Man dies in fall at Maroon Bells
August 20, 2006
The “Deadly Bells” claimed another victim late Saturday afternoon when a Texas man fell more than 300 feet to the base of a narrow gully on South Maroon Peak.Dr. Sterling Smith, 66, of Denton, Texas, was leading a group of three on a descent of the summit ridge when he lost his balance in a scree field at 12,800 feet, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Ferrara said Sunday morning. The accident occurred shortly after 5 p.m.County coroner Steve Ayers confirmed Sunday that Smith, a professor of microbiology at Texas Woman’s University, died as a result of a massive head injury.Dr. Brian Ogg, who was climbing with his father, met Smith and climbing partner Salty Rishel on the ridge earlier in the day. Ogg watched the accident unfold and was the first person to pronounce Sterling dead.”He turned around to look back up at us, and we could see him lose his balance,” said Ogg, who resides in Westminster. “We saw him fall the first 10 or 20 feet, then he disappeared.”
Ogg said he carefully descended the 50-degree slope on his backside. He made it to where Smith lay after 15 minutes.”It seemed like it took forever. He fell the length of a football field, maybe more,” Ogg recalled.The sheriff’s office was notified of the incident shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday by a Vail man who had witnessed the fall, Ferrara said. The man, who was climbing with two other Vail residents, hiked out of the wilderness area to find help. Two rescue teams were dispatched immediately, Ferrara said.Mountain Rescue personnel were met on the trail to South Maroon Peak by the two climbers from Vail as well as Rishel, also from Denton. The three confirmed the news and told rescuers Ogg determined that Smith died as a result of injuries sustained during the fall.The decision was made to pull rescuers from the area and to set out early Sunday to locate and recover the body.
“It was a dark and dangerous place,” Ferrara said. “We made a plan to have rescuers set out at first light at 5:30 [Sunday].”Rescuers traversed the mountain early Sunday, but initially were unable to locate Smith’s body. Ferrara and pilot Doug Sheffer searched the area in a helicopter; they found Smith shortly after 10 a.m., a few hundred feet below the peak’s ridge at the base of a large granite boulder.”The team came up to the right of him and climbed above, and from that area where they looked down, he was hidden,” Ferrara said. “The descriptions people give you [about the area] are all different because it looks so different from every angle.”Smith’s body was transported by helicopter to an area near the Maroon Bells visitor center at 11 a.m. Smith was an experienced mountaineer, Ayers said. He had climbed more than 40 of the state’s peaks.
“It sounds like a case where he lost his balance,” Ayers said. “On technical trails with that amount of exposure, you can’t recover if you fall off to the side.”The accident comes nearly 15 months after Kip Ryan White, of Lakewood, was killed in a fall in the Bell Cord Couloir, a narrow chute between North and South Maroon peaks. White’s son, Jordan, was roped to his father and was knocked unconscious during the fall but survived. Ferrara estimated that about one climber dies each year on the Maroon Bells.”Falls on the ridges of high peaks are not real common, but unfortunately they’re not unusual either,” Colorado State Search and Rescue Board spokesman Howard Paul said. “Each area of the state has its own idiosyncrasies. The Maroon Bells have proven to be very difficult and dangerous.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org