Of thrilling victory and tragic defeat: A tale of two climbs on El Capitan

El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. (Wikipedia commons/Little Mountain 5 photo)

Years ago, ABC used to air a weekend program called “Wide World of Sports.” It was a staple for many who were interested in watching events that weren’t part of the “big four” of American sports, that being football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

But the show’s most lasting imprint on popular culture didn’t come from the sports it televised. It came from its intro, a montage of clips from a variety of contests. The narrator speaks of “the thrill of victory,” then cues up a downhill skier wiping out violently during a race before continuing, “and the agony of defeat.”

The stakes of sports are what make them compelling. The higher the stakes, the greater the drama. Nowhere is that more true than in the mountains, and we saw both the thrill and the agony play out within days of each other on one of the most iconic rock faces on the planet.

On June 2, climbers Jason Wells and Tim Klein were on El Capitan’s Freeblast route when they fell, ultimately plummeting more than 1,000 feet to their deaths. Both were accomplished, experienced climbers on a section of the route described as well within their abilities when the fall occurred.

On Wednesday, June 6, climbers Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell were also at El Capitan, trying to set speed records on the Nose. They accomplished this – twice. The new speed record for climbing this route stands at 1 hour, 58 minutes and 7 seconds, an astonishing feat on a route that takes most people days to complete.

Two solid climbing teams, two very different outcomes, on the same mountain. Wells and Klein are mourned; Honnold and Caldwell are celebrated. Only four days separated them.

This is the dualism of mountaineering. Obviously, there are other possible outcomes. You can get turned back by weather or route conditions, or perhaps forced into retreat by illness or injury. But there are few sports where the reward for success is, in reality, so modest, and the toll of failure (even if you did everything right) so painfully high.

It’s something I think about every time summer draws near. Exploring the mountains is becoming more popular every year. Most aren’t climbing El Capitan, but they are venturing into wild places that aren’t inherently safe or forgiving. Many thousands cut their teeth on the easier peaks, then try tougher challenges as time goes on. The vast majority do OK. But some don’t make it back. That’s how it works in the high country.

I won’t waste time grousing about the unnecessary chances people take, or social media pressures to go bigger each time. That’s been covered. But it does make me stop and think. Last year, scores (hundreds?) of people successfully climbed Capitol Peak in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. But within a span of six weeks, five people died on that same mountain. Other peaks, in Colorado and elsewhere, had similar stories, I’m sure.

It would also be silly to ask why people bother, given the risks of climbing, mountaineering and backcountry exploration. Mountains draw us in. Wild places fascinate us. Summit views, the sounds of the woods and the quiet of wilderness are always going to be a draw. The good parts, and the feeling of accomplishment, have their own special allure. That’s our version of the thrill of victory.

But I suppose it’s worth considering the agony of defeat. I’ve had a few close scrapes, but have come out of those OK. Others haven’t, even if they have many times before.

Maybe that’s the lesson from Yosemite Valley last week, just in time for the crowds who are heading into the mountains now.

Bob Doucette

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Eight key attributes to being a leader in the outdoors

Being a leader or a mentor in the outdoors is more than just telling people what to do or where to go. Much more.

I’m lucky to be blessed with the company of folks who could show me the ropes in the outdoors. As the years have gone by, I’ve been able to share things that I’ve learned. In between all that is a bunch of give-and-take when it comes to being the leader or the learner.

The more time you spend out there, the better the chances are that you’ll end up being a teacher, leader or even a mentor. How you perform this task can have a huge impact on how well people grow in their own outdoor pursuits. Here are eight things you ought to know:

