Moun­tain to climb

De­sire to scale Colorado 14ers can be un­shak­able, but after 11 deaths this sum­mer, the chal­lenge is to keep such ad­ven­tur­ers safer

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­son Blevins

With 11 people dead on Colorado’s high­est peaks so far this sum­mer — in­clud­ing seven on the treach­er­ous four­teen­ers around Aspen — res­cuers and climbers are scram­bling for a plan to prod the swarm­ing masses to make bet­ter de­ci­sions in dan­ger­ous ter­rain.

Luck­ily, they have a route al­ready mapped out. Avalanche-aware­ness work­shops — brief in­tro­duc­tions to the risks of back­coun­try travel in win­ter — were birthed in the late 1980s by Moun­tain Res­cue Aspen, and the group of weary res­cuers is seed­ing a new plan for warm-weather back­coun­try travel train­ing called Peak Aware­ness.

“Be­cause of ev­ery­thing that has hap­pened in the high peaks around us, we re­al­ized we need a sec­ond cousin to our avalancheaware­ness pro­gram ,” said David Sw­er­sky, a 37-year mem­ber of Moun­tain Res­cue Aspen who helped for­mu­late the now ubiq­ui­tous avalanche train­ing nearly 30 years ago.

It’s been a rough sea­son in Pitkin County’s Elk Range, home to seven of the state’s most tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing four­teen­ers. Since July, the mid­point of the busiest sum­mer ever for the Roar­ing Fork Val­ley, the group has been called out on more than 30 res­cues. Eight of those were body re­cov­er­ies. Five were on the daunt­ing Capi­tol Peak.

It’s been the dark­est sea­son in mem­ory for Moun­tain Res­cue Aspen, which con­ducts res­cues in the most-fa­tal re­gion for avalanches in the coun­try.

“There are at least 10 times more people hik­ing around the back­coun­try now than in 1990, but we don’t have 10 times more res­cues. So it’s not all bad,” Sw­er­sky said. “But when it touches your fam­ily and friends and res­cuers and res­cuer fam­i­lies, we think it’s time to do some­thing.”

The key ques­tion is what can — or should — be done on the moun­tains ver­sus what can be done be­fore people get to the trail­head? Should rangers and res­cuers be on pa­trol? Should there be signs at crit­i­cal junc­tures on peaks that don’t re­ally have de­fined paths? How much route di­rec­tion is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the For­est Ser­vice ver­sus the climber?

People push­ing hard in the moun­tains is hardly a new phe­nom­e­non. But now it’s like

an end­less con­test to post and boast the swiftest, light­est, long­est, most au­da­cious trips pos­si­ble. Sinewy su­per­hu­mans sprint across the 14 four­teen­ers of the Sawatch Range in less than 54 hours. They ski four­teen­ers that only a few years ago were never trod­den in win­ter. They ride their bikes on self-pro­pelled, self-sup­ported loops of all 58 four­teen­ers. The bar never stops get­ting raised. And ev­ery new notch of rad­ness is trum­peted on so­cial media.

“I feel like the con­ver­sa­tion in re­cent years has been about ev­ery­thing but the idea that there is risk and it can be se­ri­ous. All people talk about is how fast some­one did some­thing,” said Ted Ma­hon, the Aspen moun­taineer who joined his wife Christy and pro skier Chris Davenport in be­com­ing the first to ski Colorado’s 100 tallest peaks.

“All th­ese trends make the four­teen­ers seems less se­ri­ous and more like a play­ground, and that trick­les down through the com­mu­nity,” Ma­hon said. “I’m as guilty of it as any­one, but I notice the trend in the mag­a­zines, in the out­door shops, in the so­cial media com­mu­nity.”

But the prob­lems with in­creas­ing in­juries, fa­tal­i­ties and res­cues in the high coun­try can’t be blamed on so­cial media or hard­charg­ing su­per ath­letes.

