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Nine people died on Capitol Peak between 2000 and 2017.
Nine people died on Capitol Peak between 2000 and 2017.

What You Don't Know About Climbing Colorado Fourteeners

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:

Summit Fever

According to Athearn, summit fever is caused by the understandable excitement climbers and hikers feel as they near the top of a fourteener. But what people often overlook is "how to come back down something you've just come up. As you're climbing, you might forget, 'At this point on the ridge, I took a left,' or 'I went up the second of five couloirs, so I need to make sure I'm coming back down and turning at the same location.'"

The solution is simple, Athearn stresses: "Often when people are going up a fourteener, they need to think, 'Let me stop and turn around and see what this looks like when I'm coming down.' Because people can get off-route and get disoriented. And that can lead to problems."

Changing Demographics

The sort of folks who need help getting off Colorado fourteeners has changed.

"In the past, the person who typically needed a rescue was someone in their fifties and fairly experienced," Athearn divulges. "They were going out by themselves and ran into some kind of an incident."

Today, however, those who need saving tend to be much younger and may see climbing a fourteener — or all fifty-plus peaks in excess of 14,000 feet in Colorado — as a bucket-list item.

"They're usually in their twenties or thirties," Athearn says. "They're new to Colorado or visiting, and they don't have much mountain experience, and not much gear. So that's changed what rescue groups do and how they do it."

The Most Surprising People to Need Help

Altitude sickness is no joke. Symptoms of its mildest form include dizziness, headache, muscle aches and nausea. But it can also lead to high-altitude pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid in the lungs, or high-altitude cerebral edema, which pertains to fluid in the brain. Both of the latter maladies can be life-threatening.

Longtime Coloradans tend to handle the high altitude better than newcomers, since their bodies have had a chance to adapt over time. But Athearn explains that "one of the big misunderstandings about altitude illness is that it somehow ties into fitness level. And, in fact, some of the people who are most at risk of coming down with altitude sickness are in great shape — say, a super-fit marathon runner who's coming from sea level."

Why? "They're aerobically fit," he acknowledges, "but that doesn't mean their body has been conditioned to the lack of effective oxygen. And due to the low atmospheric pressure, they can actually get into more serious problems, because they can ascend so quickly. They're able to climb fast, but when they do, they can outpace their body's ability at a cellular level to deal with a lack of effective oxygen."

This video spells out this little-known fact and more:

Self-Rescues

Some of those who call for help can be assisted from a distance.

In Athearn's words, "Technology has really changed rescues. Today, people can buy personal locator beacons and things like that. But they'll also have a cell phone, and if they're lucky, they can get a signal and reach someone directly. And that can be a big advantage. If someone is lost, we might be able to talk them back to the trail, where we didn't used to be able to do that. And when we can do that, it's better for everyone."

The Danger of Waiting Too Long to Call

In the beginning, Initiative staffers wondered if high-tech communications equipment would increase the number of calls for help. That hasn't proven to be the case, Athearn confirms. "We thought, are we going to have people hitting the panic button more often — saying, 'I have a blister. Come and get me'? But instead, some people actually put off asking for help longer than they should."

One reason involves cost, he continues. "If they get injured or lost, sometimes people are afraid that a rescue team's going to charge for coming to get them. So they wait for hours to call, until they're in a much worse situation. Suddenly it's not a bright, sunny morning anymore. It's the afternoon, and lightning is striking all around everyone when they say, 'I'm hurt. Now can you come?' But by then, it can be fairly problematic. If things are really bad and you know you can't get out on your own, it's better to call sooner than later."

The Most Infuriating Reason for a Rescue Delay

"Technology often means we can know of an incident earlier," Athearn maintains. "Instead of someone's partner having to run down the mountain and get to a phone, we can get a call from the site of the accident."

But Athearn admits that "the flip side is, if it's on a weekend, like a Saturday in July or August, it might take the rescue team three hours to navigate a gridlocked I-70 to get someone, which is another issue we didn't used to have on the Front Range."

That should give you a new perspective on mountain traffic....

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