After the deaths of eight people last summer on or near mountains outside Aspen — five people perished climbing Capitol Peak alone — and numerous emergency calls, three government agencies are teaming with two local guide services in an unprecedented effort to educate people on everything from simple rope anchors and types of terrain to the signs of altitude sickness.
Mountain Rescue Aspen, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Forest Service are subsidizing the awareness campaign, and they have enlisted Aspen Alpine Guides and Aspen Expeditions Worldwide to help spearhead presentations on mountain safety. Dates and locations are still being sussed out, but Stephen Szoradi, Aspen Alpine Guides’ managing partner, said six, 90-minute talks are planned on the Front Range with two in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Places like Denver, Golden, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs are being eyed because of their populations, as the goal is to present to as many people as possible, Szoradi said Wednesday. The local venues may be MRA headquarters near the airport and somewhere near Glenwood Springs.
On June 9, also at the MRA station, the all-volunteer organization will host its first summer seminar on backcountry basics, said member Elisabeth White.
The day, planned from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., will focus on four categories: trip planning, medical issues, self-care and survival. Aspects are to include what should be in your pack, be it a day hike or an overnight trip; basic first aid, including how to recognize certain symptoms of common backcountry illnesses such as dehydration, and advice on determining whether to keep going or turn back; nutrition; and mapping and how to relay GPS coordinates. Basic survival skills — “if things get really, really bad,” White said — will include instruction on water-purification systems, some of which can take 10 hours to work. Without such a system, participants will also learn where to take water from a stream to lower the risk of illness; and how to build a small shelter.
“It will be a good overview on things to keep in mind,” she said.
Additionally, MRA president Justin Hood said volunteers over the summer will be in the field to conduct informal interviews with climbers returning from a fourteener summit or attempt, hoping to glean information about their experience and whether they encountered anything or anyone unexpected. Finally, eight, single-day field clinics for 12 or so people per session are being planned in the Aspen area to provide instruction on practical aspects of the backcountry, including input on the types of rock composition one may encounter and ways to employ a rope should a person, say, wander away from their planned route.
Wild, wild country
The education campaign comes amid a surge of hikers and climbers in recent years testing their mettle against the Elk Mountains, which are some of the state’s most treacherous. High Country News reported recently that North Maroon Peak, one of the two Maroon Bells summits, “is the deadliest of Colorado’s fourteeners, with 20 climber fatalities between 2000 and 2015.”
Regarding the influx of people in the backcountry, many cite the influence of social media, with stunning photos and videos that entice others to seek similar adventures.
“There are a lot of people from the Front Range and other folks who just don’t know [the terrain],” Hood said. “Maybe they’ve seen cool videos of people going across [Capitol’s] Knife Edge.”
MRA’s Peak Awareness effort and the related outreach will attempt to show that tackling a fourteener outside of Aspen is anything but a walk in the park.
Szoradi said that he often gets calls from people seeking to “hike” the Bells. He usually asks about their climbing experience in the wilderness because such excursions nowadays are “not being treated as mountaineer climbing,” he said. “That vocabulary has changed, and we’re trying to get that back. There is a component of this that needs a lot of mountaineering skills. This is the wilderness, we’re using ropes like seat belts to keep people safe.”
Szoradi and Aspen Expeditions Worldwide guide Amos Whiting are working on a curriculum for the Front Range and valley talks. They will be wide-ranging, covering the wilderness ethos of leaving no trace and “understanding what it takes to climb the peaks,” Szoradi said.
The latter will include an etiquette component to climbing, including alerting people below that you have knocked loose a rock — Szoradi said he’s nearly been hit by suitcase-sized boulders, projectiles that came without warning from above — and knowing, if a party is above you, when to wait on or circumvent the higher climbers.
Szoradi and Whiting also plan to give an introduction to the Elk Range, including peak information and rock compositions, weather, risk assessments, and the importance of the progression of climbing experience (i.e., don’t try Pyramid just because you have summited Grays Peak).
Locations could include Golden’s Colorado Mountain Club and the REI outlets in Denver and Boulder. The talks will be based in part on the Utah Avalanche Center’s Know Before You Go awareness campaign and are not intended for advanced, technical instruction, Szoradi said.
The seminars’ second component will involve what he called the “anatomy of a rescue,” explaining how they are carried out either on foot or with the aid of a Blackhawk helicopter from the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation training site near Eagle. Szoradi, who is also a 10-year member of MRA, said this portion will cover what to expect should one need rescue, including expectations of timing and how to communicate to those responding. MRA volunteers will also likely attend to speak on these aspects, as well as the use of maps and compasses, and other factors of a rescue response. Szoradi said climbers will be informed of websites frequented by people with a wealth of experience, including summitpost.com and 14ers.com.
Both he and Hood complimented Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and the Forest Service’s Aspen-Sopris Ranger District for the collaborative effort. District ranger Karen Schroyer said the parties have been meeting all winter on the programming.
“It’s really really important to us that we get this information out before people get to the trailhead,” she said.
The Front Range and valley presentations will cover basic gear and pack checks, and explanations for what somebody might need.
“It’s knowing what you’re getting into,” Szoradi said. “And having options so you can get out of something” difficult.
Depending on the excursion, that could include having a bivouac sack (a waterproof shelter), extra clothing and food, a first-aid kit, rope and other essentials. Climbers of fourteeners, especially the difficult peaks like Capitol and the Bells, should ask themselves, what am I going to need if everything falls apart, he said.
The June 9 summer workshop costs $30, which includes lunch and a small first-aid kit, and is open to 100 people. To register, go to mountainrescueaspen.org/summer-workshop/. Dates for the field clinics will be announced soon.