Aspen area’s Elk Mountains are in a league of their own for risk

View from Capitol Peak.
Photo courtesy Kevin Berrigan |


Since 2000, six people have died on Capitol Peak, including four in the past five years. Two men have died in the past month on the climbing the 14,131-foot peak. According to data from the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, 19 climbers died in the Elk Mountains from 2000-2015:

Mountain Deaths

Maroon Bells 8

Pyramid Peak 2

Capitol Peak 4*

Snowmass Mountain 5

Castle/Conundrum Peak 0

*-does not include two in 2017

Capitol Peak is considered one of the toughest hikes among Colorado’s mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation, but some of its neighbors in Pitkin County remain more deadly.

Four hikers have died at different places under different circumstances on Capitol Peak this summer, so experts note that there’s no single factor that can be pinpointed for the tragedies.

“The bottom line is none of the Elks is easy and all of them have inherent risks,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a nonprofit that works to preserve the big peaks.

Hikers and climbers face a number of objective and subjective factors affecting their outings, he said. Subjective factors are ones they can control — such as getting an early start to minimize hiking when storms are more likely and having the skills and experience to complete a technical route. Objective factors cannot be controlled — such as loose rock giving way.

Some of the more technical routes in Colorado’s fourteeners exist in the Elk Range. Castle and Conundrum Peaks are easier to scale and haven’t proven statistically likely for incidents, but Maroon Peak, North Maroon Peak, Pyramid Peak, Snowmass Mountain (the fourteener, not the ski area) and Capitol Peak have proven to be among the most treacherous for incidents and fatalities, Athearn said.

He has studied the incidents and fatalities from 2000 through 2015 in the Elk Mountains using records from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen and articles from The Aspen Times. Though he tried to document all incidents, it might not be comprehensive, he said.

“The Maroon Bells would be twice as likely, statistically, to have an accident or a death,” Athearn said, referring to the findings.

There were 20 climbing incidents on the Maroon Bells and eight deaths over that 16-year period. There were three additional non-climber deaths, when people were killed in the area when their primary activity wasn’t bagging a peak. For example, a hunter fell to his death while tracking mountain goats.

The Maroon Bells accounted for 42 percent of all incidents and 42 percent of the climbing deaths in the Elks, according to Athearn’s research.

Over that same period, Capitol Peak logged 10 climber incidents and four deaths. That doesn’t include the four fatalities this year or any incidents in 2016.

Capitol Peak stands out among the Colorado fourteeners because of the exposure near the mountaintop.

“We would put that at the top as far as difficulty in the state,” said Scott Robson, executive director of the Colorado Mountain Club, which promotes adventure, safety and environmental protection of the peaks.

The Knife Edge, where the latest fatal mishap occurred Sunday, has extreme exposure and a lengthy drop on both sides, as the name suggests.

“You really are on your butt scooting along for some time,” Robson said. “Once you’re committed, you’re really at the mercy of the weather.”

He estimated the length of the Knife Edge at about a third of a mile, but that isn’t the issue. It’s the exposure and the difficulty of crossing it.

“Distance doesn’t really make a difference at that point,” he said.

The exposure and long distance on some areas of Colorado fourteeners truly create a “no-fall zone,” Robson said.

Ted Mahon, an Aspenite who has climbed and skied all the Colorado fourteeners and accomplished various mountaineering feats in summer, as well, said Capitol is just steep enough to put it in its own category.

“There are places (on other peaks and on lower Capitol) where you could fall and just get scraped up,” he said. But falling at the Knife Edge and other places on the peak result in death.

“I feel Capitol has more than one trouble spot,” he said.

He warns against trying to pigeonhole the mountain in any specific way. Accidents occur because of different circumstances at different times.

“It’s wrong to say Capitol is ‘fill-in-the-blank,’” Mahon said.

Glenwood Climbing Guides owner Mike Schneiter has taught climbing for 17 years. He identified several challenges to climbing Capitol. It’s a longer journey than many — 17 miles round-trip — and many people will break it into two days. Even when he leads a group to Capitol Lake and plans for a day-two summit, Schneiter advises groups to plan for 10 hours from camp to summit and back again.

“That fatigue and exhaustion causes problems for people,” he said. “I see it all the time: People get fumbly and can’t move as well when they’re tired.”

Snow is another issue. Many people attempt Capitol when there’s less snow, but Schneiter said it’s actually safer when snow covers the peak. That’s because snow reduces the amount of loose rock a climber faces. Route finding and exposure also add to the peak’s difficulty.

“It’s a good one to work up to. People need to be sure they’re experienced and feel comfortable, and if they’re not, hire a guide,” said Schneiter, who also works with Aspen Alpine Guides and Colorado Mountain School.

Robson said many hikers leave Capitol to the end of their list of fourteeners, with good reason. They should get experience in technical hiking before tackling Capitol and a handful of other peaks. Unfortunately, others try to hike it before they have the proper skills and experience. There’s pressure to tackle the fourteeners.

All of the hiking and climbing experts stressed that they were talking in general terms and not specific incidents, such as the fatal accident Sunday.

“They are a tick list and a magnet to those who want to climb fourteeners,” Robson said of the Elk Mountains. “There’s definitely a summit fever that sets in. It’s real.

“People give it a run. Most people make it,” he added.

Athearn said Colorado Fourteeners Initiative doesn’t have specific data on use of Capitol Peak. The nonprofit organization has placed people counters on some of Colorado’s highest mountains, but the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t allow the mechanized tools in wilderness, where most of the fourteeners are located.

In general, hiker numbers are up from 10 years ago and substantially higher than four decades ago, but there’s no evidence of single-year spikes, he said.

As the number of people on the big peaks increases, it stands to reason that there are going to be more accidents, Mahon said. It doesn’t mean the slopes are suddenly more dangerous.

Increased use has created some advantages. The loose rock has been kicked off many of the routes, Mahon and Athearn noted.

Robson said there is no reason to be unprepared with all the online resources. However, that might not be enough.

“You can be armed with a high degree of technical knowledge,” he said, “but once you’re standing on that Knife ridge, it all goes out the window.”

Despite the exposure of the Knife Edge, most hikers don’t use climbing ropes to secure themselves along that section. Many don’t feel it’s necessary. Others don’t want to take the time. Guiding services in the Aspen area often use the short rope technique, where hikers on either side of the ridge are tied to one another.

“The local guide services in town will rope up clients every time,” Mahon said.

Neither Colorado Mountain Club nor Colorado Fourteeners Initiative necessarily promotes use of ropes. They promote safety and preparation.

Athearn said hikers can take many steps to reduce the risk — go with someone experienced, go when the weather is favorable, pick your time carefully and accept it if you have to turn around without bagging the peak.

“A big part of it is humility,” he said, “and realizing these mountains are unforgiving.”

Glenwood Post Independent reporter Carla Jean Whitley contributed to this report.