Staying Safe on Colorado’s Deadly 14ers

Capital Peak Knife Edge

2017 is proving to be a deadly summer in the Colorado mountains above 14,000 feet aka the 14ers. Thus far 8 10 now 11 as of 4 September 2017 people have died across the state.

Hiking and climbing in the Colorado Rocky Mountains is supposed to be fun, not deadly. Most accidents and death happen when a person lacks the experience or exercises poor judgment. Take your time, learn the basic, follow the known rules and have fun.

Certainly things can happen beyond your control as I experienced earlier this year when a gust of wind knocked me over at 11,000 feet on Twin Sisters Peak, a walk up outside of Estes Park. I broke my leg in three places and was rescued by search and rescue. I could have avoided the entire incident by not going out that day, but that defeats the purpose of being in nature for me. Also, I was training for an 8000 meter peak a few months later.


Colorado is blessed with the Rocky Mountains running south to north across the state. Depending on how you count them, there are between 53 and 58 mountains over 14,000 feet (4,266 meters) in height but only 53 are noted as ’14ers’. To qualify as a 14er the peak must be 300 feet higher than the saddle of an adjacent peak. A notable exception is North Maroon Peak so 54 has become the ‘official’ number.

On the popular climbing site member TravellingMatt made this chart:


It is estimated that over 3,000 people have summited all of them.

Before I get into the deaths, let me express my condolences to the families, friends and teammates of those lost.

Deadly Capitol Peak – 5 Deaths

Capitol Peak is well known as one of the most difficult 14ers by the standard route. The members of rank it as the most difficult followed by Little Bear Peak, Pyramid, North Maroon Peak, Crestone Needle and Sunlight Peak.

In late August 2017, Ryan Marcil, 26, and Carlin Brightwell, 27 both of Vail, apparently fell to their deaths near the summit of Capitol Peak. It is presumed they were involved in a rockslide according to sheriff’s office reports.

In July 2017, Jake Lord , 25, of Parker, Colorado, died after a boulder he was climbing over came loose causing him to fall between 160 and 330 feet off the ridge between Daly Saddle and K2. His climbing partner was behind him and had him in sight.

In August, Jeremey Shull, 35, of Parker Colorado also fell just before the notorious Knife Edge ridge. He was out of sight of his climbing partners.

Yesterday, August 27, 2017, another person, name not released but 21 years-old was found after he fell taking the non standard route down near the knife edge. The Aspen Times reported that he got separated from his climbing partner after a dispute Saturday on how to descend from the Capitol Peak summit and later fell 600 to 700 feet to his death. They went on to say “Deputy Anthony Todaro said the department received a call at 8:45 a.m. Sunday from Brandon Wilhelm of Pine who said he and his friend reached the summit about 3 p.m. Saturday, but on the descent they became separated at the Knife Edge when they argued about the route.”

According to the Aspen Times, since 2000, 18 people have lost their lives including the five this year on Capitol peak

This is my report on climbing it for the first of three times back in 2009.

Maroon Bells- 2 deaths

On May 27, 2017 Jeffrey Bushroe, 27, a soldier at Fort Carson died of hypothermia. The Pitkin County Coroner’s Office said he had fallen and several visible injuries to his head and leg.

Rei Hwa Lee, 57, Littleton , Colorado was found on August 8. She was found at 12,600 feet and it was assumed she had fallen.

Blanca Peak – 1 death

27 year-old Barney Criz from Seguin Texas died from an apparent rock fall between Blanca and Lake Como, maybe a little higher than Crater Lake according to the County Sheriff. Witnesses heard rocks sliding and then saw the body of the man who had fallen per this report. The incident occurred on 29 July 2017.

Mount Princeton – 1 death

Matthew Wayne Lackey, 31, Boulder Colorado free fell 40 feet after a boulder he was holding onto came loose. Other climbers were near him when the incident occurred.

Challenger Point

A climber on 4 September 2017 was reported descending Challenger about 150′ down, lost footing and fell into a bit of a feeder gully that dumped into snow couloir. source: Custer Country Search and Rescue

Longs Peak – 1 Death

Pawel Abramczyk, 39, of Thornton, Colorado  apparently fell to his death in a section known as the Loft. it was snow filled in March 2017. He decided to turn back near the top of the Loft and became separated from his climbing party.

In October 2016, 61 year Scott Corliss slipped on ice in the Narrows section of the Keyhole Route and fell 100 to 150 feet to his death. Three people died on Longs Peak in 2014, and a Montana man’s body was found at the bottom of Lambs Slide in October 2015.

About 62 people have died on Longs with falls representing 60% of the casualties. There were eight deaths from falls off the extremely technical Diamond, followed by six off the Ledges on the Keyhole route then five off the Narrows according to The Coloradoan.


