Rise in 14er deaths reflects rise in climbers, fearless behavior
October 10, 2010
Ten climbers have died scaling Colorado’s tallest mountains this season, a possible record for tragedy in the increasingly popular pursuit of 14,000-foot peaks.
Yet, with the number of Colorado peak-baggers reaching 500,000 every season by one group’s estimate, the number of fatalities per 1,000 hikers could actually be declining.
“From year to year, there are peaks and valleys, but when you look long-term, like decade to decade, the trend is generally going down in terms of deaths,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, which works more to minimize the impacts on fragile alpine terrain than to promote hiker safety. “Still, sometimes you just scratch your head and wonder what’s going on with the mountain gods here.”
No one formally charts hiker and climber deaths in Colorado’s mountains. And because climbers aren’t required to register before beginning an ascent, it’s impossible to accurately count the number of hikers on the state’s 54 Fourteeners.
Athearn’s group, using informal surveys, estimates the annual tally to be somewhere around half a million.
This year’s 10 deaths are considered by many a tragic apex, but without official tracking, talk of a record year for fatalities is speculative.
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Regardless, years like 2010 could fuel a push to impose fees or registration for the state’s heavily trafficked summits.
A proposed fee program is under consideration for South Colony Basin, a launching point for four Fourteeners in southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo range. Such a program would not be unprecedented nationally. Last month, federal administrators at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington and Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve announced plans to raise climber fees by 150 percent to help offset increased costs related to each park’s climbing program. The new fees – $500 for Denali climbers and $50 at Rainier – drew criticism from climbing groups.
Rocky Mountain National Park’s Longs Peak sees as many as 400 hikers a day on the well-worn Keyhole Route during busy summer weekends. The last formal tally in 2002 logged 9,698 hikers and climbers reaching the summit of the 14,259-foot peak. This year, three men fell to their death while climbing Longs.
While not a record for the park, it is a higher-than-average number of fatalities. (The peak saw no deaths from 2005 to 2008 and of three deaths last year, two were from heart attacks.)
The deaths and the issue of hiker traffic on the difficult routes up Longs Peak have long spurred talk of potential registration or even fees, not unlike heavily traveled routes in other national parks.
“It’s certainly something we continue to evaluate,” said Rocky Mountain spokeswoman Kyle Patterson.
But for the near term, park rangers are focusing on education. They are trying to send the message that an ascent up Longs’ most popular Keyhole Route is not a hike. It’s a climb. Even though a climb up Longs typically doesn’t require ropes, it does have high-risk maneuvers and difficult scrambling. For next season, park officials are considering a sign at the base of the Keyhole, where the trail turns to a near-vertical scramble.
“Something we could put there that could say, ‘Stop, think, assess,’ ” Patterson said. “Just to engage people at a critical decision point. Maybe get them to recognize if they have that ‘summit fever’ thing. Maybe get them to stop for a second and possibly pull them out of that.”
Summit fever, or the irrational push to make the top that can eclipse good judgment, can be at the root of many mountaineering accidents. And with Colorado’s Fourteeners becoming more popular, they are gaining an undeserved reputation as a simple stroll in the hills. That mentality is supported by the traditional lack of rope- work needed for ascending most Fourteeners in the state.
“Fourteener climbing is a strange duck because you are in terrain where it’s not practical to use a rope, but you do expose yourself to a lot of fall potential, where if you trip, you die,” said Lou Dawson, an expert in high-altitude recreation, guidebook author and the first to ski all of the state’s Fourteeners.
“It really behooves a person to think it all through and get a better understanding of the hazards up there,” he said.
Veteran mountaineers often lament the role that technology has played in supplanting what was once a long process of learning how to travel safely in the mountains. Today’s well-equipped hikers, with warm, dry gear and the latest technological gadgets, can be lured into thinking they are safe in terrain where experience and smart decision-making are the best tools.
“A trend I see is people who have not bothered to learn the background information that could maybe keep them out of trouble,” said Howard Paul, public affairs director for the Colorado Search and Rescue Board. “They are warm and dry. They have a cellphone and a GPS. They have maybe three of the 10 essentials. And they don’t know what they don’t know.”
Without addressing any of this summer’s climbing deaths, Dawson said he regularly sees “people up there with no clue as to the hazards.”
“It is about respecting the mountain and, really, the lack of respect exhibited by some is a type of amusement-park attitude that can lead to big trouble,” Dawson said. “I have talked to people who really think they can just dodge rockfall.”
Finding common factors in this summer’s deaths is difficult. There was a wide range of ages in the victims, from 18 to 63. Of the 10 killed, four were from out of state and most were experienced mountaineers. Eight fell to their death, and two were struck by falling rock on El Diente Peak near Rico.
But one clue might be the location of the fatalities – they occurred on more difficult mountains, not the heavily-traveled peaks like Quandary, Bierstadt, or Grays and Torreys, which are considered the state’s “easier” introductory ascents.
“More people seem to be moving into the hairier mountains,” said Josh Friesema, a search-and-rescue team member from Teller County who often participates in rescues on fourteeners.
“If you get more people onto those harder peaks, someone is going to get hurt. Maybe this year, with 10 deaths, is the new normal.”