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Reviews > Books > General > Colorado 14er Disasters > Owner Review by Bob Dorenfeld



Colorado 14er Disasters
by Mark Scott-Nash
Owner Review by Bob Dorenfeld
June 11, 2015

Tester Bio
Name: Bob Dorenfeld

I'm an active hiker, snowshoer, skier, and of course backpacker.  Home base is the Southern Colorado Rockies, ranging from alpine tundra to piņon-juniper scrub and desert at lower altitudes.  Many of my backpack trips are two or three nights (sometimes longer), and I usually shoulder about 30 lb (14 kg).  My style is lightweight but not at the expense of enjoyment, comfort or safety - basic survival gear plus extras like a camera and air mattress make my trips safer and more pleasurable.
Email: geartest(at)sageandspruce(dot)net
Age: 57
Location: Central Colorado, USA
Gender: M
Height: 5' 6" (1.68 m)
Weight: 142 lb (64 kg)


Product Overview

 

Publisher Big Earth Publishing   
Website:  www.bigearthpublishing.com
MSRP:    US$14.52
Published:  2009
Binding:  Paperback
Language:  English
Pages:  176
Dimensions: 9.5 in (24 cm) H x 6 in (15 cm) W

 ALT TEXT

This book examines what happens when mountain climbing and hiking go wrong.  Usually in these environments victims are far from help and in a place where rescue can be difficult and delayed.  The author dissects some of the real stories of Colorado 14er disasters and their rescue attempts, and offers suggestions on how to avoid these situations.  The author, Mark Scott-Nash, is an experienced mountain and technical climber who has explored much of his native Colorado area and also world-wide in Asia, South America, and Alaska.


Review    

I Imagine myself carefully placing each foot on the edges of big boulders, each rock just balanced on other rocks to form a 45 degree rockfall on the side of Audubon Peak in the Indian Mountain Wilderness of Colorado.  Suddenly a boulder slips and I lose balance but recover to step across to another huge rock.  But the first boulder slid and tumbled on down the steep slope, crunching and billiarding other boulders in its way.  I did not fall, nor was anyone hurt (I was hiking alone), and the entire rockfall stopped itself shortly after.  But I was chastened and humbled because only luck prevented me from becoming a "Victim of the Game" and perhaps not surviving to write a book review (this incident took place 40 years ago). 

I have since had many adventures while hiking and backpacking, including some as potentially deadly (and preventable) as my near-fall on that steep talus, and so when I chanced upon Colorado 14er Disasters by Mark Scott-Nash, I was surely intrigued.  I find there's always a bit of schadenfreude lurking beneath the surface when I see a title like this, but just a short ways into the book I see that there's more than just gloating that others' misfortunes didn't happen to me.  There are many valuable insights and lessons to be learned from mountaineering accidents, as Scott-Nash makes abundantly clear throughout these dramatically retold stories of climbers' accidents.

A "14er" is a mountain summit that tops out at or greater than 14,000 ft (4267 m) above sea level.  Most reckonings put the Colorado total at 54, more than any other state.  Scott-Nash tells us that while there have been numerous changes and improvements in equipment and dissemination of information about climbing Colorado's 14ers, "two things have not changed: the growing popularity to complete The List [of 14ers]—the holy grail of Colorado climbing—and the fact that the 14ers remain difficult to access in remote wilderness.  These two factors conspire to draw ever-increasing numbers into what can be an extremely dangerous environment from which there may be little chance of escape."

Of the three detailed accounts that Scott-Nash relates I'll summarize one, from the section entitled "Wrong Way".  This story involves a pair of summit hikers, one experienced, the other a novice.  Their attempt to summit Mount of the Holy Cross, a popular non-technical 14er in Central Colorado, met with disaster due to a cascading series of poor decisions and an inability to manage risk.  In September 2005 36-year old Eric had over 30 14er summits to his credit, and was itching for more.  His wife had lost interest, but his friend's wife Michelle, an inexperienced hiker, was convinced by Eric that the Holy Cross summit of 14,005 ft (4269 m) was one of the easier ones.  Outfitted with new boots, clothing, and poles, Michelle trusted Eric to make every decision regarding day and time of start, hiking pace, and water, snack and rest breaks.  Unfortunately, the first error came right at the trailhead when Eric discovered construction and missing signs; they ended up proceeding along a different route than the easier and more popular intended trail.  Despite discovering his error, and rather than turn around and "lose time", Eric and Michelle continued up a difficult ridge route that involved not only more distance, but much more elevation gain and loss before reaching the Holy Cross summit pitch.  As we'll see, Eric's fear of "losing time" would contribute greatly to the bad outcome of this mountaineering trek.

