Hiking involves blisters and a honed appetite; climbing comes with a high risk of death. Do you know the difference? Kim Fuller reports from Colorado’s Maroon Bells.
Two men survey the midday view from atop 14,156-foot South Maroon Peak in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. It’s October 8, 2014, and David Richardson, 32, looks past his ankle-deep postholes on the snowy ridgeline. The nearby peaks that look down on the town of Aspen are freshly veined white where early storms have filled in couloirs. Jarod Wetherell, 37, reclines on rust-colored rocks in a leeward nook. “We made it!” he says, white teeth flashing behind a dark beard.
“Now we have to figure out how to get down. This should be fun,” Richardson deadpans.
The pair, both recent Vail residents from the East Coast, look the part of fit, multi-discipline mountain athletes. But they’re neither rock climbers nor mountaineers, and the seven-hour effort to gain 4,600 vertical feet over six miles, culminating in an exposed scramble over loose, unstable rock, has left them nearly spent. Diligent if still novice hikers, they carry extra layers, water, and food, but no crampons, ice axes, rope, or even a map and compass. Instead of waterproof boots or rugged approach shoes, both opted for trail running shoes to be more agile over rock.
Still more critical: When the duo thumbed through the route directions on a smartphone app that morning, they made a crucial mistake. They planned to climb 14,014-foot North Maroon Peak, but erroneously followed directions to South Maroon Peak instead.
Known as the Maroon Bells—or “The Deadly Bells” by the U.S. Forest Service—these gorgeous Fourteeners break the sky just 10 miles outside Aspen. The cloud veiled summits are enticing but, “[They] are unbelievably deceptive,” warns a trailhead sign. “Expert climbers who did not know the proper routes have died on these peaks.”
On the summit now, the pair are hesitant to down climb the same route. Wetherell scans the horizon and his eyes quickly fall on the sister summit of North Maroon Peak. “Let’s just do the other one,” he says in the hopes that the descent will be less taxing.
The friends set off on a saddle traverse with sheer drops to either side. They offer each other a hand up on tricky sections. And three hours later, they top out on the second summit—this one capped in knee-deep snow. Any indication of a marked descent is buried. Only a few hours of daylight remain. Grey clouds roll in. And as Richardson noted earlier, they still need to get down.
The number of fatal mountaineering accidents in North America has remained fairly stable since the 1950s. But in the last decade, there’s been a spike in search and rescue incidents involving hikers. Mountain Rescue Aspen is a great case study. It completed 24 missions in 2004; in 2014, that tally reached 73. Part of this increase is linked to a parallel bump in mountain travel: in 2004, 67,462 people used the public buses from Aspen to the Maroon Bells trailhead. Last year, that number was 123,128. Perhaps social media, where an Instagram summit selfie attracts accolades, is also a factor. SAR professionals also point to changes like mobile route finding apps with step-by-step directions and emergency locator beacons for the increase in confidence. Notably, the day hiking incident rate in national parks spiked after iPhones hit the market in 2007. “Technology has given us this perception that it’s now safer to go climb big peaks,” says Mountain Rescue Aspen President Jeff Edelson. “It makes people think they can just push a button if they need help.”
But the biggest change is the hardest to blame on Facebook. Recreationalists are reaching the conclusion that the big peaks and slabs are within their means. That disconnect leads to trouble for day-trippers, whom the National Park Service reports need rescuing about three times more often than overnight backpackers. “Day hikers don’t tend to do as much planning,” says Ken Phillips, the Park Service’s chief of search and rescue. “But they want to summit.”
In December 2014, rangers in Maine’s Baxter State Park called in the National Guard to conduct an aerial search for an overdue hiker on Mount Katahdin. The search effort cost roughly $10,000. When a March 2015 snowstorm hid the trail on New York’s Mount Marcy, a mother and her two sons spent the night above 5,000 feet in sub-zero temperatures and 40 miles per hour wind. On Yosemite’s Half Dome, a permit system limits summit attempts and mandates advance planning. But anyone can park and follow a steep, paved path that climbs just over a mile and 1,000 vertical feet to Vernal Fall. Park rangers stationed on the trail look for those in flip-flops or carrying sodas, and warn that slick granite, dehydration, or exhaustion could lead to bad falls. “Our goal is a 20 percent drop in overall visitor injury rate by 2020,” says Lisa Hendy, Yosemite’s emergency services program manager. “We hammered day hikers, and we’re already making those numbers.”
