Friday, January 26, 2018

UPDATED: Stats and Analysis of 14er Deaths This Decade (2010-2017)

The blossoming popularity of hiking and climbing on Colorado's 14ers has also brought an increase in accidents on these peaks. This article is an attempt to analyze the statistics from these terrible incidents and (hopefully) discover some useful conclusions to prevent such tragedies from occurring again in the future.

The Elk Range, statistically one of the most dangerous
ranges in the state
While every effort has been made to ensure that the data is complete, it is quite possible that some or several accidents have been overlooked. Every year there are accidents that go unreported and sifting through the barrage of information on the internet is not easy, especially regarding events that may have occurred several years ago. Still, this information can prove a useful tool in keeping all of who venture into the highest places of  this amazing state safe.

UPDATED
This article was originally published 1/3/17 but has been updated to include data from the tragic 2017 season.

STATS AT A GLANCE

Total deaths on Colorado 14ers (2010-2017): 57
Deaths by mountain: Longs Peak (9), Maroon Bells (9), Capitol (7), Crestone Needle (5), Crestone Peak (3), Kit Carson (3),  Snowmass Mountain (2), El Diente (2), Harvard (2), Evans (2), Missouri (2), Torreys (2), Princeton (2), Quandary (1), Windom (1), Antero (1),  Little Bear (1), Yale (1), Blanca (1), Challenger Point (1)
Deaths by gender: M (50), F (7)
Deaths by age range: >20 (2), 20-29 (16), 30-39 (16), 40-49 (6), 50-59 (13), 60 or over (5)
14er deaths by mountain range: Elk Range (18), Sangre De Cristo (14), Front Range (13),   Sawatch Range (8), San Juan Range (3), Tenmile-Mosquito Range (1)
Deaths by Cause: fall (38), falling rocks (5), avalanche (3), heart attack (2), lightning (1), unclear (8)
Deaths by Year: 2010 (10), 2011 (10), 2012 (6), 2013 (5), 2014 (6), 2015 (4), 2016 (5), 2017 (11)


(Note: I have combined the Maroon Bells in the above list due to the number of accidents that occurred on the traverse between them making it hard to attribute these deaths to one or the other of these peaks) 


ANALYSIS/CONCLUSIONS

There are a few glaring details from the above statistics that are immediately apparent. For one, more than half of these deaths (33) occurred on only six mountains (Longs Peak, the Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak, and the Crestones). While none of these should really come as a surprise, it is interesting to see just how concentrated this list is. Longs Peak attracts a high number of accidents (almost all of which occurred on the standard Keyhole Route) because it's steep and exposed from every approach. On the Crestones, it is noteworthy that half of the eight deaths between the two of them occurred on Crestone Needle's Ellingwood Arete, a technical (5.7) multipitch climb, and only three fatal accidents have occurred on their standard routes. Per capita, the Deadly Bells lead for the dubious prize so far this decade as the most dangerous 14ers by their easiest lines. It doesn't take a Nobel Prize winner to understand why: these stunning peaks maybe be beautiful but their rock is far from it.

In 2017 Capitol Peak gained notoriety when five people died on its slopes. Three of these five victims died as a result of selecting the incorrect descent route. The so-dubbed "Death Gully" has lured people in the past due to its innocuous appearance from above and people's fear of crossing the Knife Edge on the return journey. It is imperative for aspiring climbers of Capitol Peak to understand THERE IS NO EASIER WAY to climb this mountain than the standard route. If there was an easier route, that would be the standard route! 

Another glaring and thought-provoking statistic is the ratio of males to females that have died on Colorado 14ers. A staggering 88% of the 14er fatalities this decade were males. From an analytical standpoint it is hard to say whether this reflects the numbers of males attempting 14ers over the numbers of females or some other factor (i.e. male tendency towards risk-taking, etc.)

It is also quite clear that the 14ers of the Sangre De Cristo and Elk Ranges are the deadliest. While the Front Range is tied with the Sangres for most fatal accidents total, this stat is skewed by the sheer number of attempts, as the Front Range 14ers (particularly Longs) are some of the state's most popular.

Analyzing the cause of death was somewhat challenging. Some of the information listed multiple causes, i.e. a falling rock strikes a climber causing them to lose their grip and fall. This sort of accident makes it difficult to categorize the accident. With other accidents vague reporting (often by reporters who have little or no mountaineering experience) made determining the actual cause of death very difficult. One thing is clear, however, is that the majority of 14er deaths involved a fatal fall on a mountain. The cause of these falls, however, is vitally important and sometimes difficult to say. My guess is that most occur due to breaking hand or footholds. The other leading causes of accidents are rockfalls/landslides and avalanches.

