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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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

An Arkansas outdoor adventure overview

As you might expect, there is a lot to see and do in a place like this.

You can’t encapsulate the outdoors offerings in Arkansas in a couple of blog posts, just like you can’t see it all in three days. Like most of you, I’m a working stiff that has to fit all this fun into small bits scattered between long stints at work.

But I did some research, reached out to some friends, and pulled together a more comprehensive look at what’s happening in this state, particularly in its northwest corner.

In my first post, I mentioned something about the Interior Highlands, which is in an area that covers parts of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The Ozarks dominate the northern part of the highlands while the Ouachitas make up the bulk of the south.

The biggest section of the Interior Highlands is in Arkansas, and this is also where it is at its wildest. The trails are long and winding, the woods are thick and scenic, and though none of the mountains here go much higher than 2,700 feet above sea level, you can find some decent vertical gain – more than 1,500 feet of it on Magazine Mountain.

What this means is you have a place that is prime for outdoor recreation, sports and just relaxing outside.

A few years back, Outside Magazine surprised a lot of people when it named Chattanooga, Tennessee, as its top destination city for the outdoors. The secret has long been out, and people are heading to eastern Tennessee to see what wonders await.

But here’s the thing: Many of the things about Chattanooga that appeal to the outdoorsy set also exist in the Ozarks. For the most part, that fact remains mostly under wraps unless you live there or in one of Arkansas’ neighboring states.

That’s  starting to change. Arkansans are beginning to realize the outdoor recreation potential for their state, and people are taking notice.

So here are some other things you should know about the adventures you can have in Arkansas…

MOUNTAIN BIKING

Mountain biking is becoming (already is?) huge in northwest Arkansas. The state’s hilly, wooded terrain contains lots of flowy singletrack, giving you anything from easy cruisers to highly technical routes.

Check out Slaughter Pen Trail out of Bentonville, or Womble on Mount Ida. And so many more. Many mountain biking trails connect to city trails around Bentonville, Fayetteville and so forth.

“Arkansas is chock full of great places to ride,” said Cleo Berninger, a Tulsa-based cyclist with a number of races under her belt.  “A wide variety of experiences are available, depending on what I want:  Hobbs is great in that it’s not a long drive from Tulsa, it’s a go-to for when Tulsa is muddy.  I love Lake Leatherwood trails in a Eureka Springs, bench cut trails… (it) feels like you are way, way out, but in truth it’s in town. Syllamo Trails at Blanchard Springs is the whopper, technical, beautiful, so challenging and days’ worth of adventure. Back 40 and Ilk are great training AND socializing. So much to do in Bentonville, it’s especially good for mixed groups where maybe not every individual wants to be on the trail.”

Eric Doswell, another Tulsa-based cyclist who also builds bikes, shares the same enthusiasm for the state’s growing mountain biking scene.

“I personally like Hobbs State Park near Rogers, it’s a nice 8 or 14 mile loop system with rolling contours singletrack.  The Womble and Ouachita trails are great for a more backcountry experience, and can be hooked together for a whopper all-day epic ride.

“In the Bentonville metroplex there is Slaughter Pen, which is accessible from multiple points along a paved trail system through the city, which also connects to The Back 40 in Bella Vista. Farther away from the city, the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail and Upper Buffalo Trails are epic backcountry experiences.”

You can find out more about Arkansas cycling here.

CLIMBING

Arkansas’s mountainous regions are loaded with cliffs and crags, giving you plenty of options for bouldering, top-roped sport climbs and multi-pitch trad routes. None of them will be the massive walls of the Rockies or the Sierras, but make no mistake: Arkansas is a climbing state.

In addition to what I mentioned earlier at Magazine Mountain, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is a popular destination for climbers in Arkansas. The state is known for its quality sandstone precipices, all of which is present at Horseshoe Canyon.

“I’ve been visiting Horseshoe since 2006 and it’s still our favorite place to go climbing in the Midwest,” says Jacquelyn Musgrove, an Oklahoma City-based climber, cyclist and climbing coach. “Horseshoe is amazing for people who want amazing climbs with little fuss with longer rigorous approaches to some of the best rock faces around. You can tent camp or rent one of their cabins. Horseshoe is great for all types of climbers and for us having a toddler, we love taking Max. With the short approaches and nice cabins its perfect for those not looking to rough it.

“With the Midwest’s mild winters, we go year-round.”

More information on climbing sites in Arkansas can be found here.

HIKING

Where you have trails, hills and woods, you have hiking. Arkansas’ national forests and state parks are loaded with trails. Some are as basic as easy day hikes, but for the backpacking set, you can spend a good chunk of time thru-hiking the Ouachita Trail, which weaves through the hills of the Ouachita Mountains in northwest Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma.

