Shortly after the publication of our August 8 post identifying the fourteeners in the Elk Mountains near Aspen as Colorado's most dangerous, authorities announced the death of 57-year-old Rei Hwa Lee on North Maroon Peak, one of the aforementioned sites. Lee is the third person to die on an Elk Mountains fourteener in 22 days, and the second fatality in the Maroon Bells area since late May.
The first Maroon Bells casualty of the season was Jeff Bushroe, a Fort Carson soldier whose body was found by a hiker on May 27. The official cause of death was hypothermia, to which Bushroe succumbed after a fall from the Grand Couloir in the Maroon Bells.
Then, on July 15, Parker's Jake Lord suffered a fatal fall from Capitol Peak, another Elk Mountains fourteener. And on August 6, a 35-year-old Front Range man (update) identified as Jeremy Shull, also of Parker, died while climbing the Knife's Edge portion of Capitol Peak.
The latest tragedy is detailed by the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, which confirms that Rei Hwa Lee, 57, fell to her death on the north face of North Maroon Peak on August 5.
Lee's children told PCSO representatives that Lee arrived at the Maroon Bells parking area at around 5 a.m. on the 5th. That evening, her family contacted authorities because Lee was overdue. The following Monday, August 7, members of Mountain Rescue Aspen, an all-volunteer squad, assisted by Summit County Flight for Life and Eco Flight, began combing the area, and after tips posted on 14ers.com, the website maintained by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, they focused their efforts on North Maroon Peak.
Finally, on Tuesday the 8th, four Mountain Rescue Aspen teams, assisted by a HAATS (High Altitude Aviation Training Site) helicopter, spotted Lee's body on the north face. The altitude of her location was approximately 12,600 feet. Officials aren't sure at this point where she fell from or whether she successfully summited the mountain before doing so.
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Given these incidents, the comments shared with us by Colorado Fourteeners Initiative executive director Lloyd Athearn for yesterday's post are even more impactful. "Every mountain needs to be approached with caution," he said. "But the Elk Mountains are the most notoriously loose and dangerous of all the fourteeners in Colorado. Any of the mountains in the Elk range are significant undertakings: Capitol Peak, Pyramid, Snowmass, and the Maroon Bells in particular. Almost every year, we have a fatality on the Bells."
He added, "I did a research effort on behalf of a donor who was interested in these mountains in particular, and I was quite sobered by the number of accidents and the number of fatalities in the Elk Mountains, especially given that very few people climb those mountains."
The numbers bear out this last observation. Athearn spoke to our Chris Walker last year in regard to a CFI report that attempted to estimate the number of people who hiked fourteeners in Colorado circa 2015, coming up with a total of approximately 260,000. That year, the Sawatch Range fourteeners were the busiest, with 95,000 hikes, followed by the Front Range, with around 72,000 hikes at its fourteeners — and even the Mosquito Range fourteeners notched 33,000 or so hikes. In contrast, only about 7,000 people tackled the Elk Mountains fourteeners, with the most visited of them being Castle Peak, at 3,000 to 5,000 hikers. The others in the range — Maroon Peak, Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Pyramid Peak — all registered fewer than 1,000 hikes.
Nonetheless, Athearn noted, "When I was going through news reports and reports from sheriff's offices and search-and-rescue groups, those were the mountains most likely to have wrong-place-wrong-time handhold breaks, climbers hit by a rock, and those types of accidents. And they're the kind that are the hardest to mitigate against."