Elk Mountains deaths, educating climbers topic of Pitkin County, forest service meeting

Signs welcome hikers and climbersat the trailhead for Capitol Peak. Officials are discussing adding more information at the trailhead to warn or the potential dangers of climbing the 14,130-foot Capitol Peak.
Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times |

Early ideas on how to get the word out about the dangers of climbing peaks in the Elk Mountains include posting links on a popular website, concentrating educational efforts on the Front Range and installing “in-your-face” type signs at trailheads.

That’s according to officials who attended a meeting Thursday that included the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Forest Service, Mountain Rescue Aspen and professional mountain guides.

“Everybody agreed that we can do a better job educating people and getting the message out there,” Karen Schroyer, district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said Friday. “We’re figuring out the best ways of getting that out.”

The meeting was held to figure out what, if anything, can be done to prevent future deaths on the 14,000-foot-plus peaks in the Elk Mountain Range around Aspen, which are all difficult, treacherous and not for the inexperienced climber.

Six people have died on the area’s big mountains this summer, including five people on Capitol Peak and one person on North Maroon Peak. Two others died in the Elk Mountains backcountry while hiking.

“We want to get some real frank talk out there about what it’s like to climb these peaks and what they can expect,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said. “These are not hikes. These are climbs.”

One idea is to engage the administrators of the popular website, which offers a bulletin board for climbers to post messages, as well as detailed route descriptions, photos and other information about the state’s 54 14,000-foot-plus peaks, DiSalvo said.

Local officials think posting links to Mountain Rescue Aspen, which would feature that “frank talk” about the dangers of climbing Elk Mountain Range peaks and the experience necessary to tackle them, could improve the situation, he said. It might even include a link to a professional guiding service that could lead people without the requisite experience up Capitol or the Maroon Bells, DiSalvo said.

An email to seeking comment on the proposal was not returned Friday.

Another idea is to focus educational efforts on the Front Range, where engaging with outdoor retailers like REI could prove beneficial, he said.

“We realized a lot of people are coming from the Eastern Slope,” DiSalvo said. “We want to give people the real skinny before they get here.”

Schroyer said a decade-old Forest Service program that requires people to register if they’re spending the night in the wilderness indicates that the “vast majority” of people climbing 14ers in the area come from the Front Range. With Colorado’s population increasing and the popularity of climbing fourteeners hitting new heights every summer, it’s important that people know that all the high peaks “are not walk-ups,” she said.

Another idea is to install “in-your-face-type signs” at certain trailheads — especially including Capitol and the Maroon Bells — that emphasize the dangers of Elk Mountain climbs, Schroyer said. Currently, a three-panel sign exists at the Capitol Lake trailhead — the most popular starting point for a Capitol Peak climb — that features some of that information, though it is mixed in with other messages such as “leave no trace,” she said.

“I think a lot of people don’t even read it,” Schroyer said.

The idea would be to install a stand-alone sign — perhaps a ways down the trail — outlining the deadly possibilities that lie ahead, she said.

“It might be as blunt as ‘Five people died here in 2017. Are you prepared?’” Schroyer said of the possible wording of the sign.

Posting signs that direct people to stay on the preferred, safest climbing route and off dangerous portions, however, is not high on the list of remedies, she said. That’s because in addition to the fact that rocky conditions on the high portions of technical routes are in a constant state of flux, and signs might not last anyway, such additions could encourage novice climbers to take the risk of climbing a hard peak, Schroyer said.

“We’ve seen it happen in other national parks,” she said. “It invites all sorts of inexperienced folks to go up to these mountains. I’m afraid by trying to do that, we’re creating this false sense of security.

“That’s not what we want to do.”

The group also talked about posting rangers and/or members of MRA at trailheads on busy weekends to talk to people heading up and down a particular mountain, she said.

The officials who met Thursday also talked specifically about the five deaths on Capitol Peak this year and whether it was a fluke or a sign of summers to come, DiSalvo said.

“I bet we lead the state in mountain deaths this year,” he said. “Everyone was kind of scratching their heads.

“We’re not sure if this is the new normal.”

The officials will continue to meet throughout the winter and hope to come up with plan of action by next spring when the climbing season begins again, Schroyer said.


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