As a bonus: Depending on what time of the week you hike, you’re likely to find some solitude on the more rugged trails, and wildlife viewing abounds. Arkansas is home to deer, bear, and any number of species of birds. The forests themselves are a sweet mix of broadleaf and pines – the best of what makes Southern woodlands so great. For more color, plan your hikes for mid-October to early November and catch the fall foliage of the Ozarks and Ouachitas.

A popular destination for the day-hiker crowd: Devil’s Den. Read two people’s experiences at Devil’s Den here and here.

For other hiking options, find your next big hike here.

RIVER ADVENTURE

You’d think any talk of river systems in Arkansas would include its namesake, and that would be cool – the Arkansas River is one of the country’s great waterways – but the best river adventure in the state is along the Buffalo River.

Spend a week floating the Buffalo River, and pull off to find waterfalls, great hikes and excellent mountain scenery. Paddle, hike, fish and camp. You’ll be hard-pressed to pack in more outdoor activities than you can find here.

A little more about the Buffalo River can be found here.

So there you have it. Whether you’re looking for hardcore outdoor adventure or something more relaxing, you can find all of that in Arkansas. Do a little research, find a destination and head out. The state can prove that you don’t have to travel halfway across the country for a little adventure.

Bob Doucette

An overview of Arkansas’ Mount Magazine State Park

A view south from Magazine Mountain.

In the last post, I spent a good amount of time describing a classic Arkansas hike, the Magazine Mountain Trail. But I’d be remiss if I ended the description of this mountain and accompanying state park there.

Magazine Mountain is a big place, and being a plateau formation, there is a lot of space at the top. Planners made sure that the state park offered a number of options for visitors regardless of their physical fitness, ambitions and whatnot.

That’s what we’re going to go over here: the best of the rest of Magazine Mountain and Mount Magazine State Park. Here goes…

ACCOMODATIONS

The park includes a 60-room lodge with a swimming pool, restaurant and bar. The Skycrest Restaurant has a quality menu with good service and outstanding views looking south and west from the top of the mountain. Rates vary by season, but go anywhere from $128-$228 a night, depending on the size of the room you get.

The park also includes 13 cabins, one to three bedrooms/bathrooms, and all are ADA-compliant. Like the lodge, winter rates are lower, but in-season daily rates vary from $218-$478. Dog-friendly options are available in three cabins, but there is an extra fee. All cabin kitchens are fully equipped, and the cabins also feature clothes washer/dryer, decks overlooking the countryside and hot tubs.

Campsite at the Cameron Bluff Campground. (Craig Cook photo)

Finally, there are the campsites. The Cameron Bluff Campground offers 18 sites with water and electrical hookups, parking areas large enough for RVs, tent pads, grills and fire pits (firewood is available for purchase at the visitors center). There is also a centralized building with restrooms and showers. Campsites are $28-$32 a night. If you are camping, keep your food and any fragrant items locked in your car or hang a bag from a high tree limb, as bears are known to be in the area.

A full rundown on lodging can be found here.

TRAILS

From the Signal Hill Trail.

Not every trail on the mountain is a day-long hike. Several other trails exist that go anywhere from less than a mile to 2.8 miles, and many can be linked. They vary in difficulty, but most of them are accessible to people of nearly all fitness levels.

The top of Signal Hill on Magazine Mountain, the highest point in Arkansas.

Craig and I hiked a couple of them. The first was the Signal Hill Trail, which was right by our campsite. It was about a mile round-trip and not difficult and takes you to the highest point in the state. At the top is a sign, a map and a mailbox with a registry where you can sign in. There is also a USGS marker officially showing where the high point is.

On the Bear Hollow Trail. (Craig Cook photo)

From the Benefield picnic area, we took the Benefield Loop Trail to the Bear Hollow Trail. The route is 2.8 miles one way, ending on the other side of the mountain near the Horse Camp. This one is tougher than the Signal Hill Trail, but not as difficult or wild as the Magazine Mountain Trail. The views are stunning, particularly if you’re looking for a sunrise photo. There is one minor creek crossing and two points where you can see expansive views of the eastern flanks of the mountains and seemingly endless woodlands fanning out hundreds of feet down and many miles toward the horizon. If you go here, be sure to find Inspiration Point. It does not disappoint. Overall, the Bear Hollow Trail gives you a wilder experience without the commitment required of the Magazine Mountain Trail.

There are numerous other trails we didn’t have the time to hike, but if you want to learn more about them, check this link.

A view from a north rim scenic pullout, easily accessible on foot, on bike or by car.