  1. Be an open book. Be honest about your experiences, whether it’s the activity at hand or the place you’re in. When people ask you questions, give the best answers you can. And do it in a way that’s accessible and clear. Clarity, honesty and approachability are key when people look to you for guidance. And never lie about or exaggerate your experience and qualifications. If you do and get found out, all your credibility is immediately lost.
  2. Let people learn some things for themselves. Part of growing into a role is trying things, making mistakes, and learning from the experience. You don’t want to be the person who micromanages someone’s adventure. It’s annoying, and eventually people will tune you out. That said…
  3. Be assertive when the stakes are high. There are some situations that call for a firm hand. High-risk activities like mountaineering and rock climbing are no places to stay quiet when you can see something about to go terribly wrong. If you wander up to a bear or a buffalo and your buddy wants to get closer for a wildlife selfie, that’s a good time to speak up. Same might be said if you’re about to ski into an avalanche-prone area, or if a big thunderhead begins to form over the mountain you’re ascending.
  4. Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do or haven’t done yourself. This is an integrity thing. You should be willing to do the hard, or tedious, or unglamorous tasks. Lead by example and do those things. Demonstrating this will go a long way with a group.
  5. Be the leader, but create a team. History is filled with top-down taskmasters in famous expeditions. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But you can be guaranteed that if your partners believe they have a say in things and that their input is not only valued but expected, that creates buy-in. It can also be helpful to get different perspectives on problems you might not have seen.
  6. Listen to the team, but if you’re the leader, make decisions. After you’ve gained input from your group, you don’t want to dawdle in overanalysis. That often leads to inaction. Consider the facts and ideas, then make a decision. This is especially true in emergency situations, where decision-making is critical. This is one area where you don’t want paralysis by analysis.
  7. Admit when you’re wrong. If you’ve chosen a course of action and it was wrong, fess up. Everyone will probably know anyway. Denying it will only erode your position as a leader or mentor. People can forgive a mistake. It’s harder to forgive stubborn arrogance or denial.
  8. Strive for future adventures. By this, I mean that you should be the type of person someone would partner with again. Keep things enjoyable, safe and fruitful for your partner or group. In the back of your mind, let your personal conduct and your competence make those around you think, “When I’m going to do X, I want this guy/gal with me.”

So there you go. The great thing about these ideas is that they apply not only in the outdoors, but in everyday life. Got some thoughts of your own? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Colorado 14er Disasters’ by Mark Scott-Nash

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventures.

We’ve seen an uptick in the allure of alpine adventure, and nowhere is this more true than in Colorado.

Specifically, the state has seen a spike in interest and visitors to its 14ers, the peaks that rise to heights of 14,000 feet. It’s a rite of passage for many in Colorado to climb one, and as I can attest, the attraction goes well outside of Colorado’s borders.

But as is true of any wild place, the mountains can be risky places to be, particularly for the unprepared and inexperienced. Even seasoned hikers and mountaineers can get caught in a bad place in the high country.

And that’s the point of Mark Scott-Nash’s “Colorado 14er Disasters,” a compact book detailing incidents that have led to major rescue efforts, serious injuries, and even deaths on the high peaks.

I came into this book hoping for something akin to “Death in the Grand Canyon,” a sizable tome that recorded every recorded death there. This is not that book – there are far too many incidents, too many deaths, and too many unknown and unrecorded stories to cover. Instead, the author picks a number of accidents and incidents that are representative of what happens in the mountains when things go sideways.

In putting this together, Scott-Nash goes through incident reports, news reports and interviews with people involved in the accidents or those who took part in rescues. The reasons for these mishaps vary – weather, getting lost, accidental falls, rockfall/avalanche, etc. Most times, the fault lies with something the victim did or did not do.

Scott-Nash doesn’t pull punches. Where he finds fault in the individual, he says so. Some people may find some of these observations harsh. But at the same time, the stark description of mistakes and assumed risk also serve as important warnings for those new mountain adventures.

The book contains helpful appendices and a glossary of terms and is peppered with informational blurbs concerning relevant information in each chapter.

What I found particularly interesting was the fact that I’m familiar with some of the stories he tells and have been to some of the mountains where the accidents he profiles took place. Viewing Humboldt Peak, for instance, I can see exactly where the dangerous portions of this otherwise tame mountain could be. I can see where people could get lost on Mount of the Holy Cross (though trail improvements, including huge cairns on the mountain’s northwest ridge have helped), and can easily spot the problem areas on Longs Peak, a burly mountain that is routinely underestimated by far too many climbers.

