Colorado vacationers push the envelope at their own peril

July 22, 2013 Updated: July 22, 2013 at 8:34 am
photo - A Colorado Springs  firefighter rescues a man who fell while climbing on the rocks in Garden of the Gods Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
A Colorado Springs firefighter rescues a man who fell while climbing on the rocks in Garden of the Gods Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Arriving in Colorado, a tourist is liable to be overwhelmed: 14,000-foot peaks, ski runs and whitewater.

As inviting as Colorado may be, the stunning landscape masks dangers that sneak up on vacationers - dangers that come in the forms of altitude, late afternoon lightning storms and snow squalls on high peaks. People come to Colorado looking for adventure but they often lack the preparation necessary to hike, ski or bike smartly, said Steve Sperry, with the El Paso County Search and Rescue team.

"Well, they don't get used to the altitude, they don't drink enough liquid, they go out and hike and don't have enough proper gear," Sperry said.

The list goes on.

"They go mountain biking and don't realize where they are. They don't carry enough food and water, especially if they are hiking Pikes Peak," he said.

The greatest, silent shocker to many tourists, however, is the altitude.

"I think the most common thing for out-of-state visitors is not being aware of the effects of altitude. That can happen almost any time of the year, but it's frequent during the summertime," said Howard Paul, with the Colorado Search and Rescue Board.

"They are not aware that they need to take a day or two to acclimate. They usually fly into Denver, and immediately they want to go up to altitude."

Colorado does not have the monopoly on tourism dangers. Arizona tourists battle extreme heat, scorpions and snakes, said Kiva Couchon, a public information for the state's tourism office.

"We do advise travelers to beware of the heat," she said. "People get stuck up on our mountains a lot." There, the heat can claim their lives.

While Arizona encourages tourists to hydrate, look into fire restrictions, and plan hiking routes, Wyoming's tourism office has a dramatically different problem. It counsels tourists not to touch wild animals.

"Sometimes they (tourists) feel they are tamed animals," said Lori Hogan, senior communications specialist with the Wyoming office of tourism. "But they are not. They are wild."

She advises tourists not to pose for pictures too close to wild animals, as well as to carry bear spray.

But even the most cautious, well-hydrated, well-dressed and generally best-prepared Western adventurer runs into a tragic circumstances. Sometimes people don't make mistakes; they just get unlucky.

"It truly is very frequently being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Paul said.

Such was the case of an experienced hiker who fell to his death in the San Juan Mountains on July 11.

He was climbing Jagged Mountain, a highly technical 13,000-foot peak in the Weminuche Wilderness, with two friends, when he fell 300 to 400 feet to his death, according to The Durango Herald.

Last year, a climber took a fatal fall from the top of Windom Peak, a 14,000-foot peak in the Chicago Basin, the Herald reported.

There are also freak accidents, when hikers or tourists suffer from seizures or heart attacks that are made more dangerous because the victim is isolated, far from civilization. For instance, Colorado Sen. Mark Udall's brother, James "Randy" Udall, died of natural causes this summer while backpacking alone on a remote trail in the Wyoming wilderness.

Another man suffered a fatal heart attack this month while riding a zip line in Fremont County.

Meanwhile, El Paso County Search and Rescue has been doing its routine work. A couple of days ago the team rescued a mountain biker who got lost and couldn't find his way in the dark, Sperry said. In August, it will keep a close eye on the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, which brings numerous of runners from around the world who want to tackle the fourteener.

"We'll have a few people that we'll have to provide medical (services) to," Sperry said. Typically, there are large groups from Arkansas and Texas who struggle with the altitude. Other runners just wear themselves down.

"I mean, whether you come to Colorado, Wyoming or Idaho, any of the states that have the high mountains where people do any hiking of up fourteeners, they just don't get used to the thin air and lack of humidity," he said. "Especially when you come from Texas or Missouri."

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