The first fa­tal­ity on Capi­tol was on the lower moun­tain, the sec­ond was a slip from a fall-and-die perch and the last three in­volved a wrong turn, with climbers fol­low­ing what looked like a straight, easy path down the north face of Capi­tol that turns into a slip­pery slope of gravel and scree end­ing in a 600-foot cliff. On Sept. 6, Moun­tain Res­cue Aspen scram­bled a he­li­copter to pluck a way­ward hiker off un­sta­ble ter­rain on Capi­tol Peak, thwart­ing yet an­other pos­si­ble death.

People have died in the Elks for decades if not cen­turies. It’s a dan­ger­ous place. And th­ese ac­ci­dents rarely come in steady trick­les as much as sud­den, sick­en­ing erup­tions.

So be­fore pound­ing the panic but­ton and in­stalling signs on the four­teen­ers or clos­ing peaks or re­quir­ing per­mits or guides, let’s com­pare the num­ber of in­ci­dents with the grow­ing num­ber of climbers on th­ese hard peaks, said Lou Daw­son, the Colorado god­fa­ther of ski moun­taineer­ing who was the first to ski all the state’s high­est peaks.

“If we have a prob­lem with safety — which I’m not con­vinced en­tirely that we do — be­fore a lot of money and time gets spent on this, I’d like to see a deeper anal­y­sis of what’s go­ing on,” said Daw- son, who has spent 50 years climb­ing the state’s peaks and is wary of blam­ing ath­letes chas­ing ex­cel­lence for lur­ing in­ex­pe­ri­enced hik­ers into the ver­ti­cal field.

Those break­through ath­letes pro­gressed grad­u­ally. They took small steps in the moun­tains. They didn’t start with any­thing in the Elks.

“Maybe fa­mil­iar­ity breeds a lit­tle com­pla­cency here,” he said. “I feel like some­times people don’t take th­ese things se­ri­ously enough. Maybe that’s a re­sult of so much com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­for­ma­tion through blog­ging and so­cial media. Maybe some of this en­ergy be­ing di­rected to­ward sig­nage and ed­u­ca­tion should go to­ward en­cour­ag­ing a greater pres­ence of guides. Guides can re­ally change things.”

Scott Fitzwilliams, su­per­vi­sor of the 2.3 mil­lion-acre White River Na­tional For­est, said all his district rangers tell him they’ve “never ever seen it this busy” this sum­mer. The rev­enue the agency col­lects at Ma­roon Bells Scenic Area — the gate­way to a six-four­teener wilder­ness — by early July had al­ready sur­passed the rev­enue col­lected in all of 2016. His team has spent years work­ing with a wide spec­trum of or­ga­ni­za­tions to pro­mote back­coun­try ski­ing safety.

“Maybe a sim­i­lar pro­gram with the amount of vis­i­ta­tion we get around here in the sum­mer months is in or­der,” he said. “With this many tragedies, it’s cer­tainly a wake-up call for us and an op­por­tu­nity for us to work col­lec­tively and col­lab­o­ra­tively with other or­ga­ni­za­tions to see how we can min­i­mize the risks.”

Fitzwilliams sup­ports bet­ter sig­nage at trail­heads, per­haps even warn­ings that sum­mit routes in the Elks are not sim­ple hikes and re­quire moun­taineer­ing skills. But there are prob­lems with putting signs in the alpine wilder­ness. He doesn’t have rangers on peaks who can check sig­nage reg­u­larly. And part of his job, re­mem­ber, is to keep the wilder­ness wild. Plus there’s the no­tion that too many signs will work against the re­quire­ment that climbers should be fa­mil­iar with the route and use nav­i­ga­tional skills.

A few months ago, Pitkin County Sher­iff Joe Disalvo did not sup­port more sig­nage in the wilder­ness. He’s chang­ing his mind.

“I un­der­stand the re­luc­tance for more sig­nage. But a ran­dom cairn or a wooden sign, I don’t see that as that in­tru­sive com­pared to the risk that we are los­ing some people,” Disalvo said. “I am all for keep­ing the wilder­ness wild, but I think there comes a time when pub­lic safety trumps it.”