There is a one-way paved roadway that can take you to what are, at sunset, the best views on the mountain. The road skirts the Cameron Bluff campsites and offers two pullouts with incredible scenery looking across large cliffs below and toward the Boston Mountains to the north. There is a pavilion and a seating area that are popular with visitors; the stone seating area is often used as an outdoor wedding venue. After a hard day of hiking, this is an excellent place to drive or ride your bike (they have marked bike lanes) to catch the sunset in what may be one of the most beautiful scenes in all of Arkansas, and that’s saying something.

ROCK CLIMBING

Where there are cliffs, you’re bound to find some rock climbing. That’s true on the mountain.

Bouldering, sport climbing and rappelling are allowed in a designated area on the mountain’s south bluff overlooking the Petit Jean River Valley. According to the park’s website, the mountain has a 1,500-foot wide stretch of sandstone with more than 100 routes up to 80 feet high, ranging from 5.5 to 5.12c in difficulty, with plenty in the 5.10 and under range. I didn’t have time to check these out, but maybe next time.

Before rock climbing here, you are required to register at the state park visitor center. More information on climbing routes can be found here.

MOUNTAIN BIKING/CYCLING/ATVs/HORSEBACK

There are 34 miles of off-road biking available on the Huckleberry Mountain Trail, which is near the park on land in the Ozark National Forest. The trails are also used for ATV tours and riders on horseback.

If you’re not up for the dirt, you can rent bikes at the lodge and ride on the roads all around the park. In a similar vein, Magazine Mountain is a popular destination for motorcyclists, as the roads leading up to and around the mountain are packed with great scenery for a ride.

HANG GLIDING

The steep drop-offs at the top of the peak make Magazine Mountain an ideal place for hang gliding. Hang gliding takes place on the south side of the mountain. Anyone hang gliding must register at the visitor center. If you are a certified Class 4 flier, you can fly alone; Class 3 fliers can hang glide with another Class 4 flier. There is an established launch site on the mountain.

So there’s the basic rundown of Mount Magazine State Park. What I’ve told people is if you’re looking for high outdoor adventure, you can find it here. If you want chill, eat well and enjoy leisurely views, you can do that, too. And everything in between.

In the next post, I’ll go over a few more things you should know about Arkansas and why this might become the next big thing in outdoor adventure travel.

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 2: ‘Sixty Meters to Anywhere’ by Brendan Leonard

Imagine sinking so deeply into your vices that your immediate future included jail time, and your long-term prospects would likely involve sickness, heartache and succumbing to your addictions.

Then imagine detailing it, warts and all, to anyone willing read about it.

That’s not the entire scope of Brendan Leonard’s memoir “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” but it is the foundation of this unapologetically open account of how he spent his younger years, and the series of events that turned things around.

Leonard is best known for his popular outdoor blog semi-rad.com, and his debut book, “The New American Road Trip Mixtape” was a hit among the outdoorsy set. And for good reason: That was a book in which he bared his soul while colorfully retelling the journeys he took – literal and metaphorical – across the American West while living out of his car. Leonard’s prose is spare, and I mean that in a good way – absent are the clunky mechanisms that trap a lot of wordy writers, leaving behind sleek, fast-paced storytelling. (You can read a review of that book here.)

In “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” Leonard’s toolbox is the same and with similar effect: You get a style of writing that is stripped down yet chock full of imagery as he describes his descent into substance abuse, hitting rock bottom, and then slowly climbing out of it during post-graduate studies, far from home and isolated from his family, friends and the demons of his Iowa hometown.

It’s no real spoiler to say that he discovered something to fill the void of the troublesome fun he found too often at the bottom of a bottle – the outdoors. Those familiar with his writing (aside from his blog, he has credits in Outside, Climbing and Backpacker magazines, among others) already know he’s an accomplished climber and outdoorsman. But how he got there is the essence of what lies behind “Sixty Meters.” Baby steps into the mountains, followed by a particularly fortuitous gift (the name of the book comes from the standard length of climbing rope he received), not only gave Leonard a new way to channel his passions, but also a path to fundamentally change who he was and avoid the sad story of what could have been.

Leonard doesn’t shy away from his shortcomings and doesn’t glamorize his accomplishments, and he’s careful to include the ways in which his actions hurt others. You find yourself rooting for him while also appreciating the people who stood by him over the years. It’s that sort of honesty that has won over his fans.

The outdoors has proven to be a haven for people who bottom-out in life, and Leonard’s story embodies that. I’m sure it has — and will — resonate with a lot of readers.

NOTE: This is the second in an occasional series called Mountain Reads. Part one can be read here.

Bob Doucette

Caution, summer hikers: It’s still snowy in the mountains

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

The northeastern San Juan Mountains of Colorado in June 2014.

Last week, a post about a serious accident in the mountains of Colorado prompted a good online discussion about high country safety.