SOME SURPRISES

Capitol Peak a 14er in Colorado's deadly Elk Range
Capitol Peak has been site of seven fatal accidents
so far this decade, including five in 2017 alone
What can also be useful from a data set like this is considering not just what is there but what is not. For example, neither Sunlight Peak, Wilson Peak, nor Pyramid Peak appear on this list. These three mountains are oft-touted as some of the hardest/most dangerous in the state yet nobody has died on any of them so far this decade. Also, there was only one death on Little Bear, another peak that is often regarded as the most dangerous of all the 14ers. In all these instances, however, these low numbers could be the product of much fewer numbers of attempts.

The San Juans. A beautiful range with a large number of rugged 14ers notorious for crumbly rock, yet we only see three deaths from this range. This again, could partially be a product of their distance from the populous cities of the Front Range, and therefore enjoy a proportionally smaller number of attempts. Or maybe the San Juans are not as fierce or chossy as their reputation makes out.

HOW TO AVOID AN ACCIDENT

Statistically speaking, there are a couple of easy things you can do to virtually eliminate your odds of ending up on a list like this in the future:

1) If your main goal in Colorado mountaineering is simply not to die, then do NOT climb the Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak, Longs Peak, or the Crestones. Again, over half of the fatal accidents this decade have occurred on these six peaks. Of course, many people simply cannot put their backs to the siren call of these dangerous peaks. For those, perhaps extra care should be taken to exercise the greatest possible caution: climb in good weather, wear a helmet, start early, avoid crowds, and tread lightly!

2) Be a woman. Apparently simply being a woman slices your chances of dying on a 14er considerably. However, I have not been able to find reliable stats on the ratio of female to male climbers attempting 14ers, or even better, starting out on individual peaks, so it is hard to know a woman's odds of dying are actually slimmer or if the difference is merely proportional.

3) Avoid falling. Of course this is always the goal, but most of the fatal accidents on 14ers involved the victim falling. From my experience reading about these accidents, breaking/crumbling hand or footholds is almost always the cause of falling related accidents. Maintain three points of contact on the difficult sections of steep mountains at all times, carefully test hold before weighting them, and rope up if it is safe and practical (which, unfortunately, is often not possible on the loose rock of some of Colorado's most dangerous mountains).

FINAL THOUGHTS

Though many of us like to say we "live" for the mountains, probably none of us wants to die there before our time. We accept a certain degree of risk knowing risk is the only path to reward. These 46 deaths are all tragic. The widespread consequences of losing even one life can ripple out and touch so many. But compared to the tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of people that attempted Colorado's 14ers this decade, 45 deaths is a very small percentage. We all venture to these high places knowing what risks we take and the potential consequences of our actions. We are willing to accept these calculated risks because it is only in the mountains that we truly feel alive.

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tempting Fate on McGregor Mountain in RMNP

Five-hundred feet up a slick rock face with a storm moving in and I was about to die….

McGregor Mountain looms of the Fall River entrance
of Rocky Mountain National Park
At least that’s how it seemed as I clung desperately to the blank slab of granite, legs gyrating in fear, with crackles of thunder drawing closer. I’d forgotten how fast blue skies could turn to slate-gray in Rocky Mountain National Park in July above treeline. But frightening as it was being exposed to lightning, the impending storm was the last thing on my mind. I needed focus. Somewhere on the supposedly easy three-pitch 5.5 rock climb on McGregor Mountain, my wife, Ella, and I had gotten lost. Off-route and fifty feet above the last marginal piece of protection that might arrest a potential fall, I was stuck.

Best case scenario a drop now would entail one-hundred feet of sliding, scraping and tumbling down the mountain. With plenty of ledges and sporadic trees to smash into, the consequences of such a fall were too terrible to imagination. The less I tried to think about them, however, the more readily the images come to mind: broken limbs, snapped vertebrae. I doubt even my helmet would do much good.

Above, the rock steepened. The terrain was closer to 5.9 than 5.5 and slippery with the loam of disuse. Great cracks where I could install gear to catch a fall were tantalizingly close on both sides, but getting to them looked nearly impossible. How could this have happened? The whole situation, the very real possibility of disaster on what should have been a fun, mild afternoon outing, was starting to seem surreal, like one of those bad dreams from which you shake yourself awake and laugh. 

Panic nearly choked me. With Ella somewhere out of sight far below me and well beyond earshot, I was quite alone. How much longer could my quaking legs hold on before they shook me off the rock and sent me caroming down to face my doom? Climbing any direction was dangerous, but I could only hold on for so long. That one-hundred-foot tumbling whipper was drawing closer. 

An ill-timed crack of thunder, the closest yet, echoed off the tall, rugged peaks. The storm would soon be upon us.

*
In 2012 the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, an organization of all-volunteer responders who specialize in rescues on mountainous terrain in Boulder County, published a report with analysis of all incidents in Boulder County involving rock climbing and hiking over a 14-year period. Although RMRG does not cover Rocky Mountain National Park, the group services nearby Boulder Canon, Eldorado Canyon and the Flatirons, some of the most popular climbing areas in the state. This large sample size provides a unique cross section of climbing-related injuries and fatalities.

