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.

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


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) 


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.


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.


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).


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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