Aspen starts peak safety program after rash of deaths |

Aspen starts peak safety program after rash of deaths

ASPEN — The seven deaths and scores of search and rescue missions on the high peaks around Aspen last summer left a significant impression on local officials who had to deal with the tragedies.

Those officials — from Mountain Rescue Aspen, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Forest Service — resolved to do something about it this year.

And so, in conjunction with two local guiding services, the Elk Range Mountain Safety Coalition was born.

“The most important part of the campaign is (to publicize) what people are in for if they go out there,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who has called last year’s peak fatalities the worst he’s seen in more than three decades in Aspen.

Initially called the Peak Awareness Campaign, the idea was to put together a curriculum for beginner and intermediate hikers who want to become climbers and tackle the more technically difficult peaks in the Elk Mountain Range around Aspen. Much of the program’s emphasis was slated for residents of the Front Range, where a significant portion of 14er climbers reside.

“Sixty percent of last year’s search and rescues were people from the Front Range,” said Justin Hood, president of the Mountain Rescue board. “It’s trending that way more and more because Denver is just exploding.”

Mountain Rescue partnered with two local guiding services, Aspen Alpine Guides and Aspen Expeditions Worldwide, to develop a 90-minute presentation that covers the basics all climbers and hikers should know before they set out to ascend Colorado peaks.

Those local experts presented the seminar six times in Denver, Boulder, Golden and Colorado Springs in June and July. At least one of the seminars attracted about 40 people, while others were attended by maybe 20 people, Hood said.

The seven deaths in 2017 on Elk Range peaks included five on Capitol Peak and two on the Maroon Bells. Another hiker died in the Conundrum Valley after suffering acute altitude sickness.

No one has died so far this year, and the number of search and rescue missions has been far fewer, Hood said.

Mountain Rescue took on 57 missions between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2017, he said. This year, there were 32 missions in the same time period.

Whether the campaign had anything to do with this year’s drastically different scenario is anyone’s guess at this point.

“I’d like to think they took it to heart,” DiSalvo said. “But last year could be an anomaly and this year could be an anomaly. We won’t know the results for a few years.”

Hood agreed.

“Last year’s fatalities was such an outrageous number, it really got people’s attention,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s a big reason for the reduction this year.”

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