Mountaineering, of course, is inherently risky. Perhaps nowhere in the Lower 48 is that more true than in Wyoming, where Jackson’s Exum Guides leads clients up the 13,770-foot Grand Teton. A moderately technical climb with massive exposure, the Grand’s shear flanks, long approach, and toothy summit seem to keep most errant hikers from wandering into trouble. But recent exploits by elite alpinists may be muddying the distinction between mountaineering pursuits and what most of us think of as a hike. In 2012, famed alpinist Kilian Jornet completed the 12-mile round trip with 7,428 feet of climbing in two hours and 54 minutes. That record fell days later when ranger Andy Anderson cut a minute off the route.
Anderson and Jornet weren’t just speed hiking the Grand; they were running it. But AMGA-certified Exum Guide Brenton Reagan says the layperson does not see the preparation. “Those people don’t run the Grand Teton every day. They do it during a certain weather window.”
It’s also important to note that Jornet and Anderson are highly skilled alpinists first, and endurance athletes second. Exum mimics this trajectory with a two-day climbing course—harness, helmet, crampons, ropes—for every Grand Teton client. Guests leave with the knowledge to safely choose between a climb and a hike. And to be clear: “Anytime you start using your hands to get up or down a route, you’re not hiking anymore,” says Reagan. “You’re climbing.”
Back on North Maroon Peak with no visible trail, Wetherell and Richardson descend, grabbing rocky handholds as they go. Uncertain of how to proceed, they follow a mountain goat, which leads them to a 30-foot cliff. Wetherell heaves his backpack over the edge and picks his way down on all fours, but slips on an icy step. From above, Richardson watches as Wetherell free falls, hits the scree below, tumbles, and gets to his feet shouting, “I’m all right! I’m all right!” Richardson tries to follow, but slips from the same step and drops hard onto his left hip and ribs.
At the next precipice, Wetherell hangs from his arms for a calculated drop. Injured, Richardson can’t hold his own weight, and he’s terrified of another fall. He paces along the ledge as Wetherell moves farther down the mountain. Their shouts drift back and forth, but Richardson loses sight of his partner as night falls. Richardson tucks under an overhang, counting breaths to stay calm. Inhale. Exhale. One. Is this the end? Inhale. Exhale. Two. Is this how I’m gonna go?
Overnight, snow falls and the temperature drops below freezing. Sore, Richardson manages to traverse to the mountain’s east face, sliding on the steep, loose terrain. Around 3 p.m. on day two, he stops to melt snow in his water bottle using body warmth. He’s clumsy, his feet are wet, and he’s cold. Crawling beneath scrubby branches for a second night, he finds himself again counting his breaths. By the morning of day three, walking hurts, and he stumbles repeatedly. He sits down. Closes his eyes. And counts each inhale.
After a 36-hour search, Mountain Rescue Aspen finds Richardson 100 yards below the standard route. “Where’s Jarod?” they ask.
“He’s got to be on the north side,” Richardson says. Friends and family listen online to the dispatcher. Wetherell never recovered his backpack, and he’s without food, water, or a headlamp. Hope flares when he’s sighted near Rock Glacier. But then they report that he is “cold, stiff, and unresponsive.”
Richardson hears the news in an Aspen hospital bed. Frostbite and nerve damage keep him on crutches at Wetherell’s memorial service. “We were both prepared to turn back that day,” he says now. “We got overconfident. Then we made rushed decisions. It’s easy to get lured into thinking, ‘I’m strong, I’m athletic, I’ve been out here three or four summers—I can push it a little bit more.’ But there’s a difference in being prepared for these climbs.”
From the Summer 2015 issue.