There is a morbid joke that follows mountaineers down the side of Colorado’s tallest peaks. “There goes the next headline,” experienced hikers mutter as they pass tourists hiking up in flip-flops and jeans, toting a single plastic water bottle. It may be a joke, but the looming threat of another death or injury on one of the 58 tallest peaks in the state of Colorado overshadows the joke. These mountains, called “fourteeners” by locals, received their name because they tower 14,000 feet or more above sea level.
These oxygen-deprived, windy and dangerous hikes are growing more and more popular every year, with entire communities forming around a shared love for bagging peaks. As hikers buy bright t-shirts and trendy stickers to celebrate summits, it’s too easy to forget the extreme risks associated with every trek.
According to Greg Obernesser of SnowBrains, a ski news source, an estimated 57 people died on fourteeners from 2010 to 2017. In a state that celebrates outdoorsmanship and athleticism, this is a shocking statistic. Experienced hikers find themselves unsurprised by some of the mountains that have claimed lives. Longs Peak, the peak furthest north in the Colorado’s portion of the Rock Mountains, has been privy to nine deaths of late (not accounting for any deaths in 2018).
The Maroon Bells, a picturesque but notoriously technical group of four peaks, have also seen nine deaths within the seven-year time period that Obernesser examines. According to Dennis Webb of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, a large portion of deaths on fourteeners are climbers falling from faulty rock or otherwise dangerous terrain: “Fourteeners generally don’t require a rope to climb, although some parties choose to bring one for some peaks. But many of the harder routes are exposed enough that falls can be fatal, and some are particularly known for loose, rotten rock that can fall…” Beyond rotten rock and slippery slopes, however, many tragedies begin with the first step onto the mountain. Inexperienced climbers may not know how to summit and descend safely, the correct time to hike in order to avoid exposure to the elements or how much water and food to pack. Spencer McKee of OutThere Colorado said that while “more newcomers are testing their abilities in the outdoor space, there seems to be a trend of ignoring due diligence when it comes to analyzing danger and preparing accordingly.”
McKee observed that lack of experience is often “a key factor of accidents related to mountaineering.” If inexperienced climbers wish to begin climbing fourteeners, they should begin with education, not an advanced peak. Since the uptick in fatalities, journalists have written columns calling for action by the government, reform amongst climbers or a halt to fourteener climbing altogether. These reports, combined with the demoralizing number of search and rescue efforts, have pushed many communities to prioritize education for beginners.
Webb explains that fatalities in 2017 “prompted the creation of the Elk Mountain Safety Coalition, involving Mountain Rescue Aspen, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, the White River National Forest, Aspen Alpine Guides and Aspen Expeditions Worldwide.” Organizations like the EMSC are making great strides in outdoor education for beginners. The courses offer both classroom time and outdoor labs to familiarize hopeful hikers with the basics of safe and enjoyable mountaineering.
For those who do not have time or money for an extended exercise in “fourteenering,” online resources exist as well. The bottom line is that hikers who wish to safely climb fourteeners need to learn how to do so before they attempt it in person. Once hopeful climbers have extensively planned their route, their resources and a safe time to climb without risk of bad weather, they should consider making their first few treks with a group. Buddy climbing may be cliché, but hiking with an experienced mountaineer can teach valuable skills, as well as keeping everyone involved intact. Regardless of experience level, all hikers on fourteeners should prioritize staying on the marked path, as bushwhacking is both bad for the environment and bad for the hiker. “The apparent thinking among some victims that there were shortcut routes on the mountains” is responsible for several deaths and injuries each year, Webb said.
Hikers should also ensure that they leave route information and a tentative timeline with their family and friends. Climbing groups should also be willing to turn around at any point in the event of bad weather, injuries, dangerous temperatures or other complications. Ultimately, hikers can avoid many accidents on fourteeners through the use of common sense and a solid background of education. Enjoy the thrill of adventure in the mountains, but proceed with caution and respect for the peaks.