In the post, the woman who wrote it talked about how she and another hiker had gone up Humboldt Peak, and on the descent, attempted a glissade (sliding down a slope on your butt) down a long snow slope. The conditions were icy, and her partner ended up losing control and getting injured. In her attempt to reach him, she also slid and banged herself up but escaped serious injury. The pair was able to contact local search-and-rescue and both were led safely down the mountain.

The accident was somewhat similar to another one on the same mountain several years earlier. In that incident, the climbers involved were more experienced than the pair I first mentioned. In this case, the climber attempting the glissade lost control and was gravely injured. His partner was able to put him in a sleeping bag to keep him warm while she descended for help. He was airlifted off the mountain, but later succumbed to his injuries.

My initial thinking was that this mountain, a Class 2 walk-up, has a spooky nature to it. But a commenter online had a different take. He said that people who have a lot of experience in summer and fall mountaineering aren’t necessarily going to be as proficient when thick snow is present. A second commenter reaffirmed that message. Her take, in short: Snow changes everything.

What got me to writing this is that many weekend day-trippers and out-of-state vacationers are heading to the mountains this month. Even though the calendar makes us think “summer,” the fact is many mountains still have a great deal of snow on them. If you’re determined to climb a mountain in June, you should know that most of these mountains are different now than they will be in a month or two, and potentially more dangerous, depending on the peak.

My experience on snow is limited. I don’t live in Colorado, so I’m a visitor just like so many others. But in my few experiences, here are a couple things I’ve seen:

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

My friend David helps a stranded climber put on some microspikes so she can safely descend a snow slope on Mount Sneffels.

In June 2013, while climbing Mount Sneffels, I saw people who lacked the traction gear needed for the couloir that is the mountain’s signature feature on its upper route. The Lavender Couloir holds snow well into the summer, and when temperatures rise, it can break under your feet and send you skidding down the mountain. One woman I saw, who was “guided” up that portion of the mountain, froze when confronted with the challenges of steeper snow and inadequate gear. Her partner was nowhere to be found, but my group was able to help her down to a safer part of the mountain. Clearly, this was not the mountain experience she thought it would be.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

Slick patches like these on Wetterhorn Peak can pose risks to climbers.

In June 2014, while climbing Wetterhorn Peak, wet, slushy snow made our descent dicey. Three of us had our footing on the snow give out. Two of us arrested quickly without incident. A third climber slid about a hundred feet and hit some rocks. His injuries were minor, but it was a scary scene nonetheless. Wetterhorn’s standard route is very solid in dry summer conditions. But like I said before, snow changes everything. A slide on the wrong part of that mountain could send you off a 700-foot cliff.

Experienced mountaineers already have the knowledge to operate on snow slopes. But most people heading into what’s considered prime hiking season are not experienced mountaineers. Even those with a couple dozen or more summits under their belts aren’t in the “experienced” category if they haven’t had the time and training to handle snow.

So this post is directed more toward the summer hikers and not those who hike and climb in all four seasons. In light of this, some thoughts:

Check conditions on the route you’re planning. There are often online resources with up-to-date route conditions. Find those and read up. Be aware that late spring and early summer conditions often include the presence of significant snow on the route, and this will affect the difficulty and risk of a climb. Postholing will make your ascent slower and burn more energy. Snow and ice will make conditions slippery. Avalanches (“wet slides” in warmer conditions) are still a concern. A quick check of route conditions can alert you to the presence of these risks.

If you’re determined to climb mountains where snow is present, train for the conditions. Many mountain states have organizations that teach you everything you need to know about reading and traveling through snow conditions. Printed and online resources are out there. Find some friends and practice snow skills on low-risk areas. Be honest about your skills, fitness and risk tolerances.

Own and use the gear needed for snow travel. Sole spikes, crampons, ice axes, gaiters and a climbing helmet should be in your inventory if you’re going to climb snow slopes. Know how to use an ice axe.

If you are reticent to spend the time and money to equip and train for snow travel, consider different destinations or a later time of year to go into the mountains. If you’re hitting the peaks in late spring and early summer, consider lower elevation hikes and climbs. Mid- to late July through early September are much more snow-free if you’re determined to tag higher summits. Plan accordingly.

Lean on friends with high country experience. These folks are more likely to have real-time information on how routes look, they’ll know what equipment to buy and how to use it, and can be steadying influences during a climb. I had a guy like that last summer on an attempt of Longs Peak, and with sketchy conditions that had most of us questioning the wisdom of going forward, his keen eye had a more definitive answer. His word to turn around ended any ambiguity as to what we would do next and all of us got to go home with our health intact.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

Near the Mount Shavano summit in June 2009.

June is a funny month  in the Rockies. We all want to get into the mountains and enjoy a little adventure. But at higher elevations, the transition from winter to summer in June is ongoing. If you’re like me and your experience on snow is limited, these are some things to keep in mind.

Bob Doucette