for the Roaring Fork Valley, the group has been called out on more than 30 rescues. Eight of those were body recoveries. Five were on the daunting Capitol Peak.

It’s been the darkest season in memory for Mountain Rescue Aspen, which conducts rescues in the most-fatal region for avalanches in the country.

“There are at least 10 times are more people hiking around the backcountry now than in 1990, but we don’t have 10 times more rescues. So it’s not all bad,” Swersky said. “But when it touches your family and friends and rescuers and rescuer families, we think it’s time to do something.”

The crux question is what can — or should — be done on the mountains versus what can be done before people get to the trailhead? Should rangers and rescuers be on patrol? Should there be signs at critical junctures on peaks that don’t really have defined paths? How much route direction is the responsibility of the Forest Service versus the climber?

MARRON BELLS-SNOWMASS WILDERNESS, CO – SEPTEMBER- Hiker George Nick, left, talks with hiker Sean Cody, right, near Capitol Lake with the massive Capitol Peak behind them on September 6, 2017 in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado. Capitol Peak is one of Colorado’s Fourteeners that reaches 14,131 feet at it’s summit. Nick and his partner and Cody and his partner all attempted to summit but backed off near the infamous Knife Edge. This summer has been deadly for the peak with 5 people dying while attempting to climb the mountain. Capitol Peak is in the Elk Mountains range of the White River National Forest.(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

People pushing hard in the mountains is hardly a new phenomenon. But now it’s like an endless contest to post and boast the swiftest, lightest, longest, most audacious trips possible. Sinewy superhumans sprint across the 14 fourteeners of the Sawatch Range in less than 54 hours. They ski fourteeners that only a few years ago were never trodden in winter. They ride their bikes on self-propelled, self-supported loops of all 58 fourteeners. The bar never stops getting raised. And every new notch of radness is trumpeted on social media.

“I feel like the conversation in recent years has been about everything but the idea that there is risk and it can be serious. All people talk about is how fast someone did something,” said Ted Mahon, the Aspen mountaineer who joined his wife Christy and pro skier Chris Davenport in becoming the first to ski Colorado’s 100 tallest peaks.

“All these trends make the fourteeners seems less serious and more like a playground, and that trickles down through the community,” Mahon said. “I’m as guilty of it as anyone, but I notice the trend in the magazines, in the outdoor shops, in the social media community.”

But the problems with increasing injuries, fatalities and rescues in the high country can’t be blamed on social media or hard-charging super athletes.

The first fatality on Capitol was on the lower mountain, the second was a slip from a fall-and-die perch and the last three involved a wrong turn, with climbers following what looked like a straight, easy path down the north face of Capitol that turns into a slippery slope of gravel and scree ending in a 600-foot cliff. On Sept. 6, Mountain Rescue Aspen scrambled a helicopter to pluck a wayward hiker off unstable terrain on Capitol Peak, thwarting yet another possible death.

Mary Cryan crossing the knife’s edge on the ridge to Capitol Peak’s summit (14,131′) on August 27, 2017 in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado. K2’s summit seen in the background (13,664′). (Photo courtesy of Mary Cryan)

People have died in the Elks for decades if not centuries. It’s a dangerous place. And these accidents rarely come in steady trickles as much as sudden, sickening eruptions.

So before pounding the panic button and installing signs on the fourteeners or closing peaks or requiring permits or guides, let’s compare the number of incidents with the growing number of climbers on these hard peaks, said Lou Dawson, the Colorado godfather of ski mountaineering who was the first to ski all the state’s highest peaks.

“If we have a problem with safety — which I’m not convinced entirely that we do — before a lot of money and time gets spent on this, I’d like to see a deeper analysis of what’s going on,” said Dawson, who has spent 50 years climbing the state’s peaks and is wary of blaming athletes chasing excellence for luring inexperienced hikers into the vertical field.

Those breakthrough athletes progressed gradually. They took small steps in the mountains. They didn’t start with anything in the Elks.

“Maybe familiarity breeds a little complacency here,” he said. “I feel like sometimes people don’t take these things seriously enough. Maybe that’s a result of so much communication and information through blogging and social media. Maybe some of this energy being directed toward signage and education should go toward encouraging a greater presence of guides. Guides can really change things.”

Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest, said all his district rangers tell him they’ve “never ever seen it this busy” this summer. The revenue the agency collects at Maroon Bells Scenic Area — the gateway to a six-fourteener wilderness — by early July had already surpassed the revenue collected in all of 2016. His team has spent years working with a wide spectrum of organizations to promote backcountry skiing safety.

“Maybe a similar program with the amount of visitation we get around here in the summer months is in order,” he said. “With this many tragedies, it’s certainly a wake-up call for us and an opportunity for us to work collectively and collaboratively with other organizations to see how we can minimize the risks.”

Fitzwilliams supports better signage at trailheads, perhaps even warnings that summit routes in the Elks are not simple hikes and require mountaineering skills. But there are problems with putting signs in the alpine wilderness. He doesn’t have rangers on peaks who can check signage regularly. And part of his job, remember, is to keep the wilderness wild. Plus there’s the notion that too many signs will work against the requirement that climbers should be familiar with the route and use navigational skills.

A few months ago, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo did not support more signage in the wilderness. He’s changing his mind.

“I understand the reluctance for more signage. But a random cairn or a wooden sign, I don’t see that as that intrusive compared to the risk that we are losing some people,” DiSalvo said. “I am all for keeping the wilderness wild, but I think there comes a time when public safety trumps it.”

