With five deaths in six weeks on Capitol Peak, mountain safety takes on greater urgency

Capitol Peak, Colo. (Wikipedia commons photo)

Anytime someone dies in the mountains, it gets attention. Landslides, avalanches, falls, or otherwise, the terror of finding your end on a high peak garners headlines.

People speculate how it happened. They express grief and sympathy for the fallen climber’s family and friends. A few may even throw barbs toward the victim, though that is, thankfully, rare.

This is repeated every year, especially in the summer when hordes of hikers and climbers take advantage of longer days and more favorable weather to get their summit fix.

But this summer feels a bit different, in that the volume of deaths seems to be on the rise. And more than that, the number of fatalities on one particular mountain, Colorado’s Capitol Peak.

I’ve never climbed it, but I know some people who have. There is bountiful information about the peak and its challenges available online and in books. From these sources, I can tell you a few things about the mountain: It’s exposed, with large drop-offs and a number of “no-fall zones.” Like the rest of the Elk Range where it resides, it’s notoriously loose, with rotten rock in all the wrong places. It doesn’t take much for toaster-sized rocks – or boulders far larger – to tear loose from the mountainside and careen down its steep slopes, and God help you if you’re in the fall line. One friend of mine survived a rockfall incident, but deals with traumatic brain injury symptoms years later after having two loose rocks smash into her head during a climb in 2013. Thank God for climbing helmets, or she’d be dead.

More recent news has solidified the mountain’s reputation. Over the past six weeks, Capitol Peak has claimed five lives.

That’s an extraordinary number, given the fact that the mountain hasn’t had more deaths than that over the previous several years combined. And for more perspective, it’s just two fewer than Mount Everest recorded during its spring climbing season this year. I don’t want to equate the two mountains, but the numbers are what they are.

So what do we know of the 2017 fatalities? The first two seem to be cases of falls associated with loose rock. But the last three indicate something else.

The third and fourth deaths on Capitol Peak, Carly Brightwell and Ryan Marcil, were a couple who had climbed the mountain, then fell on a steep section below the summit but before the solid yet very exposed knife-edge ridge.

The fifth death, Zackaria White, was a climber who fell in the same area.

What separates these two incidents is the experience of the climbers. The couple in question had some time in the mountains under their belts. White did not. In fact, Capitol Peak was his first 14er (a mountain that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level).

The knife-edge ridge on Capitol Peak. (Wikipedia commons photo)

What they have in common is it appears all three people tried to find another route down the mountain to avoid traversing the knife edge, according to local search-and-rescue team reports. They cliffed out, got to a point where they could not ascend or descend, and fell to their deaths.

Those similarities would, at least, point toward some obvious lessons: Stay on the route, especially on challenging mountains like Capitol. But this is no cure-all, as evidenced by the other fatalities on Capitol, as well as two more deaths on the nearby Maroon Bells, a pair of striking but dangerous mountains in the same range.* The “Deadly Bells,” as they are known, are like the rest of the Elk Range: steep, exposed and littered with loose rock that can break off under you at any moment. Deaths on the Bells, as well as a number of mountains in this range and many others throughout Colorado (10 fatalities so far this year), come with a wide variety of causes.

In fact, if you were to make a list of causes of death (and preventative measures to minimize risks for each situation), it would be so broad as to nullify any attempt at standard, one-size-fits-all practices to curtail mountain tragedies. To wit: bring the 10 essentials; eat and hydrate; get an early start; watch the weather; study the route; bring an emergency locator beacon; be in top shape; don’t wear cotton; bring the proper footwear; don’t try a mountain beyond your abilities; hike with a partner; and so on. Even if you did all these things – and most people do – there is a chance that you could still die on a mountain by pure blind chance. That, too, has happened often enough, claiming newbies and veteran climbers alike.

It should be noted that the ratio of people who have safely summited Capitol Peak, and any number of other Colorado mountains, to those who have died on them is starkly in favor of survival. For every death, thousands have successfully climbed and come home intact.

But rescue and recovery missions are expensive, taxing and at times risky endeavors. Given that, and the growing number of people who try their luck in the high country (to the tune of hundreds of thousands every year) mean that the myriad of ways people can get into trouble will only ensnare more, which will mean more rescues, more risk on the part of the rescuers, and to those who can’t be saved, more deaths.

An exasperated Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told the Aspen Times his office would more aggressively educate people on the risks of climbing mountains, especially the ones in his jurisdiction. Mountain Rescue Aspen is drawing up plans to do just that.

But here is where we are: We exist in a time where outdoor adventure is more popular than ever. Social media, especially channels like Instagram and Facebook, drive people to do more, push harder and otherwise ply their skills for the sake of not just enjoying the high country, but to pursue “likes,” audience growth, and potential sponsorships from gear companies, retailers and others who seek out social media influencers to market their brands. They may not be the only drivers, but they are potent. And they will only grow more powerful as populations in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, among others, swell.

To be frank, I don’t know if there’s an answer here. I can’t say if this summer in Colorado is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend. But it does bring me back to a couple truths.

First, the ultimate responsibility has and always will lie with the individual. No one forces anyone to climb mountains. For those who do, the burden of preparedness and safety is squarely on their shoulders. Given the massive volume of information out there on mountain safety, there is no excuse for being uneducated on the topic or on the peaks people climb.

Second, it’s important for people to have each other’s backs. Teach those with less experience than you. Be the one to give guidance on the trail to your partners, and take charge when needed. Know when it’s time to call it a day and turn around. Those lower on the pecking order need to pay attention to those with more experience. And those with the experience need to get a good read on their partners and understand their limitations, or any other problems that may arise. Teams should not split up unless absolutely necessary, and believe me, that’s rare.

We know people will have problems in the high country. We know people will die. And we’ll analyze these incidents, looking for answers. But don’t expect a cure-all solution. As lame as this might sound, we must do the best we can at taking care of ourselves, doing the things we love in the places we cherish, knowing that these marvels of nature can snuff us out at any time, with total indifference, even if we do everything right. It’s the nature of mountains, and one none of us should ever forget.

Bob Doucette

*An earlier version of this post said there were four deaths in the Maroon Bells this year. There have been two.

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4 thoughts on “With five deaths in six weeks on Capitol Peak, mountain safety takes on greater urgency

  1. Good article, and solid analysis.

    An Instagram photo may show a beautiful summit, but not show the dozens or hundreds of lesser peaks and climbing days that went into building the skills and judgement necessary to reach that photo.

    I think for most people, the “common sense factor” kicks in when you start to get in over your head in the mountains — but definitely not everyone.

    I’ve attempted the Bells twice this season, and turned around both times. It’s a bummer, but the mountain will always be there.

    • Agreed. I’ve been turned back on a few myself: Longs in 2015, Crestone Peak last summer, and because we just weren’t feeling it, me and my nephew stopped short on La Plata in July.It’s a bummer not to summit, but you know what they say: No summit is worth your life.

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