It’s been a deadly summer on Capitol Peak, Colorado. In six weeks, five climbers have died on the technical fourteener. On Saturday, a 21-year-old climber fell to his death in the Knife Edge Ridge portion of the climb, apparently after attempting a shortcut descent that led to a 600-foot cliff. Pitkin County Sheriff’s Sergeant Jesse Steindler said the climber fell in the same area as an Aspen couple who died on the peak last week. All three bodies were found in a similar location, beneath the steep north face near Capitol Lake. Local authorities have yet to release the recently deceased climber’s identity.
After summiting around 3 p.m, the deceased climber argued with his partner about the proper descent route. He separated from his partner, turning to his left to take a direct line to Capitol Lake, despite being advised that the line cliffed out. His partner called the authorities at 8:45 the following morning, explaining that the missing party had not returned to camp the prior evening.
14,137-foot Capitol Peak sits above Aspen in the Elk Mountains range of the Rockies. It’s widely considered one of the most technical and high-consequence of Colorado’s fourteeners, ranked as the most difficult to climb by 14ers.com. Though there are a few routes to the summit, the most popular route along the northeast ridge is Class 4 scrambling, typically climbed un-roped. It traverses an exposed ridge aptly named the Knife Edge before the final ascent to the summit.Despite the dramatic exposure, the Knife Edge, pictured below, offers some of the stablest rock on the route to the summit, a high-consequence route characterized by steep and exposed scrambling across loose rock. Hazards include rockfall from above, unreliable rock, and getting off-route. Incidents concentrate in the area surrounding the Knife Edge, where four of the summer’s five fatalities have occurred.
It’s thought that the Aspen couple who died on the peak last week, 26-year-old Ryan Marcil and 27-year-old Carlin Brightwell, fell while descending to the Knife Edge, similar to the climber who died Sunday. On August 6, 35-year-old Jeremy Shull died as he descended to the Knife Edge. On July 15, 25-year-old Jake Lord died on a ridge between Capitol and Mount Daly when a large boulder he was holding on to came loose. He and his climbing partner were slightly off the standard route when he fell.
In Sunday night’s news release, the sheriff’s office stressed the importance of following the established route. “There is not an alternate route down the north face of Capitol Peak unless you have extensive climbing experience and all the necessary ropes and gear associated with high angle mountain climbing,” wrote Deputy Anthony Todaro. “If there was a safe shortcut, it would be the standard route.”
Since 2003, nine fatalities have occurred on Capitol Peak, raising questions about the uptick in deaths this summer. In conversation with the Denver Post, Sgt. Steindler brought up “peakbagging,” specifically the hype around bagging Colorado’s fourteeners, as a possible culprit. The nature of the climb—a route that doesn’t require technical gear beyond a helmet but calls for technical climbing—places it in reach of a less-experienced group of hikers and climbers, those who might not have the experience or comfort on high-consequence, exposed routes that a history of climbing lends.
Images CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.