Disalvo sup­ports bluntly worded trail­head signs that warn climbers that in­ex­pe­ri­ence can be fa­tal. The signs should in­clude a list of names of people who died in his county’s wild lands in re­cent years, he said. It would be a long list.

“Some of th­ese folks are tak­ing too many chances in an area that has no room for er­ror. They are in­ex­pe­ri­enced and they’ve done noth­ing to mit­i­gate their risk,” Disalvo said. “I call it the Spar­tan at­ti­tude. People do­ing ex­treme things with­out prepa­ra­tion. It’s seep­ing into our cul­ture, and people are push­ing them­selves to do more ex­treme things. Maybe that doesn’t have any­thing to do with the tragedies we’ve seen this sum­mer. But I won­der if that’s not part of it.”

Across Colorado, the sto­ries from veter­ans of the high peaks have a com­mon theme: in­creas­ingly ill-pre­pared hik­ers push­ing higher and faster with lit­tle mar­gin for er­ror.

Lloyd At­hearn, the boss of the Colorado Four­teen­ers Ini­tia­tive, has seen a grow­ing num­ber of hik­ers with­out packs for es­sen­tials like wa­ter, food, first-aid and gear for an un­ex­pected night in the cold.

“After spend­ing enough time in the moun­tains, you re­al­ize at some point bad things will hap­pen to you,” At­hearn said. “A lot of people are out there im­prop­erly equipped and prob­a­bly less ex­pe­ri­enced than they should be.”

Gerry Roach still re­mem­bers when he was learn­ing to drive as a teenager and po­lice showed the class hor­rific photos of car ac­ci­dents. He also will never for­get los­ing his men­tor and climb­ing teacher on Long’s Peak.

“Those lessons seemed to be washed over to­day in a dash for ad­ven­ture and great­ness. The youth want it all in­stantly, and older folks work hard to re­cap­ture their youth,” said Roach, who, like Daw­son, is a pioneer of Colorado’s high peaks, hav­ing writ­ten the sem­i­nal guide­book for sum­mer travel on the state’s four­teen­ers. “And the ac­ci­dents fol­low. The word ad­ven­ture means we don’t know what the out­come will be. It doesn’t mean that we will be a lit­tle har­ried but emerge un­scathed.”

Mary Cryan, 29, moved to Colorado a cou­ple of years ago. A teacher with her sum­mers off, she’s been climb­ing a lot. So far this sum­mer, she’s sum­mited 35 thir­teen­ers and four­teen­ers with an ex­pe­ri­enced friend aim­ing to climb the state’s 200 high­est 13,000-foot peaks. She was on Capi­tol Peak last month when Moun­tain Res­cue Aspen found the body of 21-year-old Zackaria White a hun­dred yards from where the team had found the bod­ies of Aspen’s Car­lin Brightwell, 27, and Ryan Mar­cil, 26, six days ear­lier.

Cryan spent the sum­mer pre­par­ing for Capi­tol. She was sur­prised by the lack of readi­ness among her fel­low climbers on what is com­monly con­sid­ered the state’s most chal­leng­ing four­teener.

She was com­ing down from the sum­mit after start­ing well be­fore dawn and en­coun­tered many climbers head­ing up, hours away from the sum­mit at mid­day. Sev­eral asked her how to find the route to the sum­mit. She asked them if they had looked at photos or read route de­scrip­tions. They all said no.

“I think some people aren’t as pre­pared as they should be. I warned them about the weather, but at the end of the day, you can’t con­trol other people’s de­ci­sions,” Cryan said. “That moun­tain will

al­ways be there, so you have to think about all th­ese de­ci­sions.”

That fo­cus on de­ci­sion mak­ing has be­come a pri­mary spot­light in avalanche ed­u­ca­tion in re­cent years. After decades of high­light­ing ter­rain, snow con­di­tions, weather, travel man­age­ment and other fac­tors that can lead to get­ting snared in dev­as­tat­ing avalanches, ed­u­ca­tors re­cently have el­e­vated hu­man fac­tors as an im­por­tant com­po­nent of safer travel in avalanche ter­rain.

