White River Forest supervisor will consider Pitkin County sheriff’s demand for signs on big peaks
August 26, 2017
The head of the White River National Forest said Friday he is willing to consider Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo's suggestion that permanent markers be placed on some big peaks outside of Aspen to designate the main mountaineering routes.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said rock cairns are typically used to mark trails in sensitive terrain and when the goal is to minimize the presence of humans. But sometimes cairns aren't adequate to mark a route on the big peaks and keep hikers out of harm's way, he said.
"I don't think we're closed to ideas beyond cairns," Fitzwilliams said.
The deaths of two Aspen residents while mountaineering on Capitol Peak last week and six deaths between Capitol and the Maroon Bells this year have DiSalvo adamant that main routes on those peaks must be better marked. Cairns don't cut it, he said, because they can get toppled by weather.
“Having people dying isn’t a good solution, either.”
— Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo
DiSalvo said he understands there will be resistance to signs among some mountaineers, but the sheriff feels a responsibility to act to improve public safety.
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"People are getting off route and killed," he said.
DiSalvo said he's not proposing large, imposing "street signs." Instead, he wants some type of permanent marker that lets people know where the main route is located.
DiSalvo has taken matters in his own hands in the past to try to warn the public of a dangerous situation on national forest. After a drowning at the Devil's Punchbowl on the Roaring Fork River in summer 2015, the Sheriff's Office had laminated signs produced and deputies placed them in the area after the Forest Service declined to take action. DiSalvo said he personally installed some of the signs.
He said he realizes some people don't want signs everywhere there is a risk in the backcountry, but he prefers the warnings.
"Having people dying isn't a good solution, either," he said.
Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service must balance public safety with wilderness ethic. He said there is nothing in the wilderness bill that prohibits signs. The agency's management practice has been to minimize them. It's typical, for example, to find small, wooden signs in wilderness at trail junctions or places where a direction isn't obvious.
"We have discretion there," he said. "The issue is, can we do it appropriately?"
He said Forest Service personnel have been discussing during this deadly summer what more they can do to warn people about the inherent risks of heading into the backcountry, particularly when climbing in the Elk Mountains, notorious for crumbly rock.
Fitzwilliams said it is perhaps time for him to reach out to the rescue groups and sheriff's offices surrounded by the sprawling forest and collect other views.
It also will be important to collect opinions from climbing groups, he said. He's likely to find resistance to signs on the big peaks in the climbing community.
"It's a little bit of a slippery slope as far as permanent markers in the backcountry," said Amos Whiting, head guide and owner at Aspen Expeditions Worldwide. To have the "Yellow Brick Road" effect on mountains such as Capitol and North Maroon would take away from the sense of adventure that attracts many people, he said.
"Markers could help," Whiting said, "but it wouldn't alleviate the issue of people falling off mountains."
While talking generally rather than about any specific incident, he said problems often arise when people make poor decisions or have bad luck. He questioned if people bagging fourteeners, for example, have worked up a progression of difficulty before trying peaks like Capitol. Minimizing risk depends more on education and training rather than marking the routes, he said.
"When you're on the mountain it's going to come down to route finding, mountain sense and experience," Whiting said. "Good judgment goes with all of those."
Denver-based Colorado Fourteeners Initiative pursues a mission of building sustainable trails through fragile vegetation zones on the big peaks. Sometimes it will build large cairns that can guide hikers to the trail as they descend through rock scree into the vegetation zone. Those cairns have to be high enough to be spotted when there are still snowfields.
However, the organization minimizes the work it does once trails climb into rock scree on higher elevations — both for practical reasons and so it doesn't interfere with the risk and challenge of dealing with nature on its terms, executive director Lloyd Athearn said.
"We don't want to build or pave a trail to the top of these mountains," he said. "We don't want to essentially dumb down the challenge of the fourteeners."
That said, he is in complete agreement with DiSalvo about the need for greater education and awareness to prevent deaths on the peaks. The organization's website includes educational videos on mountaineering risks at http://www.14ers.org.
Athearn said he is concerned that placing permanent markers on main routes of some challenging peaks could have a disastrous result. People without the experience and skills to attempt to climb Capitol Peak, for example, might have a false sense that all they need to do is follow the markers. Even if the incidents that involve hikers going off route were eliminated, there would still be accidents in the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen because the rock is unstable, Athearn said.
"Going into the wilderness is a risky enterprise," he said.
"The bottom line is, these adventures aren't for everyone," he said.