Although the potential of falling while lead climbing is a predominant fear in the mind of most rock climbers, as it turns out it is not nearly the most common cause of injury or death. While RMRG was called to assist 428 rock climbing accidents in this period, only 5 were fatal incidents involving roped lead climbing. A much higher ratio (12%) were involved in belayer-error incidents and an even higher number (as much as 45%) involved rappelling and/or getting lost on the descent. 

Although the inglorious “whipper,” as a roped lead fall is often called, tends to dominate the Youtube videos and rock climbing tales of woe, it seems the things often taken for granted (i.e. your belay partner or your ability to get safely off the mountain) more often than not prove to be more treacherous. Knowing the relative safety of lead climbing, however, does little to calm quaking nerves when faced with the possibility of a dangerous fall on a difficult rock climb.

*
Time was up. I could delay no longer. Action had to be taken before I simply peeled off the mountain in exhaustion. 

Belaying Ella up the first ptich
I was tempted again by the safe crack system some twenty feet to my left. Getting there, however, involved crossing a strip of impossibly blank rock, no hand or foot holds in sight. A ridiculous part of my mind considered just lunging for it. Going right looked steeper and even more dangerous. Downclimbing was an option, but leading with your feet was always considerably more difficult than with your hands, so I quickly ruled it out.

The only real choice that remained was to go up. Although every bit I climbed would increase the length and danger of a fall, it seemed that in order to find safety I would have to swim through the belly of the beast.

The smooth shield of granite above was broken only by a thin seam. Though it was not deep enough to sink in spring-loaded cams capable of catching a fall, it provided just enough texture for my fingers and toes to scale upward. I pulled higher and higher, increasing the fall potential with every move. I climbed ten feet. Twenty feet. I was so far above my protection now it was almost comical. My life depended on the grip of my fingers, and the friction between my rubber shoes on the slick granite. The slightest slip or broken rock and my worst nightmare would rush upward to meet me. Would it hurt to take a fall like that? Or would it happen so fast the lights would simply go out in a blink?

I was eighty feet above my last cam. Then one-hundred. It had to end eventually. This rock couldn’t go on forever.

Then abruptly, almost magically, a crack appeared in front of my eyes. I was so focused I nearly climbed past it. Shocked I had made it, I plugged in a cam and clipped in my rope with disbelief. I was safe. I installed a second cam just to be sure. The earthquake in my legs slowed. I wasn’t going to die today.

Not long after, the angle of the wall flattened and I found myself standing on the top. The storm I had thought was building had swung far to the north. I constructed an anchor and began to belay Ella up to join me. 

Already my fear from just a few minutes before was beginning to fade. Surely, I had not been in nearly as much danger as I’d thought. Here I was, not injured or lost or stranded. In every sense of the word the climb was a complete success. I stood atop a mountain with a sea of beautiful ridges and notched spines all around. Blue sky broke through the clouds.

It was a perfect day.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Our Backyard, a regional publication focused on outdoor stories of intrigue and woe
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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hayden Kennedy: A Celebration of Accomplishments

by Brian Wright

Colorado Mountaineering was sickened to learn yesterday about the deaths of Hayden Kennedy and his partner/girlfriend Inge Perkins. 

Screenshot from an interview where Kennedy describes his
decision to chop bolts off the Compressor Route on
Cerro Torre in Patagoina
Hayden Kennedy was a living legend in my mind, and a climber I looked up to as someone I could only dream of emulating. I first met him when he was still a young teenager learning how to whitewater kayak. I was an instructor at the local whitewater paddling shop at the time, and remember being impressed by Hayden and his entire family. I never got to know Hayden very well. In fact, he probably wouldn't have remembered my name if I saw him on the street. But I remembered him and I always felt a bit in awe of his understated skills and humility.

I was very touched by a poignant article he wrote for eveningsends.com just a few weeks ago. I read it last night after hearing the news of this terrible sequence of events. Some of his incredibly well-written words are even more moving in retrospect, knowing what was looming unknown in his near future. His article can be read here.

The details of this tragedy have been reported on by numerous news outlets. One informative article can be found on Climbing Magazine's website. The purpose of this post, however, is to celebrate some of Kennedy's accomplishments and share a few videos that highlight his tremendous success and skill as a mountaineer and a person.

Kennedy and Kyle Dempster discussing their climb on the South Face of the Ogre in Pakistan for which they won the Piolets d'Or, the most prestigious award in climbing. (Note: Dempster also died in a climbing accident in 2016 on a remote mountain in China)



Hayden dropping some cliffs during a telemark extreme skiing championship


Hayden discusses his decision to cut bolts of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia


I was not able to find a video of Hayden making the first ascent of Carbondale Shortbus in Indian Creek. The old video I had linked in several posts has since been taken down. I have however linked a video of Nick Martino working this route, so you can get an idea of the challenge and skill this project required.


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