It’s a matter-of-fact book that doesn’t go into narrative storytelling. Rather, “Colorado 14er Disasters” is more like an expanded compilation of mountain incident reports, organized and written in a way to help readers understand just how tenuous life can be in the high country. Most importantly, it dissects each incident and provides relevant information readers can take with them the next time they plan a mountain adventure.

Bob Doucette

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.

On Kilian Jornet, Alex Honnold and Ueli Steck: What comes next?

Kilian Jornet. (Sebastien Montaz-Rosset photo)

As the spring of 2017 unfolded, new frontiers in climbing and mountaineering were opened.

On May 21, Kilian Jornet set a speed record ascent of Mount Everest, climbing the world’s highest peak in just 26 hours. For most climbers, whether they’re paying clients of expedition companies or elite climbers in their own right, a climb of Everest is an endeavor measured in weeks, with the final pushes taking several days. Jornet did it from the lower base camp on the Tibet side of the mountain in a shade over a day.

As if that wasn’t amazing enough, Jornet did it again: Starting from Advanced Base Camp (10.4 miles up and 4,000 feet higher), he reached the summit in just 17 hours. Jornet climbed the mountain in a fast-and-light style that has served him well in setting speed ascent records on Denali, Mont Blanc and Matterhorn.

Alex Honnold. (NatGeo photo)

Meanwhile, back in the United States, another audacious plan was coming to fruition. Alex Honnold had quietly been preparing to do something that had never been done. Honnold is famous for his free-solo climbs of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. But the monarch of Yosemite, El Capitan, had never been free-soloed.

That changed on June 3, when one of the world’s best rock climbers set off to ascend the 3,000-foot tower without the benefit of ropes or safety equipment. In just under four hours, he topped out, standing alone with what might be the most impressive feat of climbing ever undertaken. Keep in mind, most people spend days climbing El Cap.

These two climbers, the greatest in their respective skills, have done things most of us cannot comprehend. Even their peers are in awe.

It begs the question: What comes next? Will someone else free-solo El Cap from a more difficult route? Or follow up Honnold’s feat in less time? Can someone race from the Tibet base camp to Everest’s summit in less than a day?

It’s hard to take stock in this. The passage of time has given us improved equipment, better climbing techniques, more knowledge of the mountains and advanced training methods that push the boundaries of mountaineering. But it wasn’t that long ago that mountains like Everest were unclimbed, and that scaling a face like El Capitan was unimaginable without climbing aids and a significant commitment of time.

So, what’s next? Can these feats be topped? One thing I know is that someone will try. If not these two athletes, then someone else, a name we might already know, or perhaps a climber currently cutting their teeth at some unknown climbing gym or perfecting techniques on their local crag. Or maybe there’s a trail runner burning up local races in the mountains we don’t know yet who is experimenting in mountaineering and climbing that, when he or she is ready, will give it a go.

Ueli Steck. (Jonathan Griffith photo)

And that leads me to a third mountaineering story from this spring: the death of Ueli Steck.

Steck fell and died April 30 during a solo training climb on Nuptse, elevation 25,791 feet, a peak in the same neighborhood as Everest. He’d been gunning for an ambitious climb of Everest’s west ridge, then traversing to the summit of neighboring Lhotse.

Steck was an athlete in the class of Jornet and Honnold, at least in his accomplishments. Credited for the only known solo climb of Annapurna’s south face, he’s also summited 82 4,000-meter peaks in the Alps in 80 days. And now he’s gone.

I’m not sure why the feats of Jornet and Honnold bring up thoughts on Steck and his demise, but they do. Perhaps it’s because these things happened within a couple of months of each other. Or maybe it’s the fact that pushing the envelope of mountaineering – and the risk that entails – makes me wonder what story we’ll see in the future.

The early days of alpine exploration were a strange combination of scientific curiosity and nationalistic drive. That’s not the case anymore. Corporate dollars are on the line, as many of the elite in the mountaineering world are sponsored by gear companies. Social media can fuel this further. I’d hate to think that dollars and likes are what drive us now, but these are different times.

