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Boulder

Feb 28, 2019

The Legend of Longs Peak, One of Colorado’s Most Popular 14ers

Longs Peak enthralls weekend warriors and veteran mountaineers alike. It’s been called “Colorado’s deadliest peak”, but do the numbers support the nickname?

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Longs Peaks, viewed from the metropolitan centers of the northern Front Range, is a prominent knuckle of gnarled granite foregrounded by Mt. Meeker’s dramatic east face. The 14,255 foot behemoth is the indisputable crown jewel of the Front Range Rockies, and it occupies a mythic place in Colorado mountain lore. From geologic formation to modern mountaineering, Longs Peak is a hallowed repository of sediment and stories. As Rocky Mountain National Park’s sole 14er, Longs Peak enthralls weekend warriors and veteran mountaineers alike.

An advanced and arduous venture.

Today, social media reveals the mountain’s popularity. The deluge of Instagram summit selfies may boost tourism in the area, but the increased exposure can lure the unprepared to seek the summit, an advanced and arduous venture. Despite the dramatic uptick in Longs Peak tourism and sensational headlines highlighting hiker fatalities, deaths have actually remained relatively stable in the past several decades. In other words, given the increasing number of attempts and steady overall incident count, the rate of fatal accidents has actually decreased.  

Alpenglow on the Diamond face of Longs Peak, foregrounded by Chasm Lake. Photo by Dusty J via Flickr.

The legend of Longs begins with its geologic inception nearly 2 billion years ago. The metamorphic schist and gneiss of its slopes evince ancient matrimony of plate movements, intense pressure, and scorching heat. 1.4 billion years ago, magma intrusions cooled and crystallized into Rocky Mountain granite. The latent peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park were comprised of this swirl of sediments, launched skyward 70 million years ago by an uplift. Situated at more or less their current elevations, the mountains developed sharp precipes, veined grooves, and deep cirques by way of glaciation. The famous Diamond face of Longs Peak, a shear wall anchored by Mills Glacier and illumined by rosy morning alpenglow, is testimony to the carnal power of erosion. As Colorado’s northernmost 14er, with a summit as large and flat as a football field, Longs Peak dominates the surrounding skyline and calls adventurers to its heights.

It’s born a handful of names and millions of bootprints. To the Native Americans, it was Nesotaiuexthe Two Guides. After they were driven from the plains into the mountains by white settlers in the early 19th century, they reportedly caught eagles from its crags, using their feathers for adornment. French trappers proclaimed it Les Deux Oreilles, or Two Ears, a reference to its forked summit. Isabella Bird, who became the third woman ever to summit the peak, dubbed it both the “Mont Blanc of Northern Colorado” and the “American Matterhorn’’ in her 1879 autobiography A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. The enduring moniker, Longs Peak, is a nod to Stephen Harriman Long, an explorer who became the first American to sight and describe the mountain for the government in 1820. Major John Wesley Powell notched the first official ascent of the peak on August 23, 1868, commencing a flood of summit fever that would swell in volume over the next century and a half to the 10,000 annual total that attain Long’s pinnacle today. Most summit bids trace the standard Keyhole Route, which necessitates exposed scrambling and ascends 5,000 vertical feet in 7 miles. Unprepared hikers may find themselves getting more than they bargained for, but that hasn’t deterred the crowds.

The Boulderfield below the Keyhole Route, in summer and winter. Photo from the National Park Service.

The lure of Longs is understandablethe trailhead is just 90 minutes from Denver International Airport and the standard Keyhole Route to the summit is doable for most fit, prepared hikers in a long day. Though its reputation as a non-technical challenge and proximity to big cities makes it one of Colorado’s most popular 14ers, the sheer number of summit attempts has also made it one of the country’s most deadly hikes, according to an Outside Magazine article from 2014. Spokeswoman Kyle Patterson says that Rocky Mountain National Park runs the third busiest search-and-rescue operation in the Park Service, and 20 percent of their efforts are concentrated in the Longs Peak region. Since 1884, Longs has claimed 67 lives, with over 70% of fatalities resulting from a fall. This past summer was particularly deadly, with four hikers losing their lives on or near the mountain. 2018’s fatalities, combined with ten others since 2010, make this past decade the deadliest ever in recorded history, eclipsing the 13 deaths of the 1970s. But to take these statistics at face value would be to misjudge the threat.

By some estimates, over 25,000 hopefuls set out from the trailhead every summer—less than half of them summit. Just a sliver of hikes end in fatalities, but as overall trail traffic increases, so do overall incidents. A dive into the decades reveals a small increase in fatalities, but that increase comes with a caveat:

  • 17 deaths from 1961–1980
  • 18 deaths from 1981–2000
  • 19 deaths from 2001–2020 (assuming a projected rate of one death per year in 2019 and 2020)


The caveat
: Summit attempts have increased assiduously, tracking overall park visitation. In 2017 alone, Rocky saw 4 million tourists–that’s a 40% uptick since 2014. According to Patterson, around 10,000 hikers hit the summit in 2002. Those numbers are based on a research project undertaken from May through October of that year. Successful summits have likely increased in the following two decades. But fatalities haven’t skyrocketed. If incidences tracked overall attempts, Longs would be on the short-list for the world’s deadliest mountain. The executive editor of the American Alpine Club Dougald MacDonald suggests that “visitation has roughly doubled in the last fifty years,” but, coincidingly, “there certainly has not been an enormous surge in fatalities”. The most remarkable characteristic of recent fatality reports is their scantiness, given the crescive swell of summit-seekers.

