Spike in Capitol Peak deaths ‘unprecedented’

ASPEN, Colo. -- If you plan to hike one of Colorado’s famous 14ers in flip-flops, don't.

Wilderness officials are asking people to seriously consider the risks before heading into the backcountry.

Last weekend, 27-year-old Carlin Brightwell and her boyfriend, 26-year-old Ryan Marcil, died after falling at least 200 feet while climbing Capitol Peak in Pitkin County.

Their deaths were the third and fourth of the season, marking a spike in fatal incidents on the mountain.

On Sunday afternoon, as friends and family held a memorial ceremony to say goodbye to the couple, Aspen Mountain Rescue was atop Capitol Peak again to recover the body of a different climber.

According to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, a 21-year-old man successfully summited the mountain on Saturday but had a disagreement with his climbing partner about how to descend.

The man reportedly took a shortcut down the north face of the mountain and ended up falling nearly 700 feet to his death. His body was located Sunday afternoon.

On July 15, 25-year-old Jake Lord of Parker died while ascending Capitol Peak. The sheriff’s office said as he was climbing a nonstandard route, a “refrigerator-sized” boulder came loose, causing him to fall.

Three weeks later, 35-year-old Jeremy Shull, also of Parker, fell into a crevasse and died before reaching the knife edge section of the climb.

“It’s an unprecedented year,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said.

In the previous 10 years, four people have died on Capitol Peak. In 2017, five people died in a span of six weeks.

While there is no definitive answer as to why there is an increase in deaths this year, county officials have some guesses.

“I’m finding that a lot of people are going up there ill prepared,” DiSalvo said.

Aspen Mountain Rescue, a volunteer search and rescue team, said it frequently gets calls from hikers who are out without proper equipment, food and water.

“We’ve had a number of rescues this summer to go get people who are hiking in flip-flops,” said Jeff Edelson of Aspen Mountain Rescue.

It also believes many of the hikers attempting the dangerous peaks are not prepared for the skill level necessary, either.

“If you can’t give me the definition of a bivy sack or you can’t be prepared to spend the night with 30-degree temperatures, you have no business being up there,” DiSalvo said.

Capitol Peak is not for beginners. It is often recognized as the most difficult and dangerous 14,000-foot peak in Colorado.

“There are places in our mountains that if you fall, you’ll tumble tomahawk 3,000 feet down the mountainside,” Edelson said.

Still, more people than ever seem to be attempting backcountry trails such as Capitol Peak. And the reason might be far from the outdoors.

“I think we’re seeing increased traffic in our backcountry due to social media,” Edelson said. “People look at these beautiful pictures online and say, ‘Hey, I want to go experience that.’”

Aspen Mountain Rescue has seen an overall increase in calls for rescues over the past 10 years, with 2017 being the busiest so far.

“These people are putting in a lot of hours and are frankly getting fried on this,” DiSalvo said.

Now they are trying to educate hikers and tourists about the real dangers in Aspen’s mountains.

Research trails before heading out, prepare for the worst and do not stray from the standard routes or trails. There are no shortcuts on Capitol Peak.

“If there was a shorter or better or easier way of doing it, that would be the standard route,” Edelson said.