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'Unprecedented' number of deaths on Colorado Fourteeners - KOAA.com | Continuous News | Colorado Springs and Pueblo

'Unprecedented' number of deaths on Colorado Fourteeners

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Capitol Peak in Pitkin County, Colorado Capitol Peak in Pitkin County, Colorado
Ryan Marcil, 26, and Carlin Brightwell, 27 Ryan Marcil, 26, and Carlin Brightwell, 27
Jeremy Shull, 35 Jeremy Shull, 35

As the rocks crunch and crumble under each step taken by Colorado Springs resident Daniel Sternthal as he approached the summit of Capitol Peak, the sense of accomplishment grew as the danger loomed close behind.

Sternthal, an accomplished mountaineer, is prepared for the challenges the mountain holds and he’s well aware a successful summit and descent will take every ounce of concentration he can gather.

“There are definitely areas that you could fall thousands of feet if you make a wrong move or if your hands slip and you're making a crossing,” said Sternthal. “I carry backup GPS, jacket, space blanket, water, food, if I needed to camp right then and there I'd be able to."

Ranked by 14’ers.com as the most difficult Class 4 peak in Colorado, but mountaineers like Sandi Yukman, who’ve climbed all 58 fourtneeners state-wide said Capitol Peak is as technical as it is majestic.

"Obviously the more prepared you are the better, the better chances you have of not getting hurt, but there are so many unknowns when you get up there, the weather, the rock conditions, the other people on the mountain kicking down rocks, there's just so many things to think about,” said Yukman. “Summit fever is absolutely real, I've had it many times, it's very hard to turn around when you're that close to the top if there's weather you're thinking I can just run up there and run down, but that weather moves in very, very quickly and when that weather moves in you don't have a chance, there's nowhere to hide up there."

Capitol Peak and many of the Class 4 mountains in Colorado are about more than conditioning and preparedness though said Yukman.

Route finding skills are critical too she said.

“K2 was a little rough, you can go up and over it, you can go around it, you have to decide what you're comfortable with, my partner wanted to go around it, started to, realized we weren't going to make it that way, so we went the long way around K2, you just have to be able to make those call,” said Yukman. “We had no trouble on K2, nor the knife edge, we did not get up on top of knife edge, there was a little ridge there that you can hold onto the knife edge and just make your way around it, so we didn't climb up on top of it like a lot of people do in the pictures, we just skirted it while holding onto the top of it."

This 2017 season in the mountains has been unusually deadly in Colorado’s high country according to Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo.

There have been 11 deaths on Colorado fourtneeners, including five on Capitol Peak with other deaths coming on Maroon Bells, Challenger Point, Mount Princeton and Longs Peak.

“We are used to deaths on those mountains, on both Capitol and Maroon, we are used to that, but in the last three to four years, we've had 18 deaths on that mountain or those two peaks and if that was any other public safety issue whether it be a ski area, a river or a highway, I think we would take drastic action to make some changes,” said DiSalvo. “I think there are incredible fourtneeners throughout Colorado, Mount Elbert, the Collegiate range, Mount Castle which is not far from Capitol peak and you could do those 14,000 foot climbs and they're pretty easy compared to these technical climbs.”

Many of those deaths DiSalvo and others blame on inexperience.

“So we are seeing an unusual amount of deaths on these peaks and I only have my personal knowledge of why I think it is, I think we're seeing more inexperienced, unprepared climbers trying to make this ascent that is not a hike, this is a technical climb at times and I think it's not something for a first timer who's never done a fourtneener,” said DiSalvo.

Even for the most prepared climbers, these mountains will always throw you a curve ball that you must be expecting said Yukman.

“I think about how much I pushed myself to get to the top of some of them and I think about how lucky I am to come down, because as they say, summiting is optional, getting down is not, so we were lucky." said Yukman. "Obviously the more prepared you are the better, the better chances you have of not getting hurt, but there are so many unknowns when you get up there, the weather, the rock conditions, the other people on the mountain kicking down rocks, there's just so many things to think about."

Daniel Sternthal is a Colorado Springs area resident and was on Capitol Peak the day 35-year-old Jeremy Shull was reported missing and consequently found dead at the bottom of a cliff band below the famed Knife Edge section of the mountain.

Sternthal told News 5, Shull and his hiking partner didn’t appear prepared.

“They were the only people I saw all day that didn't have a helmet on, they didn't have packs or anything, any kind of jackets, just shorts and t-shirts and shoes that were falling off their feet,” said Sternthal. “I saw just one of the hikers coming back down and I mention to him 'wasn't there two of you?' and he said they decided to take a separate path."

The rescues and recoveries on mountains such as Capitol Peak are also putting an increased stress on the members of Mountain Rescue Aspen.

“It takes an unbelievable toll on everybody, whether you're a volunteer or a paid police officer, firefighter, it takes a toll on everybody and I think it's even worse for mountain rescue members because they live on these peaks and I think they see how it can be navigated safely and they see these errors that are made for what seems to be no reason other than inexperience, I think that really bothers them,” said DiSalvo. “It's a dangerous sport, every professional mountaineer knows it and you've got to do as much as you can to mitigate the risk."

The National Guard has helped Mountain Rescue Aspen in several situations to airlift hikers off of the mountain and get them to safety.

“It's heartbreaking to see people make some of the mistakes that they do and get off the standard route,” said Jeff Edelson, spokesperson for Mountain Rescue Aspen. “If there was a better, a faster, a safer more efficient way of summiting or descending our peaks, that would be considered the standard route, and right now what we're finding is some folks are getting off route, thinking that they can short cut the way back down to the lake, back down to the trail head and they're running into problems.”

The tough season is prompting DiSalvo and others to start discussions of a nation-wide awareness campaign to alert visitors to Colorado that these mountains, while great for recreation, aren’t to be taken lightly.

“Closing the area is not an option we want to see, it's not something I support and it's just not something I'd like to see, however, can we get as much information out there on the front end for people before they go on this ascent,” said DiSalvo. “I'm talking about a national ad campaign or national information that says 'This is dangerous, last year we lost five people on this mountain, they were not prepared, if you don't have the following items, stay here, if you haven't climbed a 14'er before, stay here, I think it's up to us to bombard people with information and between the county, BLM and the forest service, I think we have a lot of horse power."

“We're trying to educate the visitors and the locals alike what the dangers are in the Elk Mountain range and what people should expect because the Elk Mountain range is drastically different from a lot of the other 14'ers around the state,” said Edelson.

Something mountaineers like Yukman have dealt with first hand and still remember vividly to this day.

“Do your homework and be prepared and make sure you're prepared to spend a night on the mountain, because you might,” said Yukman.

A campaign is likely to roll out ahead of the summer of 2018, where the full emphasis will be on reducing tragedies in Colorado’s high country.

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