Aspen Year in Review: Backcountry deaths to jailhouse troubles
During the spring and summer of 2017, nine people died hiking and climbing in the Elk Mountains range near Aspen. But more alarming, five people died climbing the 14,130-foot Capitol Peak, more than in the previous 16 years combined.
The Capitol Peak deaths started July 15 and continued until the end of August when an inexperienced 21-year-old man left his climbing partner after an argument on which was the best way to descend, and he later died from a 600-foot fall.
The Aspen Times staff came together in the closing weeks of the year to talk about the most intriguing and memorable stories of 2017.
It was a long, deadly summer in the backcountry near Aspen. The Capitol Peak deaths really shook the local community when a young Aspen couple fell while trying to descend the mountain. Their deaths rattled much of the younger community in Aspen, and a memorial service drew hundreds of mourners.
As the number of deaths increased, stories of the circumstances of their deaths, memorial services, and meetings between the local sheriff’s department and U.S. Forest Services — who were at odds about how to warn hikers of the dangers of the area — filled the Aspen Times pages. The climbing community responded with a backcountry-climbing seminar hosted by Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers and first responders in the backcountry.
As we look back at the most compelling stories of the year and look ahead to 2018, take a moment to remember those who died this year in the backcountry near Aspen.
Killed in the summer of 2017 on Capitol Peak:
Jake Lord, 25, Parker: He was climbing July 15 with another man and fell nearly 300 feet when a boulder came loose on the ridge between Capitol and Mount Daly.
Jeremy Shull, 35, Parker: He died Aug. 6 after falling just before reaching the Knife Edge near the summit. He was with a group.
Carlin ‘Carly’ Brightwell, 27, and Ryan Marcil, 26, Aspen: The local couple were found Aug. 22 at the base of the north face of Capitol Peak after climbing the mountain Aug. 20. They had recently started dating.
Zackaria White, 21, Pine: Pitkin County authorities said he argued with his climbing partner about the descent after reaching the summit Aug. 26. He tried to take a shortcut and likely fell 600 feet.
Died while hiking in the Elk Mountains range:
Jeffrey Bushroe, 27, Tucson, Ariz.: The Fort Carson soldier was found dead by another hiker May 27. Bushroe fell down the Ground Couloir at the Maroon Bells.
Rei Hwa Lee, 57, Littleton: She left the Denver suburb early in the morning of Aug. 5 to drive to the Maroon Bells, and she fell on the north face of North Maroon Peak. She was found three days after leaving the trailhead.
Susie DeForest, 20, Collegeville, Penn.: She had recently arrived to Aspen and was hiking the popular Conundrum Hot Springs trail Aug. 17 with friends when she suffered acute altitude sickness and later died on the trail.
Jason Gong, 55, San Jose, Calif.: Hiking with his son near Carter Lake in the Maroon Bells area, the man died of an apparent heart attack on Sept. 30.
SKICO BUYING SPREE
The Crown family, owners of Aspen Skiing Co., appeared content for years this decade to let Vail Resorts gobble ski resorts and become the 800-pound gorilla of the ski industry.
That changed with a roar in 2017 when an affiliate of Aspen Skiing Co. teamed with KSL Capital Partners on a buying spree that reshaped the industry.
They purchased Intrawest Resorts Inc. and its six ski areas in April. The big prize in the deal was Steamboat ski area. The new partners later swept up the four ski areas of Mammoth Resorts.
KSL already had Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows in its possession and added them to the portfolio of the new company.
The buying binge was topped off in August with the purchase of Utah luxury resort Deer Valley. That left the new company with a lineup of 13 resorts.
Meanwhile, the four ski areas of Aspen Skiing Co. remain independently owned by the Crowns, but officials said they would look for opportunities to cooperate.
Further cementing the connection was David Perry’s departure as Aspen Skiing Co.’s second in command to take the role of president and chief operating officer for the new firm, which as of Dec. 29 was still not named.
The alpine ski world converged on Aspen in March for the World Cup Finals, a long overdue treat for a town that has a deep connection with the sport.
Not since Vail in 1997 had the finals been held on U.S. soil, and not since the 1950 World Championships had Aspen hosted a ski event with this much on the line. With it came the return of “America’s Downhill,” a course that had not hosted a World Cup race since the women came here in 2007; the last men’s World Cup downhill was 1995.
