Prepare for the Peak: 14ers can lead to tragedy, as this year demonstrates | VailDaily.com

Prepare for the Peak: 14ers can lead to tragedy, as this year demonstrates

Tommy Wood
twood@greeleytribune.com

The boulder thundered down the mountainside. Moments before, Matt Payne had been edging along a small ledge with vertical rock stretching hundreds of feet above and below him.

His hands clutched solid holds, a rarity in the loose, rotten rock of Colorado's treacherous Elk Mountains, but that boulder was the only foothold he could see as he prepared to make his next move on Snowmass Mountain. Payne lightly tested it with his right foot, and then it was gone.

Payne and a partner, Silas Musick, had just summited Snowmass, then made their way to a sub-peak, a diversion that put the main summit between them and the ridge they had to downclimb to reach their camp. Tired after hours of climbing, they decided to take a shortcut. From the sub-peak, it looked like they could reach the ridge by skirting around Snowmass' summit block on a series of ledges.

But once they started, Payne and Musick found themselves in dangerous terrain, a steep, loose rock face where turning around was just as perilous as forging ahead. Unstable boulders were all that stood between them and oblivion. Now there was one fewer, and Payne, it appeared, had nowhere to go.

The irony wasn't lost on him: Here he was, in the situation he had spent years studying and trying to help people avoid. From 2010 to 2013, Payne tracked and analyzed deaths on Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains, including Snowmass, for his blog 100 Summits, a project he took up after encountering climbers on Longs Peak wearing tennis shoes and without water or any all-weather gear.

At least six people have died on 54 Colorado 14ers this year. That may be minuscule compared to the number of people who climb them ­— an estimated 260,000 did in 2015, the last year for which the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has data, but it still raises questions about what causes those deaths up there.

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Payne compiled his research through news stories, sheriffs' reports and interviews with first responders and eyewitnesses. He stopped after 2013 because of the emotional stress the caused him, and because 14ers.com created a forum for openly discussing the topic. Still, the 40 deaths Payne tracked over that four-year period are a large enough sample size to paint a clear picture of the hazards of mountaineering. Twenty-one of the 40 happened while the climber was descending. Eleven occurred while they were off-route. Fourteen of the dead were climbing solo. Twenty-five were inexperienced and climbing above their ability. Bad weather, Payne found, played a role in only seven of the deaths.

Mountain Rescue Aspen is a volunteer organization that performs alpine rescues in the Elks, including recovering the bodies of the four people who died in that range this year. Jeff Edelson, its public information officer, offered another reason — the notoriously poor rock of the Elks is even worse this year.

"For whatever reason, things are just looser," Edelson said. "It may be some sort of factor with the melt-freeze cycle."

Rockfall and loose rock accounted for 15 of the 40 deaths Payne tracked between 2010 and 2013. They add a tragic randomness because they can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone, without any warning, regardless of a climber's ability. Indeed, said Lloyd Athearn, the executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, there are "times when it's just truly out of the blue. They're skilled, they're equipped, on the route. There's nothing the climber could have done differently." The twin Elk 14ers Maroon Bells' reputation for loose rock had already earned them the nickname "the Deadly Bells;" they were Colorado's second-deadliest 14ers in the period Payne studied and have already claimed two lives this year.

But Athearn also said accidents are often a series of small mistakes or small errors in judgment that lead to a big, bad situation. Edelson said that about half of the people his group rescues are out of their league, though it doesn't judge how they got themselves into those situations.

Longs Peak is instantly recognizable towering above the Front Range, visible from much of northern Colorado. Its location in Rocky Mountain National Park makes it probably the most accessible 14er to people who live north of Denver. It's also Colorado's 14th-hardest 14er, according to 14ers.com. Yet it's also one of the most popular.

"Getting to the Longs Peak trailhead is a very easy drive for a lot of people," said Kyle Patterson, the public affairs officer for Rocky Mountain National Park. "Other (14ers) are more remote. It does have a certain lure to it. It is an amazing experience for those that are prepared. I don't want to downplay that, but the route is oftentimes underestimated. It's not a hike."

