Let’s take a deep breath about that rescue on Longs Peak

Longs Peak, Colo., and it's sheer east face. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Longs Peak, Colo., and it’s sheer east face. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

With the summer hiking season getting ready to launch within days, we’ve already been given a reminder of how unforgiving the mountains can be.

On Tuesday, authorities in northern Colorado got word that a hiker had gotten himself stranded on a ledge on Longs Peak’s sheer east face. The hiker, a 19-year-old Canadian named Samuel Frappier, was climbing the peak with a friend when he got separated on the descent. Described as fit but not very experienced, he found himself stuck on a series of ledges called Broadway on the mountain’s east side.

Fortunately, his cellphone had service and battery power and he was able to call for help. A day later, with help from a sizable and very capable rescue team, he was airlifted safely off the mountain. You can read a full story about it here.

As you can imagine, reaction to this story has been the typical mix of the following:

“Thank goodness he made it alive. He’s so lucky!”

“What an idiot. Only fools climb mountains.”

“Please tell me my tax dollars weren’t wasted on this. Send him the bill.”

And so forth. There has also been a lot of speculating about the route he and his buddy chose, the gear — or lack thereof — they had and so on.

So here are some thoughts on this…

Longs Peak is a popular mountain to hike and climb, but it’s not for “beginners.” In terms of Colorado mountains, it is big, complicated and challenging. Though one of the most visited mountains in the state, it’s easiest route is Class 3 and is exposed. Harder routes abound, and the area where Frappier got stranded is on the mountain’s most difficult terrain. Broadway is a ledge on an otherwise vertical face, and the dropoffs are dramatic. It would be easy to see how someone could get cliffed out there, unable to go anywhere without significant climbing gear and experience. The mountain is even more challenging in snowy conditions, which are currently present. So, in short, just because a lot of people hike and climb Longs does not mean it’s an easy endeavor. Act and plan accordingly.

The snowy, exposed and dangerous terrain where this week's rescue took place. (NPS photo)

The snowy, exposed and dangerous terrain where this week’s rescue took place. (NPS photo)

That said, people who climb Longs, or hike and climb other mountains, are not idiots on a march toward their own personal death wish. We’re just folks who like to get outside, challenge ourselves, and eventually reward ourselves with awesome views and incredible experiences that the high country offers. Plenty of people have used hiking and climbing as a way to get fit, and many of us learn a lot about goal setting, meeting challenges, conquering fears and more from the mountains we climb. And here’s the kicker — the vast majority of us are careful, well-prepared, and adequately equipped. We know how to watch the weather. We listen to our bodies. We know when to turn around. And even though we enjoy pushing our limits, we know when to back off. That’s why almost all of us return from our mountain adventures alive and in one piece. You don’t hear about us, because our day hikes up Mount Biesrstadt or climbs up much more serious peaks don’t end up on the news. Why? Because we got home safe and happy, without need of Search and Rescue, expenditure of your precious tax dollars or your condescension.

And let’s put away all that talk about billing people for rescues. Yes, they’re expensive. Rescuers put their lives at risk. And some people get too much false confidence in their gadgets when they go outside. We’ve grown up in an age where we expect someone will help us when we get in danger. But the last thing I want someone in Frappier’s situation is to be thinking, just before dialing for help, is, “Can I afford to be rescued?” A life saved is worth every dime, especially to that person’s loved ones. I think most SAR types would agree.

It should be noted that even the “easy” mountains can be quite dangerous. Bad weather on a walk-up route like Quandary Peak’s east ridge can zap you just as easily as it could on more challenging terrain like what’s seen on Longs Peak. Personal health issues can surface in a bad way when you’re topping 13,000 feet. Rockfall and avalanches happen on all of these mountains. The peaks aren’t Disneyland, so  proper consideration of these factors should be given before venturing out on their slopes. Showing up in jeans, a T-shirt and the kicks you bought at Foot Locker is the opposite of that. If you’re new to this sort of thing, do your homework and ask questions of those who have been there and done that.