Among the highlights was the appearance of Lindsey Vonn, who rarely has the chance to compete in Aspen and reached her first Aspen podium, finishing second in the downhill. Then there was Marcel Hirscher, who cruised to his unprecedented sixth consecutive overall title.
Oh, and don’t forget Mikaela Shiffrin. Despite leaving Aspen without a race win, the 22-year-old clinched her fourth slalom globe in five years and her first of what could be many overall World Cup titles.
The debate over the future of Aspen and Pitkin County’s vaunted affordable-housing program entered new territory this fall after a controversy over retirees living in deed-restricted units.
A younger generation in town — represented by a city-sponsored committee — sparked the debate with a letter to the editor some interpreted as a call to kick out retirees. And while leaders of the committee insisted that wasn’t and isn’t their goal, which couldn’t legally occur anyway, the controversy exposed a fault line many didn’t know existed.
On one side are those — including the director of the housing program — who believe affordable housing should be for “workers” only. On the other are people including former Aspen mayors Rachel Richards and Mick Ireland who think the program was meant to be a community-builder and available to all who contributed their working lives to the area.
It’s a question no one expects to be solved easily. Stay tuned.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Sure, the construction was 40 miles away, but replacing the Grand Avenue Bridge in the heart of Glenwood Springs had ripple effects up and down the valley and Western Slope.
The opening weeks were the most maddening as workers and deliveries trying to get upvalley met delays, and getting home and back downvalley wasn’t much easier. There were hourslong backups and delays.
For Aspen, Highway 82 over Independence Pass became a more popular alternative, especially for those trying to get to the Front Range or southern part of Colorado.
But the worst fears of construction delays into Thanksgiving weekend didn’t happen, and the project finished ahead of time and before the snow and winter traffic started to amp up.
ALSO OF NOTE
Furry invasion: A lack of food in the mountains led to a summer of bear sightings and interactions for Aspen residents and visitors this year. The bears kept local police and wildlife officials on their toes as they broke into cars and homes in search of food and invaded well-traveled public spaces.
The height of the bear invasion came in mid-September when wildlife officials had to shoot a mother and two cubs with tranquilizer darts and forcibly remove them from a sturdy tree on the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall, to the wonderment of tourists and locals alike.
Tree Farm sprouts concerns: The massive Tree Farm application, with 340 residences and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space, was approved by the Eagle County commissioners despite widespread opposition to the project. The site of the development is north of Highway 82, across from Whole Foods Market.
The project was approved by a 2-1 vote after multiple hearings — despite the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission recommending against it and a majority of the citizens’ comments against it. A citizens’ group has filed a lawsuit alleging that Eagle County’s approval violated its land-use code.
Jailhouse rock: The Pitkin County Jail was in the news again this year, and Sheriff Joe DiSalvo wasn’t happy about it.
First, a male and female inmate were found to have had sex for two hours in a cell in April without being noticed by guards. Then the same male inmate was caught in possession of a smuggled cellphone in the fall.
“I hope the people who were working when this happened are as embarrassed as I am,” DiSalvo told The Aspen Times.
Turnover elections: Two elections helped shape the face of the Aspen City Council and the Board of Education.
In May, Steve Skadron won his third and final two-year term as mayor with 83 percent of the vote, easily warding off challenger Lee Mulcahy. Incumbent Councilwoman Ann Mullins avoided a runoff in the May contest by winning her seat outright, while Ward Hauenstein knocked off Torre in the June runoff. Incumbent Art Daily lost in the May contest.
The Board of Education also saw the addition of a new face with Susan Zimet, who joined incumbents Susan Marolt and Dwayne Romero, who both retained their seats in the November election.
Much-debated bike trail: The controversy over the proposed Carbondale-to-Crested Butte Trail ratcheted up a notch as the year came to a close.
More than 500 people participated in the public comment process, and the majority of comments were in favor of a trail, though there are significant concerns over wildlife. There is widespread opposition from Crystal River Valley residents.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is trying to determine the best alignment for the route, and declared at a December meeting that the alignment won’t go through Filoha Meadows, an open space property acquired for its value as wildlife habitat.
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There’s hardly any place for an average worker bee to get an affordable meal, and that concerns elected officials.