Searchers injured recovering body of man on Capitol Peak near Aspen

Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers hurt in rock slide after finding Wisconsin man missing since Sunday

Kelly McDermott

Three members of Mountain Rescue Aspen were injured Wednesday on Capitol Peak trying to recover the body of a 32-year-old man missing since Sunday, officials said.

One MRA member was seriously injured in the attempted body recovery by a “massive rockfall” that was likely triggered by recreational climbers above them on the Knife Edge, according to a news release from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. The MRA volunteer was flown to a Denver-area hospital for emergency surgery.

Meanwhile, the body of Kelly McDermott of Madison, Wisconsin, remains in a precarious spot about 500 feet below the Knife Edge, and it was unclear Wednesday when the recovery might be re-attempted.

The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and volunteers with MRA began searching for McDermott on Monday after friends reported that he did not come back from climbing the 14,130-foot peak about 14 miles west of Aspen, said Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta.

The search began Monday at 5:45 a.m. when a team of nine MRA volunteers headed out into the field to look for McDermott from Capitol Lake Trailhead to Capitol Lake, while an Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter based in Gypsum searched areas near Capitol Peak’s summit and surrounding basins, according to the news release.

Bad weather hampered search efforts Monday afternoon, though a brief break allowed a CareFlight helicopter to search the area around the summit until sunset Monday, the release states.

On Tuesday, another team of MRA volunteers began searching for McDermott from the Snowmass Creek drainage toward Moon Lake on the east side of Capitol Peak, while another team continued searching the Capitol Creek drainage. The CareFlight helicopter also searched from the air Tuesday, though weather again limited those efforts, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

With improved weather Wednesday, 23 MRA volunteers split into five teams. Some re-entered the Capitol Creek drainage, while CareFlight delivered others to “the difficult to access areas near Capitol Peak, including the Pierre Lakes Basin, the release states.

MRA volunteers aboard the Army Blackhawk, which also helped with search efforts Wednesday, spotted McDermott’s body around 9:45 a.m. about 500 feet below the southern end of the Knife Edge, which leads to the final climb to Capitol’s summit. About 10:30 a.m., four MRA rescuers began climbing uphill toward McDermott’s location from above Pierre Lakes.

Before the rescuers began the climb, two of the MRA volunteers heading up toward the body noticed recreational climbers above them near the southern end of the Knife Edge and asked the Blackhawk pilots to try and signal the climbers to move away from the ridge. The recreational climbers did not appear to understand the signals, the release states.

“After beginning their climb toward McDermott, rescuers heard someone yell ‘Rocks!” from far above McDermott,” according to the release. “Moments later, a massive rockfall, described as ‘an avalanche of rocks’ by one of the rescuers, came crashing down the mountain toward the four Mountain Rescue Aspen members.”

One of the four was able to avoid the rocks, but the three others were hit and sustained injuries. One received minor injuries “to an extremity, while another sustained moderate injuries to the lower part of their body,” the release states.

“The fourth rescuer sustained major injuries after being struck by a rock, which knocked the rescuer roughly 20 feet through the air in a ‘rag doll,’ or somersault motion,” according to Wednesday’s news release. “The rescuers were able to administer immediate medical care to their seriously injured team member, and the … Blackhawk helicopter quickly returned to their location and used a hoist to pick up the rescuers and transport them to Aspen-Pitkin County airport.”

Two of the MRA volunteers were treated and released from Aspen Valley Hospital, while the seriously injured MRA member was flown by helicopter to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood for emergency surgery. No further information about the MRA volunteers’ conditions will be released “due to rescuer privacy,” the release states.

“It is believed, based on firsthand accounts from the rescuers involve in the accident, that the large cascade of rock falling down upon the rescuers was likely triggered accidentally by the climbers above them on the ridge,” according to the press release.

McDermott was with a group of people who hiked to Capitol Lake on Saturday, though they decided to turn around because conditions were too wet, said Ryan Harings, who was with McDermott’s group.

“When we got back to the parking lot, the skies had been clear for about an hour and a half, so Kelly decided he was going to sleep in his car, wake up early and make a decision on the conditions, adding that if he hiked in and had to turn around again, so be it,” Harings said in an email to The Aspen Times. “I felt like it was completely normal and reasonable to wait out the night and assess in the morning, and I trust that he made the call to attempt it based on the weather being clear, being alone having nothing to do with his decision.”

McDermott “has climbed many peaks all over the place, including El Diente last year,” Harings said.

It may take some time to recover McDermott’s body because it is located in a dangerous and unsafe spot, Burchetta said.

“Any future information about the recovery of McDermott will be released if and when conditions allow for the safe involvement of rescue personnel,” the press release states.

Capitol Peak is a 14,130-foot mountain in the Elk Mountains west of Aspen. In 2017, five people died in six weeks attempting the summit. Three of those deaths came in the Knife Edge area.



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