Serious climbing, serious consequences
After an unusually deadly summer in mountains near Aspen, forest officials and others are working to educate and inform backcountry climbers
After a deadly summer of 2017 on the high peaks and backcountry of Pitkin County, local officials are determined this summer to make sure people are armed with good information about what they are getting themselves into.
Five people died in six weeks in climbing accidents on Capitol Peak, widely considered one of the toughest of the state’s 54 mountains above 14,000 feet. Two additional climbers died in separate accidents on the Maroon Bells. Another hiker died in Conundrum Valley when she suffered acute altitude sickness.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said it was the worst summer of his 32 years in Aspen-area law enforcement. He’s determined to do something about it. His office is teaming with Mountain Rescue Aspen and the White River National Forest to undertake a “peak awareness” program that will create a blitz of information this summer about the dangers posed by the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen.
DiSalvo said all parties agree that the campaign needs to be blunt, even if it chases some business away. They won’t fall victim to the “Jaws syndrome” made infamous in the shark movie when tourism and government officials claimed the beaches were safe when they knew they weren’t.
“I think we can make a difference,” DiSalvo said. “We’re all not afraid to say, ‘This is deadly, this can kill you.’”
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer concurred.
“We’re doing our very best to reach out and educate people before they enter the forest,” she said. “We want everyone to take these mountains very seriously and understand the risks they are taking.”
Before the team could craft an information campaign they had to determine, or at least ponder, what happened last summer.
“Was it just a unique season? Was it our turn to have a bad year?” DiSalvo wondered.
Bad luck doesn’t appear to cover the extent of it. Forest Service officials say there is anecdotal information that visitation to the high peaks and backcountry is higher than ever. Results of a survey are expected soon to test the theory.
Meanwhile, alluring video, pictures and descriptions of exploits on the big peaks are plastered all over social media and drawing more people to the backcountry — often unprepared. An estimated 311,000 people annually hike and climb the fourteeners, the name given to mountain higher than 14,000 feet.
While the numbers are lower for Capitol and the Maroon Bells than for most other peaks, these challenging areas are drawing some people who appear ill-prepared for the effort.
“In decades past, climbing had a very significant focus on mentorship. You got into it by climbing with more experienced people, who would gradually take you on more serious climbs and show you the ropes and help you in that process of becoming skilled,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the ecosystems of the high peaks weather the surge of use.
“Nowadays, whether it’s our culture of immediacy or social media there seems be this (attitude of) ‘I’m just going to skip that apprenticeship period and just go straight into climbing harder mountains,’” Athearn continued. “I think that comes with some pretty serious risks. I’m not even sure some of these people know what they’re biting off.”
Mountain Rescue Aspen President Justin Hood has some insight into the tragedies last summer on Capitol Peak. He recalled his own initial trip up Capitol years ago when he was just 17 years old.
“I really recall total fearlessness getting up there, and then my nerves just feeling completely shot when I turned around and looked down across the Knife Edge and all the way back to K2,” he said.
Mental control, physical exhaustion or both become issues for some climbers after they reach the summit. Hood said some climbers are determined not to return the way they came. While they may have never read about a route from Capitol Lake up the face to the summit, they convince themselves it must exist.
That alternate-route thinking is believed to be the cause of three of the 2017 deaths.
“They start looking to the left and see the lake and they go, ‘I bet there’s a way down over here.’ The rational thinking is changing fast,” Hood said.
Capitol Peak used to be one of the last fourteeners that climbers tackled. Hood isn’t sure peak-baggers wait and build up their experience anymore.
“Now they’re just going for all the glory,” he said.
So, Mountain Rescue, the Forest Service and Sheriff’s Office will fund education efforts aimed particularly at less experienced climbers and those unfamiliar with the notoriously “rotten” granite of the Elk Mountains.
The agencies enlisted two guide services, Aspen Expeditions and Aspen Alpine Guides, to make six presentations for climbers in the Front Range and two in Aspen this summer. While venues weren’t secured as of press time, the idea is to go to the REI store in Denver, the American Alpine Club at Golden and possibly a sports shop or two to target the Front Range crowd, Hood said.
In Aspen, presentations will be at MRA headquarters and a gear shop.
In addition, the guide services will offer four courses each on mountaineering over the course of the summer. They will go over skills such as route finding, necessary equipment and skills needed on Class III and Class IV terrain, which is more difficult than Class I and II hiking and minor scrambling.
The events will be subsidized by MRA, the Sheriff’s Office and Forest Service to keep the cost down to about $50 per person, Hood said. There is the potential to have 12 students per class, so they could reach more than 90 people.
MRA and the Forest Service also intend to place representatives at busy trailheads at times throughout the summer to engage with climbers.
It will be more about collecting information from the climbers after their experiences than grilling them about preparedness as they embark, Hood said. MRA wants to learn what people encountered and how it matched their expectations so that the awareness campaign can be tailored to needs.
The peak awareness effort also will include websites and pamphlets designed to get out information on key points of preparedness. Hood said sites such as 14ers.com, a well-respected place for intelligence about the mountains, always have been good about working with public agencies to get out vital information.
“Nobody wants anybody else to die in these mountains,” Hood said.
In a separate education effort, Colorado Fourteeners Initiative will shoot a series of videos this summer to try to prepare people for climbing the big peaks throughout the state, not just in the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen.
Athearn said he envisions six to eight videos of one to two minutes each. They will focus on topics such as route finding, proper gear, what’s different on Class III and IV routes from the easier Class I and II routes. A video also will note the five peaks where history shows statistically the most injuries and deaths occur: Capitol Peak, Maroon Peak, North Maroon Peak, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.
“With 2017 being such a big year for 14er-related fatalities — especially on Capitol — it seemed the time was right to move forward on this video series,” Athearn said.
The organization received funding from the Colorado Tourism Office, the Aspen Skiing Co. Employee Environment Foundation and a private funder to make the videos. Schroyer said her office will work with CFI to provide the permits necessary to make videos in wilderness. She is enthusiastic about using the videos as another tool to prepare climbers.
Athearn said it will take an ongoing effort to build peak awareness because there is constantly a new group of people becoming interested in hiking and climbing the big peaks, many of them from out of state. CFI’s videos and the Aspen-based education effort must reach a church group coming by bus from Kansas, for example, or an individual traveling from Atlanta, he said.
One possible tool that won’t be pursued is permanent markers of some type to delineate the route on the high peaks, where it is often difficult to discern a trail.
“Right now that’s on hold,” Schroyer said. “We’d like to try some of these other steps first. It’s still not out of the question.”
One potential downfall with permanent markers is people might be lulled into thinking all they have to do is follow the path. It might attract people who don’t possess the skills needed for a difficult peak — the opposite of what the peak awareness campaign is all about.
DiSalvo said he feels good about the effort the team is making to get the word out, but he acknowledged it is challenging to reach the intended audience and getting them to listen.
“I don’t know how to get information to people who really have no business being up there,” he said. “I can put that message out. I can’t control how they receive it.”