Ten climbers have died attempting to ascend the state’s tallest mountains this season, a possible record in the increasingly popular pursuit of 14,000-foot peaks. There is no common characteristic among this summer’s deaths. There was a wide range of ages in the victims, from 18 to 63. Of the 10 killed, four were from out of state and most were experienced mountaineers. Eight fell to their death, and two were struck by falling rock on El Diente Peak near Rico. But each of the fatal accidents did occur on more difficult ascents, not the popular peaks like Quandary, Bierstadt, or Grays and Torreys, which are considered the state’s less challenging peaks.
No official tally is kept of hiker and climber deaths in Colorado’s mountains. And because climbers aren’t required to register before beginning an ascent, it’s impossible to accurately count the number of hikers on the state’s 54 fourteeners. One volunteer group, using informal surveys, estimates the annual number of hikers ascending one of Colorado’s fourteeners around half a million.
This year’s 10 deaths are considered by many a tragic record, but without official tracking it is impossible to make a firm conclusion. But the 2010 record could fuel efforts to impose fees or registration for the state’s heavily trafficked summits.
Rocky Mountain National Park’s Longs Peak hosts as many as 400 hikers a day on the well-worn Keyhole Route during busy summer weekends. The last formal tally in 2002 logged 9,698 hikers and climbers reaching the summit of the 14,259-foot peak. This year, three men fell to their death while climbing Longs.
The deaths and the issue of hiker traffic on the difficult routes up Longs Peak have long spurred talk of potential registration or even fees, not unlike heavily traveled routes in other national parks. But no fees will be imposed in the near term, so park rangers are focusing on education. The clear message is that an ascent up Longs’ most popular Keyhole Route is not a hike. It’s a climb. Even though a climb up Longs typically doesn’t require ropes, it does have high-risk maneuvers and difficult scrambling. For next season, park officials are considering a sign at the base of the Keyhole, where the trail turns to a near-vertical scramble.
A proposed fee program is under consideration for South Colony Basin, a launching point for four fourteeners in southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo range. Such a program would not be the first in the nation. Last month, federal administrators at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington and Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve announced plans to raise climber fees by 150 percent to help offset increased costs related to each park’s climbing program. The new fees — $500 for Denali climbers and $50 at Rainier — drew criticism from climbing enthusiasts.
Summit fever, or the irrational determination to make the top of a peak can cloud good judgment, and the resulting poor judgment results in many mountaineering accidents. Since Colorado’s fourteeners are becoming more popular, inexperienced climbers see the challenge as a simple hike. The perception is reinforced by the traditional lack of rope- work needed for ascending most fourteeners in the state.
And many veteran climbers view technology as contributing to reckless conduct. Today’s well-equipped hikers, with warm, dry gear and the latest technological gadgets, can be lured into thinking they are safe in terrain where experience and smart decision-making are the best tools.