The last mile and a half to Longs' summit involves traversing the side of the mountain on narrow ledges with hundreds of feet of exposure, scrambling up a steep, loose gully and climbing a vertical rock face. People run into trouble on Longs when they get into its difficult upper stretches and aren't ready for it.

The high volume of climbers creates greater potential for rockfall during the route's vertical stretches; the thousands of people who climb Longs every year have also worn down the mountain's granite slabs with their boots, leaving a smooth, polished surface. And the number of people climbing it is only going to go up.

Colorado's population is growing at the second-fastest rate of any state, and 96 percent of its growth since 2010 has been concentrated along the Front Range. The logical leap is that more people in Colorado means more people will climb its mountains and therefore die on them — even if the accident rate itself doesn't change — but no one knows for sure.

"Certainly, if the state doubles in size, you're going to have more people participating in activities that have inherent hazards," Athearn said. "More people equals more chaos. But more people can lead to greater chances that, if you have an accident, there's someone to attend to you with first aid, or a greater potential for emergency medical response like Flight for Life or a rescue group. We also have dramatically better equipment than we used to."

Edelson and his team are already seeing heavier traffic in the backcountry near Aspen. Social media, as always, is a double-edged sword. It increases peoples' awareness of Colorado's natural wonders, but it may bring people to them who can't handle them. You can watch practically any mountaineering route on YouTube, but that won't give you the skills to climb it. 14ers.com has detailed descriptions of the majority of the routes on its eponymous peaks, but bringing those with you doesn't make you an expert routefinder.

And even the most experienced climbers can make the most basic mistakes. Payne had 48 14ers — including Capitol Peak, widely considered the hardest in Colorado — under his belt when he found himself hanging for his life from the west face of Snowmass that day, having just knocked free the only apparent foothold that could get him to safety. He swung himself to the next part of the ledge on which he had been trapped, somehow making it across using only his hands.

His partner, Musick, climbed far below in search of stabler terrain and made his way back up, double-and-triple checking every hold before he committed his weight to it. Eventually, after much stress and slow progress, they made it safely to the ridge and descended to camp, unhurt but shaken.

"Very quickly my mind went to two or three other things happening, and we could both be dead," Payne said.

Snowmass gave Payne a second chance. The mountain didn't have the last word that day, but it'll always be there, waiting its turn.

14er safety

» You are the only person you can rely on; know your capabilities and don’t get yourself into situations you can’t handle

» Research your route; 14ers.com has detailed walk-throughs of most routes, and there are abundant trip reports online

» If possible, climb on a weekday when there are fewer people

» Start before dawn and be on the way down by noon to avoid afternoon thunderstorms

» Turn around when you see storm clouds forming; you don’t want to be above treeline during a thunderstorm

» Bring ample supplies: at least two liters of water; high-protein, high-calorie food; sunscreen (the sun’s rays are twice as powerful at 14,000 feet); wind-and-waterproof clothing; a first-aid kit; trekking poles or a walking stick; high-ankle hiking boots with good traction; a compass; binoculars

» Know the symptoms of altitude sickness: throbbing headache, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, weakness and dizziness, difficulty breathing, loss of mental faculties, blue or gray lips; it’ll feel like a bad hangover, it can kill you, and if you experience symptoms the only way to get better is to get to a lower altitude as quickly as possible

» Don’t take shortcuts on the descent; go down the same way you came up

The hiking difficulty rating system

» Class 1: Easy hiking on good trail; chance of injury is minimal.

» Class 2: Simple scrambling, occasionally requiring the use of hands.

» Class 3: Scrambling with exposure; hands are required for much of the route. Falls will result in serious injury or occasionally death.

» Class 4: Simple climbing with exposure. You’re consistently using hand-and-footholds and potentially rope. Falls are probably fatal.

» Class 5: Technical climbing. Rope is necessary more often than not. Un-roped falls will kill you.