What You Don't Know About Climbing Colorado Fourteeners

Nine people died on Capitol Peak between 2000 and 2017.
Nine people died on Capitol Peak between 2000 and 2017. YouTube
Since the July 19 publication of our post about the riskiest fourteeners in Colorado, more tragic news related to scaling these magnificent features has surfaced. The body of missing Air Force officer Dan Wallick was found in the vicinity of Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point on July 28, a short time before an autopsy report revealed that Ryan Albert, a thirty-year-old from New Jersey whose remains were recovered in May after he vanished on Longs Peak last October, likely died from a combination of blunt-force trauma and hypothermia.

Preventing such incidents is among the main goals of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, which has produced a series of more than sixty videos available on its YouTube channel that offer safety advice and reveal best practices developed by experts who've repeatedly tackled the most challenging terrain the state has to offer.

Initiative executive director Lloyd Athearn is a one-man repository for such information, and in a recent conversation with Westword to supplement the clips (two of which are on view here), he shares details about how hikers can get in trouble on fourteeners and what they can do to overcome it — and live to tell the tale.

Here's Athearn's list of fourteener secrets, pro tips and more.

No Shortcuts on Fourteeners

For the video on this subject, Athearn says, "We went out with some people who are very familiar with the mountains, and they talked about how if you're cutting the trail, you're going to be causing environmental damage even if you're on a well-developed trail" — the kind generally found on fourteeners rated Class 1 (they're characterized by easy hiking conditions) or Class 2 (more moderate peaks that may require some off-trail climbing).

Regarding Class 3 and 4 fourteeners, which are considerably more difficult and demand skills such as scrambling and the use of handholds, footholds and even ropes in some areas, Athearn points out that "if you start looking for shortcuts, you're potentially putting your life in jeopardy. As some of the folks we spoke with told us, people have been climbing these peaks for decades, and they've already found the shortcuts — which are the routes. So if you're thinking that somehow you, on your first time on this mountain, are going to find something that longtime, experienced mountaineers haven't found, you're not thinking clearly."

That's particularly true of Capitol Peak, a Class 4 mountain that was the site of nine deaths between 2000 and 2017. A recent Initiative video about Capitol stressed that "people who have problems are often the ones who think there's a shortcut after the Knife's Edge route. A guide who's climbed the mountain thirty or forty times said that the Knife's Edge has some of the best rock and some of the easier route-finding on the peak. But in her view, going over K2 and the area after the Knife's Edge and the summit are some of the most dangerous, difficult and hard-to-navigate sections of the peak."

Here's the no-shortcuts video:

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts