After 4 deaths on Colorado 14ers this year, drive to educate hikers of risks is renewed
The allure of Colorado’s stockpile of 14,000-foot mountains has increasingly acted as a siren song to natives and visitors each summer — and over the weekend they claimed another life.
Jake Lord, a 25-year-old Parker resident, fell some 300 feet Saturday morning while hiking with a friend as they approached from the backside of Capitol Peak’s summit southwest of Aspen. Efforts by his hiking partner and a witness to resuscitate him with CPR were unsuccessful and emergency responders arriving by Flight For Life helicopter two hours later pronounced him dead at the scene from the severity of his injuries.
Lord was a recent graduate of Colorado State University in Fort Collins with a background in computer hardware and worked as a software engineer for medical technology firm Medtronic. Photos available via social media showed him to be an experienced climber before he attempted to conquer one of the state’s notoriously most difficult “14ers,” located in the Elk Mountains.
A compilation of news reports confirms him as the fourth death this year on one of Colorado’s preeminent peaks, with the others occurring at Maroon Bells, Mount Princeton and Longs Peak. Two more hikers went missing overnight Sunday after one had a serious but non-life-threatening fall on the trail to Mount of the Holy Cross. The Vail Mountain Rescue Group found them Monday afternoon.
At least three other people — and likely a fourth — died in 2016 across the 50-plus iconic mountains within the state’s borders. With an estimated quarter-million hiker use-days each year, 14er fatalities remain extremely low, but due to the very nature of the pursuit, danger can strike at any moment.
“They’re risky endeavors — they are,” said Charles Pitman, a mission coordinator for the Summit County Rescue Group. “Sometimes accidents just happen and that’s something you can’t avoid, but there are also times when shortcuts are taken. You have to be prepared to call it a day when you get to the limits of your abilities.”
A person hasn’t died on Quandary Peak, the much less demanding Summit County 14er, in quite a few years, and not from a fall since a 31-year-old Kansas City man in August 2008. The local search and rescue outfit also provides the occasional medical assist for Grays and Torreys Peaks, which border Summit and neighboring Clear Creek County.
Numerous calls each season come in from overambitious hikers getting stuck and needing helicopter retrieval off Quandary, though, because they either didn’t plan well enough for the climb or attempted to ad-lib their way down. In late-May, a pair of California mountaineers had to spend the night near the summit as a result of the worsening conditions before being airlifted out the next morning, but there isn’t a rhyme or reason to the amount of rescue requests each season to the mountain that today receives as many as 18,000 visits per year.
“It’s very sporadic,” said Pitman. “It seems like some years we have an interminable number up there — call after call after call — and some years very few. It definitely goes up and down, but there are certainly more people hiking these and I would bet the number of calls has gone up” over time.
Anecdotally, 14er “peak-bagging” has become more in vogue in the past decade, and appears on the rise as Colorado’s population continues to boom. Most guess we have seen resounding growth on these mountains, but lacking accurate counts to gauge exactly how much, the Colorado Fourteener Initiative took it upon itself in the last four years to obtain more precise figures.
“We are a list-oriented society, for whatever reason, and people want to climb things over 14,000 feet,” said Lloyd Athearn, CFI’s executive director. “It happens to be the thing to do — these ‘approachable Everests.’ Colorado has the most, so if you want to climb some in the lower 48, you’re going to come to Colorado.”
He estimates 30-to-35 of the state’s 14ers have conspicuous trails almost the entire way up, or that require minimal technical expertise scrambling up rocks on the final pitch. That doesn’t mean that even the most experienced can’t have a bad day or run into unexpected elements that dramatically increase the degree of risk and difficulty.
“Mountains are dangerous places, and they’re not very forgiving if you make mistakes,” added Athearn. “There are factors a climber can never control, and — the Elks in particular — there’s a lot of loose rock, things that look like they’ve been there for eons, but suddenly they give way, and people need to know the risks they take. And sometimes it’s just wrong place at the wrong time … and they fall.”
Carrying a pack with essential and life-saving supplies, always taking a friend, setting out early enough in the morning, as well reviewing the day’s weather forecast and plotting a detailed course well beforehand remain the gold standards for staying safe. Another simple but often overlooked aspect for those with a goal in mind is recognizing your own skill level and turning back if circumstances become uncomfortable.
Ultimately, the experts say, it’s not necessarily experience, but staying humble, that wins the day and helps increasae safeguards and prevent disaster. Accepting this intrinsic component of hiking and rock climbing in Colorado can be the difference between life and death.
“Most of the 14ers are going to be easy climbs for people who are in decent shape,” said Athearn. “But it is a disservice to people when others minimize the risk by speaking more lightly of a specific route, because they’re all a serious undertaking. So it’s always best to have a good deal of humility for what can go wrong, and to be both mentally and physically prepared with adequate equipment for what the mountain might reasonably dish out.”
With an above-average snowpack following a snowy winter, local firefighters and wildlife experts are expecting a mild fire season this year, especially at higher elevations.