One dead, one survivor in Maroon Bells fall

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Aspen Times file photo
Special to the Daily |

ASPEN — When another climber couldn’t make the trip to the Maroon Bells this week, Avon resident Jarod Wetherell stepped in to take his place. On Friday, authorities recovered Wetherell’s body from the upper portion of a section of North Maroon Peak, which is commonly known as the “Rock Glacier.”

“Another guy was supposed to go, and for whatever reason, he couldn’t,” said Alex Burchetta, spokesman for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. “So the deceased stepped in on the climbing trip.”

Wetherell, 37, was climbing with partner David Richardson, 32, of Vail. Mountain Rescue Aspen members brought Richardson, who injured his pelvis and ribs, to safety at 11:15 a.m. on Friday. He was located in the Bell Chord area on the east aspect of North Maroon Peak and was transported to Aspen Valley Hospital by a helicopter from the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, authorities said.

Hospital spokeswoman Ginny Dyche said Richardson was listed in “good” condition. He declined an interview request by The Aspen Times.

Authorities said the two were last known to be on top of North Maroon Peak around 12:45 p.m. on Wednesday. The climbers took a “selfie” after they topped the peak, sending it to a friend in Vail. The friend grew concerned when she didn’t hear any more from the climbers, prompting her to call Pitkin County authorities that night.

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On Thursday, Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers began the search, but it was hampered by bad weather that rendered an air search unfeasible. They were out of the field by 9:15 p.m. Thursday and resumed the search Friday.

Burchetta said details of the climbers’ fall was not available. A deputy was to interview Richardson some time on Friday at the hospital after he received medical attention.

“There was very limited information at the time Mountain Rescue were on the scene,” Burchetta said. “They were really concerned about getting the surviving climber transported to the hospital.”

Burchetta couldn’t say when the fall happened, but “in some capacity,” Richardson spent two nights in the wilderness. Burchetta had no information on either climber’s ability or experience with 14,000-foot peaks. He said it appeared that they were equipped with the proper gear.

Bells keep Mountain Rescue busy

The Maroon Bells are two 14,000-foot peaks located about 12 miles southwest of Aspen. The climbing community regards them as two of Colorado’s most treacherous and dangerous peaks, a claim supported by a U.S. Forest Service sign, located at the Bells trailhead, calling them “The Deadly Bells.”

As recently as Sept. 21, Mountain Rescue Aspen members were dispatched to the Bells for the report of a 59-year-old climber who fell 50 feet while attempting to summit North Maroon Peak. The climber survived. And on Sept. 8, a 42-year-old hunter from Littleton died from a 60- to 80-foot fall.

“It’s very unstable there,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said. “It’s shale, it’s scree.”

DiSalvo couldn’t speak directly about the most recent incident on the Bells, but he noted that Mountain Rescue has had its hands full in recent months.

“Anything from a twisted ankle on the Ute Trail or a full-blown rescue, we’re seeing a lot,” he said Friday.

Since May 1, Mountain Rescue Aspen has conducted 45 search-and-rescues in Pitkin County, the sheriff said. The reasons for the high number of search and rescues can’t be pinpointed, DiSalvo said, but he has some theories.

“It’s either because our community is ‘back’ and we have more people in town, or there’s just more interest in exploring the backcountry, or people are seriously underestimating the terrain,” he said. “It might look harmless but it can eat you alive. You’ll see experienced mountaineers who fall, and then you’ll see people who don’t belong out there.”

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