5th climber dies in 6 weeks on Aspen’s Capitol Peak, likely fell off 600-foot cliff
Officials say man tried to take shortcut around "Knife Edge" on descent
A 21-year-old man got separated from his climbing partner after a dispute Saturday on how to descend from the Capitol Peak summit and later fell 600 to 700 feet to his death, Pitkin County authorities said Sunday night in a news release.
The man’s death is the fifth fatality in the past six weeks on the 14,130-foot mountain. His name has not been released, pending notification of his family.
His is the third death this summer attributed to navigating the “Knife Edge” section, which is a 100-foot stretch of narrow ridge with precipitous drops on either side. A fourth climber died after he fell just before reaching Knife Edge.
Deputy Anthony Todaro said the department received a call at 8:45 a.m. Sunday from Brandon Wilhelm of Pine who said he and his friend reached the summit about 3 p.m. Saturday, but on the descent they became separated at the Knife Edge when they argued about the route.
“It was reported the overdue party decided to turn to his left and take a direct line toward the lake, even though he was told there was a cliff band below,” according to the news release. “This person failed to return to camp that evening.”
Mountain Rescue Aspen mobilize a field team as well as air resources from Flight for Life in Summit County, Todaro reported. Just after noon a foot team deployed from the helicopter made contact with an unconscious, unresponsive male subject, according to authorities.
“It was determined this individual had injuries that were consistent with a fall from the cliff band above and not able to sustain life. No life support efforts were made,” according to the release. “The cliff band directly above this area are approximately 600-700 feet high.”
The climber’s body was returned to the airport by rescue teams by 8:30 p.m.
In Sunday night’s news release, the Sheriff’s Office again stressed the importance of being prepared.
“There is not an alternate route down the North Face of Capitol Peak unless you have extensive climbing experience and all the necessary ropes and gear associated with high angle mountain climbing,” Deputy Torado wrote. “If there was a safe shortcut, it would be the standard route.”
Local mountaineers echoed the Sheriff’s Office’s advice on the 14ers.com Facebook page: “MRA is recovering another body from Capitol right now,” Glenwood Springs resident Chris Hagler wrote Sunday afternoon. “This is another horrible sad story. Stay on the route and do not descend North Face! We are losing people scaling straight across K2 to Knife Edge instead of descending to stay on route then ascending back up to knife edge and also trying to descend North Face. Our last 3 climbers perished on North Face.”
The man died in the same place an Aspen couple fell to their deaths a week ago; the bodies of Ryan Marcil, 26, and Carlin Brightwell, 27, were recovered Aug. 22. They were discovered in an area below the Knife Edge, Jesse Steindler, a commander with the Sheriff’s Office, said last week.
Hundreds of people gathered Friday at Herron Park to remember Marcil and Brightwell. Marcil’s father, Roger Marcil, said at the memorial he’d like to see an “initiative” grow out of the deaths of his son and Carly that offered information on the proper routes to take and firsthand accounts of the dangers of a mountain such as Capitol Peak.
“I’d be willing to help spearhead that,” he said. “So many people have died on these mountains. No one more needs to go like these two.”
Capitol Peak stands out among the Colorado fourteeners because of the exposure near the mountaintop.
“We would put that at the top as far as difficulty in the state,” said Scott Robson, executive director of the Colorado Mountain Club, which promotes adventure, safety and environmental protection of the peaks.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who has been in office since 2011 but in Aspen for more than 30 years, said the number of people who have died, gotten lost or been injured in the past two months is “unprecedented.” He would like to start an educational program of sorts that sets out the inherent dangers, the safest routes to take and how to be prepared in the backcountry.
“I think we can do a much better job of educating people,” DiSalvo said after the deaths of Marcil and Brightwell. “These are technical climbs. These are not hikes.”
Mountain Rescue Aspen representatives who work with the Sheriff’s Office said last week they are working on a “Peak Awareness” program for the public.
Two other people died on Capitol Peak earlier this summer in separate incidents. Since 2003, nine people have died climbing the fourteener.
Jeremy Shull, 35, died Aug. 6 after falling from ridge just before reaching the Knife Edge.
Jake Lord, 25, of Parker fell nearly 300 feet on July 15 when he and his climbing partner got off the standard route up the peak when a boulder Lord was holding onto let loose and crushed him.