Aspen Times editorial: Signs on Capitol Peak need to be a part of the plan
October 5, 2017
Coming off the deadliest summer on Capitol Peak, local Forest Service and law enforcement officials are discussing how to better educate hikers and climbers on the dangers of the Elk Mountains around Aspen.
Educational classes are being formed. More information via websites is being pushed out. But the groups also discussed adding signs in the backcountry. While there is an agreement that more "in your face" warnings need to be at or near trailheads, there are those who argue against permanent markers near the summit deterring climbers from a certain deadly path.
If there is a "Y" on the trail and one direction leads to nowhere, we owe it to the climbers, even the most uninformed, to let them know not to go down a path to death. If there is a fork in the road or highway, and we know one at least will cause death, certainly we put a "road closed" sign in the road.
Forest Service officials worry that such signs in the backcountry will encourage even more inexperienced hikers to attempt Capitol Peak and give them a false sense of security to try to summit one of the state's most treacherous 14,000-foot mountains.
Think about the three young adults who died within days of each other in August after taking a similar route to try to get off Capitol Peak.
If they had uncertainty on the safest descent from the 14,130-foot summit across Knife Edge, would not a sign saying "don't go there" be their affirmation to avoid the alternate route they tried and lead to death? That last bit of information may have kept them from going down a trail that looked fine at the start only to ultimately discover it was a path to nowhere and a 600-foot cliff.
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We cannot for certain say a warning sign would have saved them, but perhaps the 21-year-old man who was inexperienced and chose that route over the advice of his climbing partner would have rethought his decision. The warning of possible death at that spot at that moment would have given his climbing partner's advice even more weight.
And it's not about just the climbers. There are more calls to Mountain Rescue Aspen and more situations putting their volunteer crews in harm's way. Not stopping the inexperienced climber only leads to a greater chance that searchers are going to be asked to be put in danger.
If confusion can lead to death, we owe it to everyone to help as best we can. The practical side thinks "why not?" But the naturalist challenges with "why?"
We do not need a yellow-brick road paved through the backcountry to get to the top and back of our beautiful mountains. But if one sign or a series of warnings can save another soul, we should give it a try.
To Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo's point: "Having people dying isn't a good solution, either."
We know there is no one solution that will keep another person from dying up there, but all of these ideas — from education to signage — will work best when implemented together.
We can appreciate the view of naturalists who want to keep the backcountry pristine, and we ask that if such a sign were to be put in place that they respect the decision of those who made it and leave the sign. We don't need backcountry vigilantes.
To their point of nature being nature: Doesn't the very existence of humans hiking and climbing the trail already disrupt nature at its very core? What's more disruptive, people or a static sign warning of possible death?
The Aspen Times editorial board consists of Publisher Samantha Johnston, Editor David Krause, Managing Editor Rick Carroll and community members Bob Braudis and Kathryn Koch.
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