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Fourteeners: Know Before You Go

Colorado is mourning the seventh climbing fatality of the summer on our famed fourteeners, those 58 soaring peaks that surpass altitudes of 14,000 feet. This latest loss marks the fifth this summer on Capitol Peak’s technical slopes, which have claimed nine lives in the past 17 years.

Our state’s collection of stunning high-altitude peaks is an indelible part of our consciousness as Coloradans. Our mountains inspire song. They trigger instant recognition across the globe. Their sheer height blesses our 27 ski resorts with those steady accumulations of dry powder that beckon winter travelers from throughout the world.

In summer, our majestic peaks speak to a different adventurer. Bagging a fourteener is a Colorado rite of passage, whether for visitors or those who call our state home. Summiting all of our fourteeners – or thirteeners for that matter – qualifies a climber for even loftier creds.

Part of what makes these experiences so memorable and exciting is the element of risk. Overcoming such challenges, in fact, is what inspires many of our state’s visitors to report experiencing feelings of aliveness they don’t find in other travel destinations. Colorado is no sanitized Disney experience. And that’s an important message for adventurers of all skill levels to absorb.

Our state, in partnership with many nonprofit organizations, goes to great lengths to educate visitors on how to prepare for participation in extreme experiences. Fourteener aspirants can find ample advice on what to pack, wear, eat and drink, not to mention the importance of starting early, knowing and listening to the weather and recognizing symptoms of altitude sickness.

Experienced outdoor adventurers know that paying attention to each of these factors is critical to staying safe in Colorado’s backcountry. But with the recent increase in deaths on fourteeners, it is clear we need a stronger focus on education. Many seasoned climbers report seeing increasing numbers of people who may be underestimating the inherent risks of ascending a craggy rock face more than 2½ miles above sea level.

The Colorado Tourism Office recently launched two new traveler resources – the Colorado Outdoor Adventure Blog (blog.colorado.com) and the Colorado Field Guide (fieldguide.colorado.com) – on our state tourism website, Colorado.com. The blog features posts from extraordinary Colorado athletes, while connecting travelers to related adventures offering appeal for a wide variety of skill levels. The Field Guide’s collection of three-, five- and seven-day itineraries offers advice on how to negotiate their travels safely and with low impact to Colorado resources.

Given the number of tragedies this summer, we’ll be reviewing how we can provide even clearer guidance for travelers on how to assess their skill levels and take reasonable precautions against risks.

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office has assembled a group of outdoor thought leaders to discuss development of education campaigns around backcountry and fourteener risk management, public safety and personal responsibility.

Big questions remain about how we identify and classify technical terrain and advise climbers of varying skill levels on making a thoughtful and data-driven go/no go decision. We hope to build a culture, similar to the messaging around lightning risks, that can guide people in making an educated and life-saving decision on whether they have the skill level to climb, based on a series of questions such as:

* Can you reverse what you are thinking about climbing up/over to get back down?

* Is this something you have done before?

* Have you researched the technical nature of the trail and route?

* What is your medical training for any potential incident?

* Have you packed necessary resources for "extra time out" as moving over technical terrain slows you down significantly?

In a state that thrives on its outdoor adventure offerings, we know we share responsibility for increasing awareness of the incredible resources available for those venturing into the backcountry. Anyone answering “no” to any of the above questions could always hire a knowledgeable guide to lead them safely on a technical backcountry adventure and deepen their skill sets.

Our deepest sympathies go out to the friends and families of those who have died climbing Colorado’s fourteeners. We hope they'll know their losses are inspiring an even deeper commitment to developing and sharing resources to protect precious lives in Colorado backcountry.

Helpful Colorado Resources:

American Alpine Club: www.americanalpineclub.org

American Mountain Guides Association: amga.com

Access Fund: www.accessfund.org

Colorado Mountain Club: www.cmc.org

Colorado 14ers Initiative: www.14ers.org

 

 

Cathy Ritter, Director, Colorado Tourism Office                           Luis Benitez, Director, Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office