But the common thread of what people do now and what they did decades ago is as old as humanity itself, that of seeing just how far we can push the limits of physicality, of mental steel, and of commitment to a goal.

So I say this knowing that it’s likely that someone will try to climb Everest faster the Jornet, and someone will climb something harder than Honnold. Most will fail, but a few will probably succeed. And as is too common in mountaineering, someone will probably die trying. At that point, we’ll be awed by the accomplishments and saddened by the loss. And asking ourselves again, “what’s next?”

Bob Doucette

Ueli Steck dies in a fall in the Himalayas

The mountaineering community suffered a huge loss on Sunday following a fall in the Himalayas that claimed the life of Ueli Steck. He was 40 years old.

Known as the Swiss Machine, Steck was well known for a high number of speed ascent records all over the world. He’s spent the last few years going to the Himalyas trying harder routes, and is credited with being the first to ascend  Annapurna’s south face solo. In 2015, he climbed 82 4,000-meter peaks in 80 days. He’s a two-time winner of the Piolet d’Or, mountaineering’s highest honor.

This spring, Steck was attempting to climb the Lohtse-Everest traverse, gaining Everest’s summit by its notoriously difficult west ridge. He was acclimatizing near a neighboring peak, Nuptse, when he fell 1,000 meters to his death on Sunday, according to Reuters.

For more on Steck and Sunday’s accident, read this report from Outside Online.

To see more on his planned project this spring, watch this video.

Mountain Reads, part 1: ‘Halfway to Heaven’

Humor, history and mountain adventure collide with this one.

I go on reading spurts and droughts, and after a lengthy drought, I figured it was time to read something other than someone’s link on Facebook. So I bought a bunch of books that looked interesting to me – some of them older, some of them newer – and plopped my butt down for a read, this time with my nose in a book and not pointed down toward a glowing screen.

With that in mind, I’m going to do an occasional series called Mountain Reads. The books involved will be some good ones I’ve picked up recently and over the years, stuff from authors whose writings will fill you up with mountain stoke for the spring and summer.

First up is a 2010 title from author Mark Obmascik called “Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled – and Knuckleheaded – Quest for the Rocky Mountain High.”

This is an autobiographical account about how the longtime Denver Post reporter decided one summer to hike and climb all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

Climbing the 14ers, as they’re called, is serious business, but not as serious as high-altitude mountaineering in the Himalayas. Lots of people in Colorado try these peaks, and a select few climb them all. Almost all of these people make their living doing something other than climbing, meaning that mountaineering in Colorado is an “everyman’s” sport.

And that’s the route the writer takes. His humorous and self-deprecating style lets you know that’s he’s not the second coming of Edmund Hillary. Instead, Obmascik takes you through the humbling process of willing yourself up the mountain at ridiculous hours in the morning, of trying a little too hard to find hiking partners and otherwise trying to fit this new obsession into the confines of a suburban family man’s life. It gets pretty funny.

That said, Obmascik is a journalist by trade, and every chapter is studded with deeply researched facts on the peaks, on Colorado history, on the people who first settled the state, and of mountaineering in the Rockies. Included are plenty of anecdotes from more recent times, and some straightforward accounts of what can (and did) go wrong in the high country. You walk away from this book understanding how wild the West could get, and how deadly serious its mountains can be.

He also takes care to make sure the story is not just his own. The array of subjects in this book include anyone from weekend warriors to serious endurance athletes, each with stories all their own as to what drives them into the Rockies to test themselves on the peaks.

You can also see how Obmascik progressed, gaining confidence, strength and skill as he topped out on tougher peaks. It echoes a journey so many people have made – painfully trudging uphill, fleeing electrical storms, glorious summit days and near-death close calls.

I relate to this guy. We’re both ordinary dudes with an exceptional obsession with the mountains. The book captures that spirit well while treating you to some great storytelling throughout. If you dig the outdoor life but haven’t read this one yet, give it a look.

Bob Doucette