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.