After deadly summer on Capitol Peak, Mountain Rescue Aspen ramps up effort to educate hikers before they set out
Following the “tragic summer” in the Roaring Fork Valley, Mountain Rescue Aspen decided it was time to bring the Pitkin County community together and talk about how to educate the public so its services won’t be as needed.
“We are in the business of not only rescue, but we are very much committed to education,” MRA director of training Doug Paley said. “What you are seeing tonight is just another kickoff of what we are going to be doing in 2017, going into 2018, on avalanche awareness as well as peak awareness.”
With a few dozen people in attendance, MRA hosted a panel discussion Wednesday at the C.B. Cameron Rescue Center in Aspen, where its board of directors discussed how the organization operates and answered questions from the audience. It’s part of a greater push by MRA to educate the public on the dangers involved when headed into the backcountry.
“I was just interested to see these guys’ standpoint. Hopefully I never do have to call them, but if I do, I want to know their protocol and what I should expect and how I can help if I was trying to help a friend or myself,” said noted Aspen skier Sam Coffey, who was in attendance. “As these guys touched on pretty hard, preparation is key. When we go out in the backcountry, we always try and prepare.”
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The push for public education comes after a summer in which five people died trying to climb nearby Capitol Peak. In total, nine have died trying to climb the popular Colorado fourteener since 2000.
Among the questions asked at Wednesday’s panel discussion were those regarding signs in the backcountry and whether there should be more of them to help educate and direct hikers and climbers.
“We’ve had some meetings as recently as a couple of weeks ago with the Forest Service and the county on signage. As you know, signage in the backcountry is a very controversial thing,” MRA board President Jeffrey Edelson told the audience.
He also said Mountain Rescue Aspen does not hold an official stance on the subject nor does it have much sway on signs being added or removed. Those decisions are mostly made by the Forest Service and the county.
“In general, a lot of folks kind of have their mind made up by the time they hit those signs,” Edelson later added. “So what we are really trying to focus on is getting information to folks before they leave their house, because we feel that’s when we can really affect decision making.”
Edelson also said the Forest Service is having issues with people stealing signs, including the popular “Deadly Bells” sign near the Maroon Bells Wilderness.
According to MRA, about half of the cases it responds to are people “that have the knowledge, skill, ability to be where they were, do what they were doing.” The rest are people who were ill prepared.
While the board didn’t pinpoint one specific cause for people finding themselves in danger in the backcountry, there were numerous themes. Among them was not following the standard route, starting too late in the day and voluntarily separating from their companions.
MRA has spent decades educating people on backcountry safety in the winter, and wants to make that same push with education during the summer.
“We have made a difference. People are more aware of the dangers of the backcountry in the winter, specifically avalanches, than they were in the past,” Paley said. “We had a very big part in that. We want to do the same thing for the summer months, the peaks. This is kind of a kickoff for us.”
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