Deadly climbing season spurs safety plans by Mountain Rescue Aspen, sheriff |

Deadly climbing season spurs safety plans by Mountain Rescue Aspen, sheriff

The 14,130-foot Capitol Peak is in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area and part of the White River National Forest.
Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times |


Mountain Rescue Aspen is preparing to launch a Peak Awareness program that educates hikers and mountaineers about safety steps they should take (see related story).

MRA members Doug Paley and David Swersky said two primary focuses of the program will be making a plan and sticking to established routes. They said numerous searches have been hampered by sketchy information or no information about a missing party’s intentions.

Swersky said anyone heading into the backcountry should make as detailed of itinerary as possible. “Tell somebody that cares,” he said. And if the plan changes due to weather or other factors, try to inform someone of the change or leave a note on a vehicle.

They also said there have been numerous incidents over the years where parties strayed off a main route, whether from getting lost or seeking a shortcut.

Paley said people often make the mistake of following a game trail, getting lured by a faraway cairn that ultimately leads to nowhere or spotting their destination and concluding that bushwhacking is the best option.

“Shortcuts are not OK,” Paley said.

Other issues they foresee the Peak Awareness program covering include:

* Mountaineering is different than hiking. Reaching the summit of peaks such as the Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain is a greater challenge than hikes in the backcountry and even hikes up many other 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado.

“We’re very different here,” Paley said, citing the loose rock that’s pervasive in the Elk Mountains.

* The time of the season has an effect on the terrain conditions.

* Complete extensive research and planning prior to an outing. There are ample resources available on routes and what to expect.

* Be prepared to spend the night. Bring adequate clothing, gear, food and water.

* Don’t wear clothing that blends with the terrain. Stand out.

* How to prepare for an emergency. They believe Personal Locator Beacons or PLBs are the wave of the future. They likely helped save two lives in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness this year.

A deadly season in the Elk Mountains has convinced Mountain Rescue Aspen to ramp up safety education offered to people tackling the big peaks.

The search-and-rescue group plans to start a Peak Awareness program each year early in the climbing season, MRA officials said Thursday. Members also hope to host a meeting before this season is finished.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said his department will spearhead an aggressive effort to identify where climbers are coming from and how best to reach them. He said he also will press federal land managers on a proposal to mark main routes with signs at the high altitudes of the Maroon Bells and Capitol Peak.

“I’m putting (this issue) close to the top of public safety in Pitkin County,” DiSalvo said.

Mountain Rescue Aspen plans to model a Peak Awareness course after an Avalanche Awareness program that’s already highly successful. MRA member David Swersky, who helped launch the avalanche safety class 33 years ago, said Thursday that the course initially attracted only about 20 to 25 people each season. However, a deadly slide on the approach to Castle Peak in the mid-1980s sent attendance soaring. More than 100 people continue to go through the course annually, including people from out of the Roaring Fork Valley.

“We think this is the time to have a sister program,” Swersky said.

The goal of Peak Awareness is to try to eliminate climbing deaths. Six people have died in climbing accidents in Pitkin County this year, two on the Maroon Bells and four on Capitol Peak.

“It’s not going to be 100 percent, but it will help,” Swersky said of the safety class.

Doug Paley, training officer for Mountain Rescue Aspen, said he’s convinced the avalanche awareness program has helped save lives. He has high expectations for Peak Awareness as well, but he also noted it’s up to backcountry users to prepare themselves.

“The best we can do is educate and build awareness, then it’s up to you,” he said. “We can’t shut down the backcountry.”

The challenge is reaching out-of-town peak baggers who aren’t around at the time the program is presented.

Paley said Mountain Rescue Aspen would use social media to expand its reach. The annual presentations would be recorded and posted on the websites of MRA, Pitkin County and the Forest Service for on-demand use.

DiSalvo said he wants blunt information about the risks of climbing in the fourteeners of the Elk Mountains posted on Mountain Rescue Aspen’s website and linked to The site is a leading source of information about routes on Colorado’s big peaks.

The hope is someone doing their research would be led to the MRA website, where a special message could be crafted.

“We can be as blunt as we want,” DiSalvo said. “We could have in big, red letters: ‘Warning. These peaks are dangerous.’”

“I have no problem saying, ‘Four people have died on this peak this season alone,’” DiSalvo said, referring to Capitol Peak.

People need to understand that the Maroon Bells, Snowmass Mountain, Capitol Peak and Pyramid Peak are in a different league than many of the fourteeners around the state, according to DiSalvo. If they are looking for a big peak to bag that poses little risk, they can target Mount Elbert and numerous other peaks, he said. But they need to be trained and accomplished mountaineers to attempt most of the Elk Mountain fourteeners, he said.

The sheriff doesn’t believe education alone will be enough to reduce the deaths. He believes the U.S. Forest Service should mark the designated routes at the high elevations of the biggest peaks to prevent people from wandering off trail and, often, into trouble. Many fourteeners are in wilderness, where the Forest Service doesn’t install signs. DiSalvo said the rule should be altered for the sake of climber safety.

“What I’m saying is enough is enough,” he said.

Local Forest Service officials have previously said they don’t want to start posting signs at sites where there is a risk. For example, some people have said a sign is needed warning of the risks at the Punchbowl along the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen. It’s a popular swimming hole, but there have been a handful of deaths there over the years.

Forest Service officials in the past have said that posting signs would obligate the agency to make sure they remained in place, despite weathering or vandalism, or face liability. There’s also the difficulty of determining what sites warrant a warning.

Forest Service Policy (FSM 2326.1) states that the agency should: “Inform wilderness visitors that they face inherent risks of adverse weather conditions, isolation, physical hazards and lack of rapid communications, and that search and rescue may not be as rapid as expected in an urban setting in all publications and personal contacts.”

DiSalvo said he is eager to meet with Mountain Rescue Aspen, the Pitkin County commissioners and local Forest Service officials to explore ways to build awareness of the risks of peak bagging in the Elk Mountains. The Peak Awareness program is a start, he said. Now his department will study how to most effectively reach the people that need to be reached.

Paley said the program could tap the expertise of the Aspen mountaineering community and bring in outside experts for presentations, panel discussions and Q&A sessions with attendees. Details on a program this fall are expected soon.

“We’re not going to wait until next June to start,” Paley said.

In addition, local guiding company Aspen Expeditions will offer a free, one-day “Intro to Mountaineering Course” on Sept. 16 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The course is being offered in response to the deaths of Ryan Marcil and Carlin Brightwell on Capitol Peak last weekend, said Amos Whiting, head guide and owner of Aspen Expeditions. He will lead the training.

Two randomly selected participants of the course will be given a free guided climb of Capitol Peak on Sept. 18.

Previous fourteener or rock-climbing experience is strongly recommended for the course. Go to or call 970-925-7625 to sign up for the course. Limited space is available.

“The course will touch on basic navigation-route finding, mountain awareness and some simple rope work tools designed for the climber who is on the fourteeners/low-end technical mountaineering routes,” Whiting said.


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