Backcountry blitz: Aspen-area entities team up to try to reduce climbing tragedies


Mountain Rescue Aspen will launch a new initiative Saturday to try to better prepare backcountry adventurers.

The volunteer rescue group will host a Backcountry Basics Workshop in Aspen at the CB Cameron Rescue Center from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The class is intended to become a keystone annual event, similar to the search and rescue group’s popular avalanche training workshop.

It’s open to people of all skill levels.

“The idea is to offer continuing education,” said Greg Shaffran, a MRA member. It can teach new skills to people venturing out into the backcountry and provide a refresher to veterans.

The workshop will focus on 10 essentials necessary for safe and successful backcountry travel. They fall into four categories — navigation, first aid, self-care and survival, Shaffran said.

A $30 donation includes lunch, a medical kit as well as hands-on training by search and rescue experts.

Space is limited to participants must sign up online at

Two mountain guide companies will play a pivotal role this summer in a blitz to educate backcountry adventurers about the potential perils of Aspen-area peaks.

Aspen Alpine Guides and Aspen Expeditions will make presentations and hold field clinics designed to educate budding mountaineers on backcountry safety. The White River National Forest, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen are subsidizing their efforts.

There will be six presentations in Front Range cities and two in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to Steve Szoradi, managing partner and a guide for Aspen Alpine Guides. Both guide companies also will hold four clinics apiece over the course of the summer.

The goal is to reduce injuries and deaths from climbing accidents on Capitol Peak, North Maroon and Maroon Peaks, Pyramid Peak and Snowmass Mountain — though the lessons apply to numerous peaks in the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen. They want to make sure people realize that summiting those peaks is different than a hike to a high-elevation lake.

“I don’t know that it’s anything more than bad juju that year.” — Steve Szoradi, mountain guide

“These are technical mountains and they do require mountaineering skills,” Szoradi said.

There were eight deaths in the Aspen backcountry last year, five on Capitol Peak alone. Some observers have contended the use of social media has contributed to the problem. People see their friends summiting some of Colorado’s 54 peaks above 14,000 feet in elevation and set out to replicate the feats even if they don’t have the skills for the toughest routes.

Observers have also claimed many adventurers are too eager to tackle the most challenging peaks. They don’t hone their skills first on easier routes.

Szoradi isn’t necessarily buying it.

“I’m hesitant to say it’s social media,” he said. “I don’t want to be the crusty old climber and say, ‘People are not paying their dues.’”

He just feels as Colorado’s population grows and the state attracts more visitors, there are more people venturing onto the big peaks.

“Statistically, it’s just more people,” Szoradi said.

With more people venturing into the mountains, there are bound to be more problems, he said.

Last year may have also been an unusual season.

“I don’t know that it’s anything more than bad juju that year,” he said.

Details are being worked out on locations of the presentations in the Front Range, but the Aspen guide companies are working with the Colorado Mountain Club, REI and climbing gyms — resources that mountaineers are already tapping. They will be held in mid- to late-June through August.

Amos Whiting of Aspen Expeditions and Szoradi have developed the curriculum for auditorium-style presentations. Szoradi said it will include mountain etiquette, such as calling out to mountaineers below if you dislodge rock and how to stay safe when you’re lower in elevation than other climbers.

Route selection and property planning will be emphasized. There will be a section where specific problem areas on the peaks around Aspen are discussed and a general discussion about the crumbly rock encountered in the Elk Mountains.

They will talk about the importance of preparing for changing weather. Szoradi said many routes that are safe on the high peaks turn treacherous when it rains.

They will discuss a strategy for progressing from hikes to the big peaks and how there are good options for preparing.

“It won’t be death-by-power point,” he said, “but there will be a power point.”

Officials from Mountain Rescue Aspen or other search-and-rescue organizations will be brought into the presentations to discuss what happens after an emergency call comes in, realistic timing for receiving help and a general “anatomy of a rescue,” Szoradi said. They will also go over case studies of some outings that went wrong.

The clinics will take the presentation a step further and apply some of the lessons to the slopes. The goal is to attract some of the same Front Range mountaineers attending the presentations.

The clinics, four by Aspen Alpine Guides and four by Aspen Expeditions, will start in the classroom and head to the slopes.

He stressed that the clinics are on preparation and safety.

“It’s not an instruction on climbing,” he said.

Each clinic will have 12 students and two guides so there’s a good ratio. It will be $50 per person with the cost subsidized through the public agencies.

“The idea is to make it affordable for a day trip,” Szoradi said, referring to Front Range attendees.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told The Aspen Times earlier this spring that the education effort that the public agencies and private guide services will collaborate on will be blunt about what could happen.

“I think we can make a difference. We’re all not afraid to say, ‘This is deadly, this can kill you,’” DiSalvo said.

Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer has said education could be the key to reducing accidents in the backcountry.

“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.”


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