Beware in the backcountry — tips for hiking, biking and climbing around Aspen

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Hikers walk along Maroon Lake path earlier in the summer.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

After spending 37 years with Mountain Rescue Aspen, David Swersky has learned never to assume that people venturing into the mountain backcountry are aware of basic safety practices.

Too many times during his own personal hikes, he’s witnessed people heading into the wilderness too late in the day as storm clouds build. Or he’s encountered hikers in flip-flops and carrying no water on a rocky trail in warm weather.

The golden rule, he said, is to expect conditions to change.

“Always be prepared for the weather to change, even if you set off on a cloudless day,” Swersky said.

As a member of rescue teams, he knows of many situations where a person ran into an unexpected problem, possibly as simple as twisting an ankle and not being able to hike out. They often must wait a significant time before rescuers can reach them. When a person sits in the mountainous terrain, it doesn’t take long to get cold from lack of activity.

“It’s brutal spending the night out when you’re not prepared,” Swersky said.

An early start is always advised to avoid the typical afternoon thunderstorms. But even an early start won’t guarantee a hiker or biker won’t get caught in a thunderstorm. It’s always a little unnerving to try to figure out whether to keep going or find some type of shelter out in the wild while lightning is striking.

“There’s no good answer to that,” Swersky said. “Obviously you don’t want to be on the ridge line.”

One piece of advice is indisputable: Anyone venturing into the backcountry should have an inexpensive form of insurance. Hunting and fishing licenses, ATV registrations and a hiking certificate all guarantee that counties in Colorado can dip into a state fund for many costs of a rescue. Hiking certificates are sold at sporting-goods stores.

Anyone in need of assistance should call and not let the potential for being billed be a barrier, Swersky said, but getting a certificate or license ensures the costs will be covered.

Hiking safety tips

Here are tips from Swersky and the U.S. Forest Service for safe hiking and backpacking:

Get an “alpine start.” That means leaving at dawn if you’re climbing a 14,000-foot peak or other high mountains to assure you will be down by noon or earlier. For valley hikes of 8 or so miles, leave prior to 9 a.m. to avoid showers and thunderstorms.

Make a plan and stick to it. Inform someone of where you’re going and how long you anticipate being gone. If you cannot inform someone of your plans, write down your plan and leave it with your vehicle.

Wear proper footwear and bring extra clothing. Even if departing with cloudless skies, anticipate a change in the weather and bring a rain jacket. Wear clothing that wicks moisture.

Bring water and food, even if the hike is short.

Familiarize yourself with a route. That means studying a map in advance if you are heading into unfamiliar terrain.

Swersky advises hiking in groups of three. That way, he said, if one person encounters a problem, another person can stay to assist while another goes for help. Don’t assume you will have cellphone coverage.

Carry a whistle. If you end up in trouble, it can be heard much farther away than a shout.

Backpackers should remember to never take any kind of food into their tent. They are required to have bear-proof containers in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness for food and garbage. Hanging food in a tree is no longer considered an adequate step.

Be aware that you could encounter a moose. Keep more than 100 yards away.

“If charged by a moose, tun. Get behind a large solid object. If knocked down, get up and run. Moose will trample you, causing serious life threatening injuries,” says a fact sheet by the Forest Service.

Mountain climbing safety

Mountain Rescue Aspen is frequently called during summers to rescue injured or stranded climbers, or retrieve bodies after accidents. Pitkin County has six of the state’s “fourteeners” — peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation. Four of the peaks, North Maroon, Maroon, Capitol and Pyramid peaks are among the most challenging in the state. Mountain Rescue tries each year to educate climbers who are unfamiliar with the mountains so they are more prepared.

Here are “Peak Awareness” tips from Mountain Rescue Aspen’s website:

The Elk Range is comprised of loose rocks.

Warming temperatures, wildlife and climbers are factors in contributing to rock fall.

Caution should be used with hand-holds and footing.

Rocks are slippery when wet or snowy.

Plan your primary route ahead of time.

Prepare an alternate backup route.

Cairns can be misleading.

Be prepared for quick weather changes.

Expect possible high winds.

Altitude, dehydration and exhaustion impair judgment.

Do not get separated from your group.

Mountain biking tips

The Tread Lightly movement is known primarily for reducing the impact of various recreational pursuits on the environment, but its tips for responsible mountain biking also feature some common-sense safety advice:

Cross streams slowly, at a 90-degree angle to the stream.

Slow down when sight lines are poor.

Maintain a reasonable distance between you and your fellow riders.

Make your presence known when approaching others and going around blind corners.

Buddy up with two or three riders, reducing vulnerability if you have an accident or breakdown.

Listening to headphones or ear buds can make it difficult to hear and communicate with others.

Don’t mix riding with alcohol or drugs.

Lightning safety tips

If a person absolutely cannot get indoors during a thunderstorm, here are steps that the National Weather Service says will “slightly lessen” the threat of being struck by lightning:

Avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridge top.

Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees. It is a myth that crouching down reduces the risk of getting struck by lightning, according to the weather service.

“Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than fried!” the website says.

If you are in a group, spread out.

Don’t rely on a tent for protection.

Stay away from water, wet items and metal.


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