Maroon Bells – Colorado 14er Climber Dies in Fall

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I was saddened to hear about last Saturday’s death of a climber on South Maroon Peak, a well known central Colorado 14,000 footer (14er) near here.

According to newspaper reports, 66 year old Dr. Sterling Smith was eating some trail mix, lost his balance, and fell down a steep scree slope. Quite a few people have on the Bells in similar fashion. The terrain is deceptive. It’s not particularly steep in terms of technical climbing; handholds and footholds are abundant. But he rock is loose and many of the slopes are around 50 degrees angle, meaning if you do slip and don’t stop yourself immediately you’ll ragdoll and lose body control.

I remember a story a friend of mine named Peter W. told me a number of years ago. Peter was a local climber and was guiding a man up Pyramid Peak (near the Bells, similar terrain). They were in a scree filled gully on the west side of the peak — while the footing was difficult, it was a place no one thought of as having any fall potential. “The guy slipped,” said Peter, “and the next thing I knew he was tumbling down the gully and couldn’t stop himself.” After hearing that story I started looking at such slopes a bit differently. (Peter’s companion survived with a few bruises.)

I don’t know if Smith lacked experience or was just a victim of circumstance. But over the years I’ve met quite a few climbers on the Bells who appeared to be clueless about how much care they needed to exercise, and how much fall potential they were actually dealing with. As a rock climber, I’ve felt the need for a rope on the Bells more times than I can count, but you can’t use a rope on most of the terrain because it dislodges loose rocks and decent anchors are rare. In all, a scary situation that seems to catch at least one person a year.


4 Responses to “Maroon Bells – Colorado 14er Climber Dies in Fall”

  1. Mark August 22nd, 2006 8:05 am

    I’ve not climbed in or near the Bells area, but have climbed similar peaks in terms of steepness and loos rock quality. Seemingly easy ground, in technical climbing terms, can still be really dangerous. Sorry for the tragic loss.

  2. Anthony Rabinowitz August 22nd, 2006 9:03 am

    Lou, I would use a word other than “funny” in the last sentence of today’s blog. It might get misconstrued in a blog about someone who died. Also, thanks for the info about the new Freeride.

  3. Lou August 22nd, 2006 9:14 am

    Thanks Anthony, I changed it.

  4. John September 18th, 2006 3:55 pm

    This tradgedy is yet another example that one’s most dangerous moments in the mountains may be when you are relaxed and not focused on the dangers that are always at hand. I found through personal experience recently that when I am not moving and focused on the goal ahead, a moment of relaxation can quickly turn into an accident. I’ll be trying to remember that when I’m resting during my next epic adventure…

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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