Increase in backcountry deaths this summer concerns Aspen area officials | AspenTimes.com

Increase in backcountry deaths this summer concerns Aspen area officials

USFS, sheriff, rescue group looking for ways to make sure hikers are informed before they head out to wilderness

Scott Condon and Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times

The U.S. Forest Service, the Pitkin County sheriff and Mountain Rescue Aspen ­— concerned and overwhelmed by numerous deaths in the wilderness surrounding Aspen this summer — said Wednesday they must find better ways to encourage visitors to prepare themselves for the danger they can encounter in the high country.

The Forest Service isn't contemplating anything as drastic as permits or skills testing for climbers, but it has to boost efforts to make sure forest visitors "know before you go," White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said.

"It's something as a team we're talking about over the whole forest," Fitzwilliams said. "This year has highlighted how we need to spend more time figuring out how we (educate) people."

The White River National Forest hosts about 13 million visitors annually. The Forest Service is updating its counts through a process that started Oct. 1 and will wrap up in September.

“It’s really cool people are getting out on the forest, it just brings challenges.”

— Scott Fitzwilliams, Forest Service

"We feel it's going to be higher," Fitzwilliams said. "It's really cool people are getting out on the forest, it just brings challenges."

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There have been at least seven deaths in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness this summer, four of them on Capitol Peak. A bicycle rider also died in the forest outside of wilderness.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who has been in office since 2011 but in Aspen for more than 30 years, said the number of people who have died, gotten lost or been injured in the past two months is "unprecedented." He would like to start an educational program of sorts that sets out the inherent dangers, the safest routes to take and how to be prepared in the backcountry.

"I think we can do a much better job of educating people," DiSalvo said. "These are technical climbs. These are not hikes."

Mountain Rescue Aspen representatives who work with the Sheriff's Office said Tuesday they are working on a "Peak Awareness" program for the public. Details are being worked out and will become available in coming days.

There have been several rescues of backcountry hikers who suffered injuries or illness on trails other than the big peaks.

Through Tuesday, Mountain Rescue Aspen had 47 missions for search and rescue this year, according to the Sheriff's Office statistics. That compares with 48 by the same time in 2016, which ended at 66 calls, the most in the past five years.

"Ultimately, climbing and hiking in the backcountry and at high elevations is risky business, and visitors who don't plan ahead, prepare and educate themselves are putting themselves at higher risk of danger," Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer said. "And I'm absolutely not saying that any of these tragic deaths were a result of poor planning. They may have all been completely prepared and were aware of the risks they were facing."

But in the big picture, it is apparent that some forest visitors are not prepared to deal with high altitude travel. Hike to Buckskin Pass or West Maroon Pass and it is common to find people without adequate hiking boots, water or proper gear for cold, wet weather. In some cases, climbers haven't informed others about their specific plans.

"The number of rescues, especially this summer, has just been accelerating," Schroyer said. "People are going out unprepared, mentally and physically, for travel in the wilderness."

DiSalvo said, in particular, young people who get caught up in Spartan-type races and like to challenge each other "obviously don't know what they're getting into" when they set out to climb some of these peaks.

"People need to respect the classification system of these mountains and know the difference between Mount Elbert and the Maroon Bells," DiSalvo said. "They need to realize they're no different than a double black diamond (ski run)."

Some of the increase in incidents is a pure numbers game.

The Maroon Bells Scenic Area set a record with about 300,000 visitors over the course of the summer. That's the area around Maroon Lake that is a gateway to the wilderness. The Forest Service doesn't keep a running count of visitors, but revenue from visitors this summer already exceeded all of last summer by early July, Fitzwilliams said. It's probably safe to assume that the number of visitors has already surged past last year's level, he said.

The Denver Post reported that Colorado added 100,986 residents between 2014 and 2015, boosting the overall population to 5.4 million. Fitzwilliams and his staff believe a lot of the increased visitation to the forest is from new residents as well as tourists. Much of the White River National Forest is accessible via Interstate 70, which has experienced record levels of traffic through the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel this month.

Fitzwilliams said he wonders how much growth in visits the forest can handle.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is setting limits on overnight visitors in some hotspots in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass. Reservations will be required possibly as early at next summer at Conundrum Hot Springs.

However, no limits are being considered on day users and visitors aren't required to demonstrate preparedness for day trips or peak bagging.

Schroyer said the Forest Service plans to post a video on the Recreation.gov reservation website for Conundrum Hot Springs that was produced by the Leave No Trace organization. The video focuses on minimizing damage to the environment, but an important principle of Leave No Trace is "plan and prepare" and "prepare for extreme weather, hazards and emergencies," she said.

Schroyer and Fitzwilliams said they are interested in utilizing information organizations such as Colorado Fourteeners Initiative on their websites about preparing for travel in the high country. Links could be added to the White River's website, and social media overall could be used better to spread the word, they said.

Colorado Mountain Club (www.cmc.org) also offers classes on a variety of climbing topics. Another hiking and climbing website, 14ers.com, provides detailed descriptions of routes on the big peaks.

DiSalvo said the sheriff's office approached the Forest Service a few years ago about installing signs along some routes directing people away from dangerous areas, but he said the agency was adamant about keeping signage out of the backcountry.

"When does public safety outweigh signs in the wilderness?" DiSalvo said. "I don't see how they can be against signs now given the deaths in the last two months.

"But a sign that says, 'Deadly Bells' is not enough."

He believes that leadership changes at the Forest Service since that request may alter that stance. He said Fitzwilliams and Schroyer are "good people and I think they have safety and the public interest in mind."

Fitzwilliams said it's been a funding priority to get as many seasonal workers out among forest visitors as possible. That includes wilderness rangers, trails crew and Forest Service employees at the Maroon Lake facilities. But the reality of a budget crunch is the Forest Service also must rely on volunteers from partnering organizations. Sometimes volunteers aren't as familiar with the area, he said.

The White River National Forest has vacancies for three of its five visitor information specialists — the first line of contact for people inquiring about trails and backcountry conditions. One vacancy is in the Aspen office. At times, the Forest Service could rely on staff members with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails to help with visitor contact. However, it often relies on volunteers from Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, some of whom aren't familiar with the area yet. One longtime local complained to The Aspen Times that the national forest and Aspen area should be better represented with some representatives more familiar with the area.

"I think that's a fair criticism," Fitzwilliams said.

But as always, responsibility for preparation falls on backcountry visitors.

"I don't know if there is a single good strategy to decreasing the number of mountain rescues on this ranger district," Schroyer said, "but I do know that we need to keep asking questions and keep working on improving our communication."

scondon@aspentimes.com

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