Last year, there were only 12 avalanche fa­tal­i­ties in the U.S., down from 30 in 201516 and down from a long­time av­er­age of 27 a year. And it was one of the snowiest sea­sons on record. So maybe the new fo­cus and ex­plo­sion of avalancheaware­ness pro­grams is work­ing.

Im­proved safety gear has helped, but more back­coun­try skiers seem to be tun­ing into avalanche fore­casts and fol­low­ing the widely pop­u­lar “Know Be­fore You Go” pro­gram that en­cour­ages skiers to check avalanche fore­casts and weather pat­terns be­fore head­ing into the back­coun­try.

The hope with the nascent Peak Aware­ness cam­paign is to mir­ror the suc­cess of Avalanche Aware­ness.

Ear­lier this month, at the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s 2-year-old, 14,000-square-foot train­ing fa­cil­ity and head­quar­ters, a team of 20 gath­ered to spit­ball what Peak Aware­ness might look like. It would stretch well be­yond Pitkin County, with so­cial media — maybe even Youtube videos or dis­cus­sions with climbers the group has res­cued — la­bor­ing to pre­vent bad de­ci­sions in the back­coun­try.

It will ad­dress the lessons learned this sea­son by Moun­tain Res­cue Aspen, like the dan­gers of sep­a­rat­ing from your part­ner or go­ing solo, stray­ing off-route, start­ing too late in the day, lack­ing fa­mil­iar­ity with the route and be­ing un­pre­pared for such sce­nar­ios as a mi­nor in­jury, get­ting lost or suf­fer­ing from al­ti­tude-re­lated ill­nesses.

Peak Aware­ness would em­pha­size that climb­ing in the Elk Moun­tains is not hik­ing but moun­taineer­ing. It would show climbers how the crum­bling, loose rock of the Elks pun­ishes bad route de­ci­sions. And it would be scal­able, so other res­cue groups, clubs, shops and out­fit­ters across the West could de­ploy sim­i­lar peak aware­ness work­shops. The group hopes to roll out the first ver­sion of the pro­gram next month.

As if to em­pha­size the need for some sort of ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, Joseph Seeds Jr. of Den­ver strayed from the route up Capi­tol Peak the day after the meet­ing. Ex­hausted and thirsty, he was able to text a friend for help, and Moun­tain Res­cue scram­bled a Na­tional Guard Black­hawk he­li­copter from the High Al­ti­tude Train­ing Cen­ter in Gyp­sum and res­cued Seeds from un­sta­ble ter­rain.

“In our range, we know why things go wrong, and I think we have an op­por­tu­nity to frame that and get that mes­sage out,” said Dou­glas Pa­ley, the train­ing of­fi­cer for Moun­tain Res­cue Aspen. “Once this group pur­sues some­thing, it’s go­ing to hap­pen. My hope is that 20 years from now, we will be here talk­ing about cel­e­brat­ing our 20th an­niver­sary of peak aware­ness.”

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

A Na­tional Guard Black Hawk he­li­copter searches for a stranded climber near the K2 sum­mit on Capi­tol Peak on Sept. 6 in the Ma­roon Bells-snow­mass Wilder­ness.

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

Hiker Ge­orge Nick, left, talks with hiker Sean Cody near Capi­tol Lake as the Capi­tol Peak stands tall in the back­ground on Sept. 6. Nick, Cody and their re­spec­tive part­ners had at­tempted to sum­mit Capi­tol Peak but backed off near the in­fa­mous Knife Edge.

Mary Cryan, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Mary Cryan nav­i­gates Knife Edge on her way to sum­mit­ing Capi­tol Peak (14,131 feet) on Aug. 27. The sum­mit of K2 (13,664 feet) rises in the back­ground.

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

Capi­tol Peak pro­vides the back­drop for hik­ers, from left, David Bossert, Ge­orge Nick and Jesse Hansen as they head down the trail from Capi­tol Lake in the Ma­roon Bells-snow­mass Wilder­ness on Sept. 6.

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