DiSalvo supports bluntly worded trailhead signs that warn climbers that inexperience can be fatal. The signs should include a list of names of people who died in his county’s wild lands in recent years, he said. It would be a long list.

“Some of these folks are taking too many chances in an area that has no room for error. They are inexperienced and they’ve done nothing to mitigate their risk,” DiSalvo said. “I call it the Spartan attitude. People doing extreme things without preparation. It’s seeping into our culture and people are pushing themselves to do more extreme things. Maybe that doesn’t have anything to do with the tragedies we’ve seen this summer. But I wonder if that’s not part of it.”

Across Colorado, the stories from veterans of the high peaks have a common theme: increasingly ill-prepared hikers pushing higher and faster with little margin for error.

Lloyd Athearn, the boss of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, has seen a growing number of hikers without packs for essentials like water, food, first-aid and gear for an unexpected night in the cold.

MARRON BELLS-SNOWMASS WILDERNESS, CO – SEPTEMBER- Capitol Peak can be seen in the distance from the Upper Capitol Creek Trail on September 6, 2017 near in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado. Capitol Peak is one of Colorado’s Fourteeners that reaches 14,131 feet at it’s summit. This summer has been deadly for the peak with 5 people dying while attempting to climb the mountain. Capitol Peak is in the Elk Mountains range of White River National Forest. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

“After spending enough time in the mountains, you realize at some point bad things will happen to you,” Athearn said. “A lot of people are out there improperly equipped and probably less experienced than they should be.”

Gerry Roach still remembers when he was learning to drive as a teenager and police showed the class horrific photos of car accidents. He also will never forget losing his mentor and climbing teacher on Long’s Peak.

“Those lessons seemed to be washed over today in a dash for adventure and greatness. The youth want it all instantly, and older folks work hard to recapture their youth,” said Roach, who, like Dawson, is a pioneer of Colorado’s high peaks, having written the seminal guidebook for summer travel on the state’s fourteeners. “And the accidents follow. The word adventure means we don’t know what the outcome will be. It doesn’t mean that we will be a little harried but emerge unscathed.”

Mary Cryan, 29, moved to Colorado a couple of years ago. A teacher with her summers off, she’s been climbing a lot. So far this summer, she’s summited 35 thirteeners and fourteeners with an experienced friend aiming to climb the state’s 200 highest 13,000-foot peaks. She was on Capitol Peak last month when Mountain Rescue Aspen found the body of 21-year-old Zackaria White a hundred yards from where the team had found the bodies of Aspen’s Carlin Brightwell, 27, and Ryan Marcil, 26, six days earlier.

Cryan spent the summer preparing for Capitol. She was surprised by the lack of readiness among her fellow climbers on what is commonly considered the state’s most challenging fourteener.

She was coming down from the summit after starting well before dawn and encountered many climbers heading up, hours away from the summit at midday. Several asked her how to find the route to the summit. She asked them if they had looked at photos or read route descriptions. They all said no.

“I think some people aren’t as prepared as they should be. I warned them about the weather, but at the end of the day, you can’t control other people’s decisions,” Cryan said. “That mountain will always be there, so you have to think about all these decisions.”

That focus on decision making has become a primary spotlight in avalanche education in recent years. After decades of highlighting terrain, snow conditions, weather, travel management and other factors that can lead to getting snared in devastating avalanches, educators recently have elevated human factors as an important component of safer travel in avalanche terrain.

Last year, there were only 12 avalanche fatalities in the U.S., down from 30 in 2015-16 and down from a longtime average of 27 a year. And it was one of the snowiest seasons on record. So maybe the new focus and explosion of avalanche-awareness programs is working.

Improved safety gear has helped but more backcountry skiers seem to be tuning into avalanche forecasts and following the widely popular “Know Before You Go” program that encourages skiers to check avalanche forecasts and weather patterns before heading into the backcountry.

The hope with the nascent Peak Awareness campaign is to mirror the success of Avalanche Awareness.

Earlier this month, at the organization’s 2-year-old, 14,000-square-foot training facility and headquarters, a team of 20 gathered to spitball what Peak Awareness might look like. It would stretch well beyond Pitkin County, with social media — maybe even YouTube videos or discussions with climbers the group has rescued — laboring to prevent bad decisions in the backcountry.

It will address the lessons learned this season by Mountain Rescue Aspen, like the dangers of separating from your partner or going solo, straying off-route, starting too late in the day, lacking familiarity with the route and being unprepared for such scenarios as a minor injury, getting lost or suffering from altitude-related illnesses.

Peak Awareness would emphasize that climbing in the Elk Mountains is not hiking but mountaineering. It would show climbers how the crumbling, loose rock of the Elks punishes bad route decisions. And it would be scalable, so other rescue groups, clubs, shops and outfitters across the West could deploy similar peak awareness workshops. The group hopes to roll out the first version of the program next month.

As if to emphasize the need for some sort of education program, Joseph Seeds Jr. of Denver strayed from the route up Capitol Peak the day after the meeting. Exhausted and thirsty, he was able to text a friend for help, and Mountain Rescue scrambled a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter from the High Altitude Training Center in Gypsum and rescued Seeds from unstable terrain.

“In our range, we know why things go wrong and I think we have an opportunity to frame that and get that message out,” said Douglas Paley, the training officer for Mountain Rescue Aspen. “Once this group pursues something, it’s going to happen. My hope is that 20 years from now, we will be here talking about celebrating our 20th anniversary of peak awareness.”