Editorial: Be in awe of mountains — and their perils | PostIndependent.com

Editorial: Be in awe of mountains — and their perils

The "Knife Edge" of the northeast ridge on Capitol Peak.
Photo courtesy Kevin Berrigan via Aspen Times |

As this summer of disconcerting mountain deaths has worn on — with five now on Capitol Peak alone, two more in the Maroon Bells area and a young Pennsylvania woman apparently succumbing to altitude sickness — we’ve read calls to somehow close access to Capitol.

Of course, that can’t be done. Capitol, one of the state’s most difficult and obviously dangerous 14,000-foot peaks, and Colorado’s other big mountains are the wilds. Fencing a trailhead, impractical, costly and unenforceable, would only invite adventurers to find ways around, creating new risks and environmental degradation.

The onus is on individuals to stay safe.

Colorado’s backcountry draws increasing interest in the era of social media. Photos are posted on Instagram and Facebook, and it looks like a beautiful bucket list thing to do.

Just as Hanging Lake east of Glenwood Springs has been overrun by visitors, too many of whom don’t understand the need to respect nature or prepare for even that relatively easy hike, the trails to “easier” 14,000-foot summits in recent years have resembled lines to get into sporting events. Visit Mount Bierstadt just south of Georgetown on a summer weekend and you’ll find all the tranquility of downtown Aspen.

The road to the trailhead is paved, there’s a boardwalk through the infamous willows that used to vex climbers, and plenty of literature describes the peak as one of Colorado’s easiest 14ers.

That doesn’t remove all of the risk, even though one would have to try to have a severe fall on Bierstadt and some of the other “walk-up” 14ers.

The introduction to the book “Colorado’s Fourteeners,” around long before boardwalks and paved roads to trailheads, starts this way:

“Climbing is dangerous, and each individual should approach these peaks with caution. Conditions can vary tremendously depending on time of day and time of year. … Lightning is always a serious hazard in Colorado during the summer months. …

“Before charging forth with your city energy and competitive urges, take some time to understand the mountain environment you are about to enter,” the book warns.

Beyond falls on difficult climbs — and the gorgeous Elk Mountains that are part of our area’s breathtaking beauty are among the state’s most dangerous — lightning is a grave danger on any mountain, given our summertime weather patterns. From 2005-14, Colorado had the third-most lightning-strike fatalities of any state with 17.

Altitude sickness, we have been reminded by the death of Susie DeForest and the rescue of an experienced hiker last month, also is a risk. An emergency medicine doctor says it can befall even people who live at elevation.

The advice for hiking a 14er — or for any backcountry hike — is well-known. Take enough water, dress in layers for changing weather, let people know your plan and when you should return, leave early to avoid being caught in afternoon storms. And don’t hike above your skill level.

That said, most of the people who have died in the Elk Range this summer were experienced hikers and climbers — which underscores the dangers all the more. It reminds us that, just as we diminish our souls if we begin to take the beauty of mountains for granted, we risk our lives if we become inured to their real dangers.

Not least among these is the return trip. Descending even an easier peak often is more challenging than ascending. You’ve achieved your objective, you’re tired and eager to get back to the trailhead. It’s easy to turn an ankle and tumble.

We are not apart from nature nor above its perils. We can’t fence off the wilds — thank goodness.

It is up to us, as the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said in a different context:

“Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.”

Wear shoes. Carry water. Stay on the trail. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Be safe and in be in awe.