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The Deadly Elks

Climbers are fatally underestimating the challenge of Aspen’s Elk Mountains. How can we stop people from perishing in this risky range?

By the end of last summer, Mountain Rescue Aspen members were totally spent from a busy season plucking people out of the Elk Mountains. The volunteers wore out their boot soles on 74 missions last year, including recovering a record nine dead bodies, five on Capitol Peak alone.

“The number of actual missions wasn’t so much higher but it seems like they were definitely more treacherous and certainly more tragic than years past,” says Justin Hood, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA).

The deadly season prompted a plan of attack to stem the tide of tragedy. In an unprecedented public-private partnership, Mountain Rescue Aspen, White River National Forest, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, Aspen Expeditions Worldwide, and Aspen Alpine Guides joined forces to develop an Elk Range Mountain Safety education curriculum, which includes a series of classroom sessions and field clinics around Colorado this summer and fall.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo wants to get the message out loud and clear: “If this is something you’re thinking of doing and you have no experience, you could end up dead,” he says.

 A Dicey Proposition

The Elk Mountains, which straddle Pitkin and Gunnison counties from Carbondale to south of Aspen, are steep, technical, and notoriously dangerous. The range includes seven fourteeners, which have claimed 28 lives since 2000, according to Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. Capitol Peak is widely considered the most difficult fourteener in Colorado, while Pyramid Peak, the Maroon Bells and Snowmass Mountain are all in the top 10.

“One of the main things we’re trying to do with our educational program is help people understand that these aren’t hikes, but climbs,” says Stephen Szoradi, managing partner of Aspen Alpine Guides and a member of MRA. “These are technical mountains and people need to have mountaineering skills.”

Standard routes in the Elks are mostly class 3 and 4, meaning climbers have to ascend using footholds and handholds and might want to use ropes in more technical sections. There are no trails to follow, so route-finding skills are key. Falls can be deadly.

Amos Whiting, owner and head guide for Aspen Expeditions Worldwide, says he often sees people on the peaks who seem ill-prepared, without helmets, proper footwear or other safety gear. “The folks who could use more education are very fit. They do a lot of hiking, but they have zero formal education. They lack mountain sense because they lack experience.”

Suffice to say that knocking out Grays and Torreys on a Saturday alongside hundreds of people is an insufficient résumé.

Even those who have summited a dozen or more of Colorado’s fourteeners might be surprised to learn that the Elks are so dangerous. The crumbly sedimentary rock of the Elk Range is unlike other mountains in Colorado. As Gerry Roach wrote in Colorado’s Fourteeners, “It can be a nightmare to climb on for the uninitiated.” Routes are difficult to follow and tend to shift over time. Rocks flake off at the slightest touch. Some slopes are just piles of rubble. People frequently send dangerous debris down onto other climbers and sometimes topple boulders onto themselves.

“People with less experience have less ability to recognize what you can hold onto and what you can’t,” says Whiting.

Another way climbers get into trouble is by wandering off route, either because they get disoriented or try a shortcut to avoid something sketchy. The Knife Edge on Capitol Peak, a razor-sharp ridge near the summit, can be a scary proposition, especially on the descent when people are tired. Several accidents and deaths have occurred because climbers tried to cut below the Knife Edge, slid down steep scree and got cliffed out.

“Sometimes you’re at the top and you’re not thinking straight because you’re fatigued, you’re high in altitude, and maybe a storm is rolling in,” says Hood. “We’ve done plenty of helicopter rescues of people on these cliff bands who were able to hang on and have cell service.”

Signs at the Capitol Peak and Maroon Bells trailheads warn about the dangers of climbing in the area but don’t seem to be working. “People are walking right past them and heading to their goal,” says Karen Schroyer, district ranger on the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest. “The whole point behind the education campaign is to reach people before they get to the trailhead.”

Get Clinical

To reduce the likelihood of getting into trouble, Szoradi and Whiting urge people to follow a progression before climbing in the Elks. Starting with easier peaks, seeing how you feel at altitude, taking mountaineering and first aid classes, practicing rock climbing techniques, learning simple rope work, and getting comfortable in exposed terrain are key building blocks.

“The clinics we’re offering this summer are a great place to start,” says Whiting.

The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, White River National Forest, and Mountain Rescue Aspen are subsidizing the education program, which started in June and includes eight free 90-minute classroom sessions along the Front Range and Roaring Fork Valley, as well as eight full-day field planning and skills clinics in the Aspen area that cost $50. Aspen Alpine Guides and Aspen Expeditions Worldwide are leading the workshops along with mountain rescue volunteers.

The evening presentations touch on trip planning, weather considerations, online resources, choosing partners, route selection, navigation, essential gear, mountain etiquette, and how rescues work. The full-day clinics also include hands-on outdoor field work to practice route finding, terrain selection, climbing techniques, and basic rope skills. The goal is to help aspiring climbers make better decisions and motivate them to pursue more education.

The Elk Range Mountain Safety Coalition realizes that this program can’t reach everyone planning to climb in the Elk Mountains. To spread the messages further, officials have been posting up at popular trailheads this summer to talk to people heading out on the trails and interview people returning from the peaks.

Mountain Rescue Aspen is also bumping up its education efforts. In June the organization hosted its first annual Backcountry Basics Workshop, an all-day event that drew more than 80 people. Greg Shaffran, an MRA member who spearheaded the clinic, says he hopes to do more. “Part of MRA’s mission is mountain safety,” says Shaffran. “We want to create an ongoing curriculum to keep people coming back.”

Mind the Tourists

Meanwhile Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is rolling up its shirtsleeves to try to reach people coming from out of state. The nonprofit has been working all summer on a series of educational videos (watch them at that cover safety issues, how to prepare for harder climbs, and the Elk Range’s unique challenges. “There are five to six peaks where people die in great numbers. Those are the areas where people really need to know what they’re doing and have the relevant experience,” says Lloyd Athearn, executive director of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

People who do their homework might realize that climbing a fourteener in the Elks is a stretch. “If they don’t have the experience and they still want to climb it and get their list [of all the fourteeners] done, hire a guide. You’ll have far greater odds of having a safe and successful summit than trying to do it on your own,” Athearn says.

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