Longs Peak Diamond
Longs Peak Diamond from Mt. Lady Washington in April


How to Stay Safe

There are several straightforward ways to reduce your risk, but there is never a 100% way to stay safe while hiking, climbing driving or living.

  1. Experience
  • Take a class at REI or CMS to gain basic skills and begin to build trusted partners to hike, camp and climb with.
  • Start on the the easy, straightforward 14ers like Grays, Torreys and Quandary before you move up to the harder ones.
  • Understand the ‘3 points of contact’ technique where you only have a foot or hand unsecured when climbing on difficult terrain.
  • Always test handholds before putting your weight on them
  • When in doubt, don’t trust the hold and find another path forward or turn back

2. Preparation

  • Check the weather the night before and immediately before you leave home. Know if a weather front is moving in and what that means for your area
  • Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be be back in contact and let them know you are safe upon finishing
  • Carry a cell phone AND a personal locator beacon or SOS devices like a Garmin InReach, SPOT or PLB. Know how to use it. Have the local Sheriffs number in your phone or call 911

3. Pack

  • Pack your pack as if you were going to spend the night. This does not mean 30 pounds but enough that you can stay warm and hydrated if you had to spend the night outdoors
  • This post is a bit dated but has the basics: What’s in Your Pack? 14ers

4. Teamwork/Route Finding

  • Never, ever leave your climbing partner or team – under any circumstance. Stay together if someone gets hurt and use your emergency communication equipment to get help.
  • Never leave the standard route unless you know exactly what it entails and you have the proper experience and equipment to climb it.
  • If you lose the trail, double back until you find it and regain the known trail or return to the trailhead to study the route for another day

5. Self Care

  • take a break 10 minutes every hour
  • Drink at least 3 liters of water
  • Add electrolyte replacement to your water
  • Eat at least 200 calories per hour
  • If you live out of state, you will need to take a couple of days to let your body adjust to the altitude before beginning your hike/climb.
  • If you get a headache, nausea or feel excessively tired, it may be altitude sickness. The only cure is to go lower so turn around immediately and go home.


One final thought. We all read on the internet, forums, guide books and hear from friends and strangers on the “difficulty” of a hike or climb, but how do you know what is meaningful for you?

Yes, there are standard rating system like the Yosemite Decimal System but you can get into pointless debates about the difference between Class 3 and Class 4 so much so the new climber will zone out and just ask “So, how hard is it?”

To state the obvious, an opinion based measure is relative to that person’s experience. This summer a person was rescued off Bierstadt – a 14er widely acknowledged in the “easy” category” and of course my own rescue off Twin Sisters  😐 . Both of these were easy and people will roll their eyes that anyone got hurt – and that’s the point – you can get hurt on any hike, any climb, any mountain.

The individual on Bierstadt was quoted by the Alpine Rescue Team:

“It was a lot more difficult a hike than I thought from reading” – quote from injured subject on Mt. Bierstadt”

It is critical that you make your own decision on the difficulty of a climb. There are excellent resources for the Colorado mountains ranging from the website to excellent guide books from Gerry Roach and Lou Dawson. Read the route description, review the pictures.

If it looks challenging, it probably is. Over time, as you gain experience, your judgment will mature along with your skills so when you say a climb is “easy” or “difficult” you have your own credible reference. So when giving advice, always add that caveat on your experience.

This famous quote about mountaineering applies here. The 3 rules of mountaineering:

“It’s always further than it looks.
It’s always taller than it looks.
And it’s always harder than it looks.”  

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

P.S. Mountain accidents are occurring at an alarming rate across the globe. Just this past weekend a series of climbing accidents killed 8 in European alps

Share this post:

8 thoughts on “Staying Safe on Colorado’s Deadly 14ers

  1. The answer always seems to be to not attempt things you don’t have experience with. How do you know that unless you attempt it in the first place? How did you, or me, get to be so proficient if we just stayed on the basic routes all the time?

    1. Agree, at some point you have to “go for it” but there is a huge difference in knowing what you know and not knowing what you don’t know thus a gradual development of skills and experience over time.

  2. I’m not surprise I have seen it again and again people taken on 14ers like just another hill.
    It was 4th of Jul 2016 snow 2 inch over 12.000ft altitude. People in short pants no jackets hiding under the rocks waiting for the storm to pass. At 13.000ft with 25 degree and 15 mile h wind your chances to make it in short pants and short are very slim before hypothermia and altitude sickness will hit. Absolutely sick, I can believe some people are so ignorant.

    1. I think people just underestimate how quickly conditions can change in the mountains so they are in the area and want to “go for a short hike” and get in trouble. It’s what you don’t know that will kill you.

Comments are closed.