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VIDEO: In wake of Capitol Peak's deadly summer, lessons of safety across Colorado

September 11, 2017 Updated: September 12, 2017 at 12:38 pm
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photo - Capitol Peak near Aspen, Colorado. Photo by Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times
Capitol Peak near Aspen, Colorado. Photo by Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times 

Roger Austin spent a day last month planning for the moment meant to be marvelous.

Alongside another experienced mountaineer from Colorado Springs, Austin researched Capitol Peak - the last of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks left for him to ascend.

As he did for the previous 53, he visited 14ers.com. He downloaded Capitol's route to the summit and uploaded it onto his GPS. He read trip reports. He compiled pictures to use as references. He checked the peak's weather forecast and checked again and again as the week went on. He chose a campsite - no way would he try the 17-mile push in one day. He gathered his equipment, including rope, helmet and a device to report his position in case of an emergency.

And then he saw the news.

An Aspen couple had been found dead on Capitol, the next to be claimed by the fearsome mountain's summer of carnage.

"Yeah," Austin said, "that put a damper on things."

Capitol claimed five lives between July and August, casting a shadow over the climbing community and reigniting talks of safety as more people venture into Colorado's wilderness.

Death is no stranger to the Elk Mountains near Aspen, with Capitol, Pyramid, Maroon and North Maroon peaks all renowned for their physical and technical tests.

For Aspen Mountain Rescue, the reality is one, two or three recoveries a year, team volunteer Jeff Edelson said.

"We've had seven deaths on the peaks this summer," he said, adding two on the Maroon peaks. "I can't really attribute that to anything in particular other than there absolutely being increased traffic into our backcountry. People are seeing things on social media or around the internet, and they want to get out and try it."

A study by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative puts seven in staggering perspective. The mountains' nonprofit advocate tallied fatalities across the Elk Mountains from 2000 to 2015, finding the annual average to be one.

Capitol's summer death toll alone is "striking," said Lloyd Athearn, the initiative's executive director. Every year he has come to expect varying fourteener death reports, "with someone dying of a heart attack on one peak," he said, "someone dying by lightning in another range, another getting off route in a third area."

There isn't usually "something screaming out at you," he said of the trend on Capitol. "What the heck is going on here?"

The peak is infamous for its so-called Knife Edge, a jagged ridge that climbers grip or straddle as they inch along a rocky side with sheer drop-offs. A 35-year-old man perished this month after falling near the edge, officials said. They said another man, 25, was scrambling off Capitol's standard route in July when a rock came loose, sending him to his death. The couple from this month also were found to have gotten off trail.

Search-and-rescue crews around the state are finding more people in uncharted places. Charles Pitman of the Summit County Rescue Group said hikers of 14,265-foot Quandary Peak, for example, frequently "cliff out."

"They take what they think is a shortcut, but they don't really understand where they're going," he said. "They haven't done a lot of investigating as to where they might end up. After a while, you get to a vertical cliff, and you can't go down and you can't go up. So there they end up."

The team's missions this year are "average" for recent years and down from 2016's nearly 90 missions, which Pitman said made for "our busiest year by far."

El Paso County Search and Rescue also is reporting "a typical season," with 160 calls an annual average, Patty Baxter said.

"They're going up," she said, "and I think that's just the influx of a larger number of people that come to the Pikes Peak region. They come here for the great outdoors. I don't think it's a spike or anything major, but there is a gradual trend up."

She said a common rescue on Pikes Peak is for someone dehydrated, someone who thought a bottle of water would suffice during the trek. Other times the team reaches people wearing tennis shoes or skater shoes that don't do much to prevent sprained or broken ankles.

The Evergreen-based Alpine Rescue Team finds those issues on mounts Bierstadt and Evans as well as Grays and Torreys peaks, fourteeners generally recommended for first-timers. Late last month, crews rescued two hikers from the high country, including a woman who said Bierstadt was harder than she expected, recalled team member Dawn Wilson.

She said the team's 105 missions this year are in line with previous years.

"What seems different this year are the number of people using their cell phones very quickly," she said. "People are immediately taking out their phones and calling not because of any major injuries, but because they simply don't know north from south or west from east. They're tackling these monsters of mountains because they saw some picture, or just to say they did it. We're dealing with people who are overestimating their abilities."

Recent events have first responders mulling the idea of "peak-baggers," the ever-publicized circle of climbers who seek to cross fourteeners off a list.

"When does a good, healthy challenge turn into being unsafe and lethal?" asked Athearn, of the Fourteeners Initiative. "To what degree should people enjoy the challenges and risks in nature knowing it might turn out for the worst?"

Austin, for one, has thrived in the mountains. Just as he took on the pursuit of hiking the heart-pounding Manitou Incline more times than anyone in a year (719 climbs in 2013), so has he taken on the fourteeners: He sets a goal and goes for it.

"But I wouldn't call it 'bagging,'" he said. "I just like to be outside."

And so he was happy last month on top of Capitol. He took a selfie with a medal commemorating him as an "official 14er finisher."

Then he returned to Colorado Springs and saw the news, again.

A 21-year-old had been found dead, Capitol's fifth and latest victim. The kid was on the mountain the same day as Austin.

"I didn't feel like celebrating anymore," he said.

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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