A fatality reminds one hiking party of the dangers of the mountain
At the summit of my first 14er (climber-nerd slang for a mountain peaking at more than 14,000 feet above sea level), I was elated. Looking down from the level, rocky top of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the 54 mountains to reach such heights in Colorado, my blistered feet and growling stomach did nothing to damper my mood—a mood that had turned sour at the expanse of boulders awaiting me after a three-hour approach, and then to despair when the ice sheets on our last push almost turned us around. But there I was, mission accomplished, peanut butter sandwich in hand, jumping for the camera. How quickly a mood can change.
Like when, just as we were beginning our descent, a crew of rescue climbers scuttled past us and I felt my heart sink (funny how I never knew what that expression meant until just then). “Hey, does anyone in your group have a stove?” one climber asks, his feet wedged between a rock to keep his body in place as he guides the rest of his crew over the treacherous ice. “Someone fell 150 feet; they’re in bad shape.”
One hundred and fifty feet anywhere is a long way to go, but out here, 150 feet is usually fatal. And as we’d learn later from a ranger turning people away from the Key Hole on the descent of our route, 150 feet proved to be just that. My group summited Long’s Peak at 8:32 a.m. on August 15, the same day a 20-year-old man fell from the Narrows on the Keyhole Route, the same route we’d passed just moments earlier.
We saw the young man shaking under an emergency blanket as we made our way past the point where he’d slipped; he was too far down the mountain to see in any detail. I remember lots of ice, and my boyfriend watching my every move with hushed trepidation. (“No, that one isn’t good. I need to see you that you have a more solid hold.”) I remember passing a young man with bloodshot eyes. I remember the hikers who told me they’d heard the sickening sound of a jacket scrapping against rock—they’d been just feet ahead of the man when he slipped—and a young woman crying with unbridled devastation at the trailhead. But oddly enough, what I remember most is how it was a pristine day on the trail—no evidence but the hum of a distant helicopter to trigger concern.
We were some of only a handful of people to summit Long’s that day, but I’m still not sure we made the right call. Long’s Peak is well traveled and well marked, but that day was a harrowing reminder of the real danger of such a trek. And while I’m confident in saying we were well-prepared in our clothing, gear, food and water supply, and safety equipment, I think even we underestimated the danger of Long’s. And we most certainly weren’t alone—most of the people approaching the last push of the climb were outfitted with Capri leggings, gym shorts, plastic water bottles, cotton sweatshirts, and gym sneakers. They’d only hear later, maybe on the local news, why there weren’t permitted to pass the ranger waiting for them just a few feet ahead.
The recovery of the man’s body was postponed due to high winds, and the following day, the helicopter was redirected to save another climber’s life (thankfully, he survived). A month later, two Maine women were left stranded on the mountain when snowy, icy conditions trapped them on the south ridge—they were also rescued. The death toll on the mountain has reached 60, some from heart attacks, some from lightening strikes, and some from falls.
My first 14er took an emotional and physical toll on my hiking party. It was the first time most of us had been forced to examine our own mortality on a climb, a reminder of the real danger that somehow gets overshadowed by hi-tec hiking boots and Instagram souvenirs. We all walked away with a new found respect and reverence for nature and our place in it. Because one does not “conquer” a mountain—he’s lucky to get off of it alive.
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