The Sopris Sun

Education, preparation keys to backcountry safety

By Megan Tackett
Sopris Sun Staff

Education. That is the word that comes up again and again regarding last summer’s death toll on Colorado’s highest peaks. Of the 11 people whose lives were claimed by the state’s fourteeners, eight of the incidents occurred on mountains in Pitkin County.

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Mountain Rescue Aspen recovered five bodies from Capitol Peak, two from Maroon Bells and one from Conundrum, MRA president Jeff Edelson said of the climbing season. Those are not numbers anyone wants to see in future years.

“What we’re really hoping to do is educate the public on the dangers of the backcountry in general,” Edelson said about MRA’s Peak Awareness program rollout, adding that the organization plans to host a panel discussion on the matter at the rescue cabin as soon as this October.

Optimism about the new program’s concept is not unwarranted: avalanche trainings typically garner more than 100 participants each year and have seen tangible successes in lessening winter-season deaths. This year’s spike in summer fatalities has become a signal to many in the industry that a more year-round education incentive is justified. Because backcountry conditions change between seasons, there should be trainings that address each, is the thinking.

“We have two jobs,” Edelson said. “It’s to go out and save lives through mountain rescue, but it’s also to save lives through mountain safety education. So we’re hoping to get deeper in the education game.”

Garrett Alexander, a self-supported ultra endurance racer and three-time Colorado Trail race finisher who also works as an equipment tester for Defiant Pack, agrees.

“It’s a matter of education,” he said. “Because you can even have all of the gear, but if you don’t know how to use it, what’s the point? The best preparation is having the knowledge to avoid hazardous situations.”

But, he added, preparedness is often easier said than done when in Colorado’s backcountry.

“There have been plenty of times where I’ve been underprepared,” Alexander said of his own experiences. “I feel like there’s a balance between knowing when you’re pushing the limits and also just knowing your own personal limits. We live in a pretty comfortable society, and I think it creates a sense of confidence, where people push too far beyond their experience and safest, logical decisions.”

It’s a theme that exists among backcountry athletes. Junaid Dawud, who started and continues to operate 14ersThruHike.com after routing and completing a continuous “through hike” that summits every fourteener in Colorado, said that even those with some high-country experience may be in for unpleasant surprises at higher elevations.

“People often don’t know how they’re going to behave when they get above 10,000 or 11,000 feet,” Dawud said, adding that “fatigue is always a real risk factor.”

The reality, both Alexander and Dawud agree, is that venturing into the backcountry is not an experience that offers instant gratification.

“It’s not something that happens overnight,” Alexander said of such endeavors. In order to mitigate risks as much as possible, Alexander feels that youth training is an optimal strategy, which is why he also guides students from Colorado Rocky Mountain School on overnight mountain-biking trips to places like the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. “How many kids know how to start a fire in the woods? How many of these people moving to Denver have ever started a fire in the rain, or have actually camped — carried all their stuff on their backs? People need to know what to do in emergency situations.”

The population bomb

As the populations continue to balloon in the Roaring Fork Valley and Front Range in particular, the need for education only increases. One of Colorado’s draws for newcomers, of course, is the scenery. And Dawud thinks that’s a good thing.

“Ultimately, I think it’s good to have more people outside, connecting with and loving and becoming champions and defending our wildlife and public spaces,” he said. “But,” he added, “we have to make sure those people entering the outdoors community have clear, easy access to information and guidance to ‘chill’ sites and level-headed advice for people who are trying to get into this stuff.” Dawud currently works for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, where he routinely speaks at educational seminars about reducing one’s impact in the outdoors.

“As more people move to Colorado — as more of the population becomes interested in these outdoor activities — the numbers [of incidents] are going to increase,” he continued. “If you’ve got more people, even with a smaller percentage of [people] being ill-prepared, you’re still going to have a higher number of people getting into trouble.”

That’s exactly why MRA is introducing the Peak Awareness program during climbing season.

“There’s really a big difference between hiking and climbing,” Edelson said. “Hiking, you’re following a nice trail that is well marked, as opposed to mountaineering and climbing peaks. There’s a big difference.” Teaching that difference will be a mainstay for the Peak Awareness program, as well as route finding, which Edelson said is one of the bigger challenges that has led to some of this year’s fatalities.

“That’s really what we encourage folks to do: know the routes. And if you don’t know the routes, go with someone who does,” he advised.

The fourteener peaks in Pitkin County definitely qualify as mountaineering, and because many of them comprise the Valley’s everyday backdrop, they’re often underestimated regarding the necessary skillset to summit them.

“Particularly with the Elk Range peaks,” Dawud said. “They’re iconic, but they’re also quite dangerous. And they’re also quite accessible.” That accessibility can create a “perfect storm” of risk factors, he said. Especially when mountaineering a fourteener, “there’s for a sustained period where you need to not make any mistakes.”

As far as mistakes go, it’s not usually just one that leads to someone dying on the mountain. More often, both Alexander and Dawud emphasize, tragedies result from a chain of usually rash decisions about strategy.

“I think especially here in Colorado, where we have so many people moving here, there are so many people who think, ‘Alright, I can’t wait to conquer the mountains,’ so they’re getting all gung ho, and you have to realize that the mountains aren’t something to mess with,” Alexander said. “I’m not saying there’s a lot of idiots out there,” he noted, but then followed that “nature will always be the ultimate teacher, and sometimes it’s going to be harsh.”

There is a general consensus among the community, however: nature doesn’t have to be the only teacher. And that’s why the discussion seems to always come back to education.

“Ultimately, I think the onus is partly on the community of people already getting out into the wilderness to welcome and educate so that we can prevent some of these people from making those chains of poor decisions,” Dawud said.