The cellphone can save your life, but remember that rescue could be several hours away. Mr. Frappier may have been unwise, but having that phone, swallowing his pride and calling for help was an expert move. Same deal for a couple of New England women who got in over their heads on the same mountain last fall during Colorado’s epic deluge. But the scale of these mountains, and the difficulty of getting anywhere quickly, is something to keep in mind. Even with helicopters and more than two dozen people assisting in the rescue, it took a day to get Frappier off the mountain. Now imagine you’re in an area with no cellphone service, and you’re 200 or more miles away from a major city. That’s the sort of scenario you need to be thinking of, especially if your adventure takes you into, say, the San Juans of Colorado, or the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Educating and training yourself for maximum self-sufficiency can be the thing that prepares you for self-rescue, or at least buying time so you can be found.

There is so much more that can be said on these topics, but I’ll include this helpful link for high country safety instead.

For now, I’d leave you with this: Let’s be thankful this young man made it off the mountain in one piece, and that he learned some lessons. Let’s not forget that we all have likely made similar mistakes, just maybe not as severe and definitely not as publicized. And let’s be careful out there, enjoy ourselves, and keep spreading the word that the outdoors is awesome.

Bob Doucette 

8 thoughts on “Let’s take a deep breath about that rescue on Longs Peak

    • Jornet, Steck, Forsberg, Krupicka — what these falks do in running the peaks and speed ascents is amazing to me. The level of athletic prowess to do what they have done is astounding. But I have to admit, the idea of doing a speed ascent with little more than what our friend had on Longs this week does give me pause. Running the walk-up peaks in late spring through early fall is one thing. Running/speed climbing Mont Blanc and mountains like those is quite another. So mixed feelings on that subject.

      Thanks for the kind words and for reading! I appreciate it a lot.

  1. Being born and raised in Colorado and having a love of the high country, it is easy to take for granted the idea of understanding limits. But then again, I also know that I really am a “beginner” with only two 14ers under my belt. I think Long’s is going to be one of the most challenging for myself, as I get older but it is certainly one of the ones I hope to summit.

    I really enjoy this blog and value the advice you give. Thanks.

    • No problem, and thanks for reading and commenting! Longs will be a bigger challenge, I’m sure, but given time and more experience I’m sure you’ll be able to tackle it. You’re also wiser for seeing what others did right — and wrong — on that mountain.

  2. Really enjoy your blog. As a 10 year veteran of one of Colorado’s oldest and busiest search and rescue teams, I would like to add a few comments.

    1.) First and foremost, no person rescued by Search and Rescue in CO will ever get a bill from the rescue teams. This is true regardless of whether the subject has or has not purchased a CORSAR card. The belief is frequently that you have to have purchased a CORSAR card (typically purchased with hunting and fishing licenses) to have the expectation of rescue free of charge. Bottom line, mountain rescue never charges for their efforts. The people from whom a subject might get a bill are the ambulance that picks the subject up at the end of the mountain evacuation and / or a helicopter ride if one was needed to speed up evacuation.

    2.) The belief is often that people are “idiots” for getting themselves stuck, hurting themselves on tough terrain, going beyond their limits, etc. Although it is easy to be quick to judge, the truth is we are all trying to push our limits, conquer our fears, challenge ourselves, etc. Everyone’s limits are different and what might be scary for one person is another person’s fun. Additionally, we have all had days where we realize we got in over our heads. Quick judgement doesn’t serve any purpose. Just know that when you do push your limits too far or get in over your head, there are teams willing and able to help you out free of charge. Have fun out there.

    3.) Finally, I do agree that technology such as avalanche beacons, cellphones, personal locater beacons, etc., although helpful, should not lull the user into a sense of safety. They can help the rescue teams out for sure but it can often be quite a long time before rescuers can get to you, depending on how far in the backcountry you are and what type of terrain you are in.

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