Scott-Nash includes many more details about the hike in his account, but suffice to say that Eric, in his single-minded push to conquer one more peak, failed in his duty to monitor his companion's condition.  Michelle started showing signs of fatigue early on, but since she both trusted Eric and was reluctant to ruin his hike by making him turn back, she pushed herself up and over alpine ridge after ridge, finally coming within sight of the Holy Cross summit.  Weather was not particularly a factor on that day, as it was sunny and mild.  But Michelle was doing poorly, and testimony during the aftermath of this tragedy suggests that the disorientation of altitude sickness may have been contributing to her physical weakness and failure to ask Eric for help.  Eric at this point was fully invested in his own project of completing the summit, from which position he knew that he could descend back to their car via the shorter and more direct route that they should have ascended in the first place.

And here is where this hike went horribly wrong:  Michelle, very tired, suggested that Eric go on ahead the final 500 vertical ft (152 m) to the summit. Eric told Michelle to traverse the summit cone around to where the other trail descends and that he would meet her there.  In Scott-Nash's words:

Unfortunately, neither Michelle nor Eric considered the flaws in this plan.  Again, Michelle was a complete novice, and was physically drained and possibly even suffered from AMS.  Given her lack of experience to draw on, compounded by the likelihood her mind was clouded by her physical state, this was an extremely dangerous situation for Michelle.

She would have no navigation aids on the traverse such as a trail or cairns (rock piles used to mark routes), and she would have to scramble over a field of boulders.  "I pointed to where she should go, and that I would meet her on the way down," he told investigators.  "I thought it was about two hundred yards, an eighth of a mile."

He later admitted to investigators that he vastly underestimated the distance.  It was closer to a mile—a mile of confusing terrain without a guidepost.

But when Eric descended the other side of the summit Michelle was not in sight.  In fact she was never found, and no one knows exactly what happened to her.  Even when hikers are in excellent condition, it can be challenging to maintain constant elevation while traversing off-trail: there is a tendency to angle downhill instead of maintaining altitude.  Michelle almost certainly descended instead, perhaps becoming disoriented and lost, quickly losing altitude on a vast rocky alpine face.  She may have seen the lush river valley thousands of feet/meters below her and attempted to descend there for help; she could have fallen and suffered a concussion, dying of exposure.

Days and weeks of search and rescue, including many helicopter flights, turned up no clues as to Michelle's ultimate fate.  Best guesses locate her body somewhere on that steep above-treeline alpine slope.  On other mountains, bodies (and skeletons) have eventually been found by hikers and mountaineers, often years and sometimes decades after their deaths.  The lessons to be learned from this 14er disaster are many, but include an overly confident and ambitious trip leader who failed to recognize many early warning signs, both in himself and his partner.  Those signs include not having accurate and up-to-date trailhead information, not adhering to the planned route, putting his own ambitions ahead of the well-being of his hiking partner, not recognizing his partner's weak state partway through the climb, and most serious of all, separating from his partner during her most vulnerable moment near the summit.  Less-experienced hikers also need to take responsibility for themselves, know their limits, and insist on slowing down or aborting the trek if necessary.  These lessons form a common thread throughout Mark Scott-Nash wonderfully dramatic stories as he intersperses short 3-4 page updates of the rescue attempts with the hikers' and climbers' unfolding disasters.  Phone conversations, emails, web log posts, and search-and-rescue communications add tense moments as we relive the traumatic events.

What sticks with me after absorbing the tragic stories in Colorado 14er Disasters is that most hiking and climbing disasters are caused not by nature or by "bad luck", but by participants' bad decisions and poor preparedness.  Hubris is the leading cause—and some of us get away with it while others do not.  I recently was able to make a good decision during a long solo backpack trip to the desert of Western Colorado.  On the third day I reached a turning point: instead of committing myself down into a wild and un-trailed canyon of unknown difficulty, with precipitous ingress and egress, I reluctantly faced about and retraced my steps back along the safe route.  Although downcast at the prospect of not completing my planned round-trip, nonetheless I returned with a light step knowing that I would not become yet another "Victim of the Game", and that made me confident and glad that I'd made the right decision.


Concluding Thoughts    

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Colorado 14er Disasters: Victims of the Game.  The fast-paced, analytically detailed and well-researched accounts of hiking and mountaineering accidents reinforce just how careful it pays to be when scaling our highest peaks.  I can enjoy myself even more in the wilderness when I know I'm aware of potential accidents and mishaps, and hopefully learn by others' mistakes so they don't become my own.


 Reviewed By
Bob Dorenfeld
Southern Colorado Mountains





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