Colorado 14er Disasters — Book Review

Post by blogger | May 20, 2009      

I try to be positive, so when author Mark Scott-Nash asked me to write a foreword for his new book Colorado 14er Disasters, I was thinking “nice minefield to hike into.”

Then, after reading his manuscript it was obvious Mark was making a major contribution to the sport of Colorado peak climbing. So forward I went with the foreword…

When an individual dies while recreating in the mountains, usually young, doing what they love, the tragedy resonates in ways unlike when a person passes after a lengthy illness or from old age. It is usually sudden, unexpected. And belies the common (and misinformed) view of wilderness and mountains as a gentle loving place where we find all that’s right in the world.

In a word, having a close friend or loved one die while mountaineering is harsh. As a result, it is hard on already shattered loved ones and family when reporters and bloggers pick apart 14er accidents and ultimately criticize the victims and their companions. Even so, such analysis can be a major contribution to mountain safety, and is a part of the victim’s legacy that everyone involved would do well to appreciate. This simple reason is why as a blogger myself I frequently cover accidents in a more critical style than simple reportage.

In that way Mark Scott-Nash deserves praise for being bold enough to detail, and yes, criticize a series of well known 14er tragedies. Events he covers in investigative journalism style that’s incredibly informative — and also keeps you reading.

Along with a number of less involved accidents, Mark covers two complex ones in great detail. The book begins with the story of Talus Monkey, climber David Worthington’s handle on the forums. The short story: Worthington came to climbing later in his life and became obsessed with 14er bagging. But he didn’t train up as a climber, and fell into the mental trap of not taking the mountains seriously enough to inspire simple decisions such as carrying an ice axe while snow climbing. In 2007 this cost Worthington his life, and gave us all myriad lessons that should make anyone ponder their own mountain “demeanor,” if I may use that term broadly.

The other huge story related by Mark (which received national attention), is the disappearance of Michelle Vanek on Mount of the Holy Cross. The Vanek saga is particularly sad, as she was a total newbie who depended on an incompetent leader, who subsequently instigated the series of events that led to Vanek being lost and disappeared on the mountain (and presumably killed, as she was never found.) Lessons learned here as well. Mainly, are you leading trips by default or intent? Are you qualified to do so? Are the people mentoring your rise as a fourteener climber (or backcountry skier) qualified as gurus?

My foreword for the book was difficult to write. But rather than fluffing over the subject of criticizing accident victims (including myself), for better or worse I decided to tackle the task with as much honesty as I could muster. To that end, I conclude that the underlying causality with many 14er accidents is a simple lack of respect for the mountains. Lack of map reading, lack of correct gear, poor decisions — all rising from an attitude of frivolity or just plain disrespect that some climbers seem to promulgate, almost as if they’re teasing the mountains like a child pushing parental buttons. Only when you get spanked by a mountain, it doesn’t care how loud you cry.

Read the book for the details. WildSnow three thumbs up!


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8 Responses to “Colorado 14er Disasters — Book Review”

  1. Chowda May 20th, 2009 11:29 am

    “are you leading trips by default or intent?

    Very insightful…I never thought much about this. While often the most experienced member of a group (but not qualified guru), I never intend to be the leader. Still, I’m not sure that I’m sensitive enough to times where others may see me as such, and follow my lead.

    Time to give this some thought, as we move into the summer peak bagging season.

  2. Scott May 20th, 2009 2:50 pm

    Lou, I personally appreciate your approach on the subject. That said, I don’t doubt that this book will cause some uproar from people that were personally connected to some of the victims. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  3. Keith May 21st, 2009 8:19 am

    “Colorado 14er Disasters: Victims of the Game” is a pretty awful and sensational title for a book. “Disaster” implies tragedy on a grand scale, e.g. a landslide on the E face of Elbert wiping out the hundreds of hikers streaming up on a summer weekend. And “Game” implies that there is a widespread attitude among climbers that this is not a serious endeavor. I’ve never found that to be true despite the tiny fraction of idiots that tend to stand out from the crowd. Based upon the description in this review, it would seem that the book’s title is not really serving the subject matter well.

  4. Mark Worley May 21st, 2009 8:28 am

    At the danger of being dubbed uber nerd, I have enjoyed learning hard mountain lessons from others’ foibles and disasters for a long time especially from the dry tome published yearly titled Accidents in North American Mountaineering. It’s good reading if you want to learn what not to do in the mountains without having to experience the horrors yourself. This new book is in that vain, and I intend to get a copy soon.

  5. Rik January 17th, 2010 4:24 pm

    I’ve lived in Loveland, CO, for 2yrs now and have really enjoyed hiking up mountains. I sometimes feel I’m being overly cautious (a little too much food and water, a space blanket and extra clothes, just to hike up Halletts for example) but this book made me feel better about my efforts. The author (an experienced mountaineer and SAR guy) beats it into your head: Be prepared for the worst.

    The individual stories were interesting and I enjoyed the book. However, as an avid reader and at the risk of sounding like a jerk, the book itself wasn’t written particularly well. In short, he needed a better editor.

    Regardless, I’d recommend this book to anyone who is considering taking the mountains up as a hobby. Learning from others’ mistakes is a real attention getter.

  6. Louis June 5th, 2011 9:07 pm

    Overall this book made a worthwhile contribution to the field of safety, and served as another reminder that these mountains can kill you in a countless number of ways. The account of Worthington’s demise is a particularly useful case study in what not to do.

    A related lesson might be that Websites such as are somewhat analogous to Wikepedia: i.e. there’s good information, as well as bad information, and you should take the information presented there with a grain of salt.

    My one criticism of this book was that the author sometimes had an elitist attitude, roughly speaking, of “I don’t want the unwashed masses coming near my playground.”

  7. David Timmerman March 10th, 2015 6:56 am

    At 53 I bagged my first 14er and now, at 70, there are 15 on my list, thanks to Roach’s guide as my bible. Interested in anything 14er, I thought the Scott-Nash book would be an informative read; however, I was continually distracted by the amateurish writing style (what, no editor?), arrogant judgmentalism (e.g. Calling Eric’s reluctance to spend the night alone with a married person of the opposite sex “childish” – I’d call it “judicious”; referring to Park managers’ unwillingness to expose searchers to further danger when conditions so indicated “outrageous” – I’d call this “judicious” also) and simple lack of anything new, left me disappointed.
    The entire book can be summarized in three principles: leave early. stay hydrated. use common sense.
    Verdict: a waste of the $2.99 I spent at the used book store.

  8. Lou 2 March 10th, 2015 7:27 am

    David, I’d add to your summary: Respect. Lou

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