After nine deaths in the Elk Mountain backcountry last summer, Mountain Rescue Aspen wanted change. The organization has teamed up with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s office and the U.S. Forest Service on a new campaign aimed at helping prepare people for backcountry adventures.
Calls to 911 kick off many backcountry rescue missions, where local volunteers head into the mountains to help those in need. And last summer, those volunteers say, there were far too many of them: 74 rescue missions, and nine body recoveries in the Elk Range. Those involved in the rescues agree — it was tough.
"It felt like on a weekly basis, we were getting another tragic report of another fatality,” said Karen Schroyer, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.
Mountain Rescue Aspen is teaming up with the Forest Service and the sheriff’s office, hoping to prevent another year like this. They have put together a “peak awareness” series to introduce mountaineering skills for those interested in climbing challenging peaks.
“These are not casual day hikes. These are technical ascents," said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. "I'm not afraid to say that this will kill you. When you get up there and you realize you’re in over your head, this can kill you.”
These mountains have long attracted visitors from across the state and the country, but officials say current trends are concerning.
"There are just so many folks that are coming to the Elk Mountain range that aren't as prepared as they need to be," Schroyer said.
Justin Hood is president of Mountain Rescue Aspen. The volunteer group has worked with local mountain guides to put together a course to help people prepare for backcountry adventures.
It will be offered eight times: six evenings on the Front Range and twice in the Roaring Fork Valley. The presentation covers things like what to bring for a day in the high peaks, what’s known as the "10 Essentials." These are the supplies that all climbers should carry, like navigation tools and a first aid kit, that can help you improvise if something goes wrong. They’ll also look at case studies and talk about best practices. Hood said the idea is to be sure that people are headed into the mountains armed with knowledge.
"You don't know what's coming, but you're able to make your own informative decisions based upon how you set yourself up for success," he said.
There will also be eight, day-long field courses, complete with skills clinics, taught throughout the summer. These will be subsidized by the three organizations and will focus on technical skills and navigation for those looking to climb challenging 14ers. Mountain Rescue will also offer a summer workshop that covers more general backcountry skills.
All of this is intended to catch and educate people before they get to the trailhead, and the focus is certainly on safety. But district ranger Schroyer said it’s also about protecting the forest from heavy impacts. People who are less prepared tend to do more damage, she said, and rescues can be tough on these areas.
"To see the number of helicopter rescues that need to be made in congressionally designated wilderness is tough to watch,” Schroyer said.
The education effort comes after months of discussions about how to prevent future tragedies. In the wake of 5 deaths on Capitol Peak, some concerned citizens suggested adding signs to mark the route, but Schroyer said this is not going to happen next summer. Instead the focus is on building skills.
"What works better than signs that could possibly come down or possibly be moved is a good sense of how to use a map and a compass," Schroyer said.
Hood agreed that a strong skill base is essential, and that ultimately, safety in the high peaks is about decision making in challenging terrain.
"You have to make appropriate choices for you, and be willing to turn around at any point if it’s not working out right,” Hood said.
The courses and clinics offered this summer are, in part, aimed at beginners, but Hood also hopes that this series will bring together people with a wide range of experiences.
“Nobody’s invincible here,” he said.
But he hopes the courses offer a proactive way to save more lives, well before the 911 calls.