Given the increasing number of attempts and steady overall incident count, the rate of fatal accidents has actually decreased.

What might be heralded as a triumph of public safety is often diluted by headlines corroborating Longs deadly legacy. Bernard Gillett, local climber and guidebook writer, remarks that “Accounts of deaths in the media are sensationalized; that’s what sells newspapers and increases advertising revenue”. This past year’s fatality reports contributed to the sentiment of increasing peril, with four highly publicized search-and-rescue operations carried out by the park service in the Longs Peak area. This task force, working tirelessly behind-the-scenes to keep visitors safe, is most visible during times of crisis.

Patterson says that the Longs Peak rangers rely on the current infrastructure to limit crowding on Longs. “Due to the size of the parking lot at the Longs Peak Trailhead as well as spillover parking on the County Road, parking is limited,” she reports. The lot is at capacity most days mid-July through early September. “Compared to ten years ago, there are more weekdays now that the parking lot is full, so overall attempts have likely increased,” she continues. But parking space hasn’t expanded in a decade, enforcing some semblance of carrying capacity. For now, that’s the slyest ace up the forest-green sleeves of the Park Service.

Rocky Mountain National Park personnel implemented an interdivisional task force in the Longs Peak area in 2011 to address the still-daunting crowds who do find parking. They’ve orchestrated a robust safety outreach program, both online and on-site. They added a signpost in the Boulderfield, 1.5 miles from the summit, to warn hikers of the perils ahead. “We also are concerned with the increase of social media, websites, and “trip planning” sites that highlight experiences and photographs, but often do not provide accurate information or safety messages and very little context as to overall preparedness,” Patterson disclosed.

Close-up of the Keyhole Route sign in the Boulderfield. Photo provided by Kyle Patterson.

More tourism is a boon to local business, but city-sponsored events may attract summit-seekers who underestimate the extreme mountain environment.

Safety on Longs Peak may be a feather in the felt caps of the Park Service, but overcrowding in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a pressing concern. The annual 4 million that tromp the trails bring in big revenue, at the cost of congestion and crowding. “RMNP benefits from the increase in the number of visitors,” Gillett opines. “[They] get to keep 80% of the revenue generated from the park entrance fees, with the rest distributed to lesser-visited parks in the National Park System.” To the city of Estes Park, which functions as the gateway to RMNP, more tourism is a boon to local business. Park-goers buttress the economy, and as such, “[they’ve] got a huge incentive to bring as many people to the Park as they can,”. Gillett says that in the past 40 years, he’s noticed an uptick in city-sponsored events catered to out-of-towners. “It used to be that the town got pretty quiet once summer was over and everyone went back to school.  But now there’s an event every weekend in September, and its spilt over into October and even the middle of winter.” Now, even in the winter months when average daytime highs are a brisk 25°, the Longs Peak Trail sees a respectable stream of snowshoers. The winter warriors and summer hordes are good business, but the exposure may attract summit-seekers who are, in Patterson’s words, “unprepared for the conditions on Longs Peak and underestimate extreme mountain environments”.

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The “Longs Peak Superhighway” of headlamp-clad hikers huffing upward in the predawn darkness of most summer mornings is both spectacle and scourge. Trail traffic, remarkably congruous to car congestion on popular Trail Ridge Road, is an inevitability of a Park as popular as Rocky. Longs is and will continue to be one of Colorado’s most popular 14ers; those vying for solitude on the northern giant can try their hand at one of the less popular routes, which see just a fraction of the traffic as the classic Keyhole route and offer sustained, exposed scrambling. Whatever the route, diligent preparation and smart decision-making are mandatory to safely enjoy the legendary Longs Peak.

The Diamond face of Longs. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

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How-To

Sep 09, 2019

How To Choose A Safe Whitewater Rafting Company

Whitewater rafting is a unique experience in nature, filled with adrenaline and excitement. Recently though, we have been reminded of the real risks involved.

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WRITTEN BY

Benjamin Baber

Last year, headlines from around the world were plagued with tragic river accidents. Four Americans passed away on a rafting trip in Costa Rica. Two Australians passed away in separate kayaking incidents in Nepal. The southeast U.S. alone had four separate whitewater kayaking deaths. And these examples are only a small sample of the river tragedies that occurred in 2018.

While some accidents are unfortunately inevitable, there are many situations where an accident can easily be avoided. Unfortunately, most countries lack standardized rules that you might expect from within the whitewater industry. This is more common in less economically developed countries. However, it’s important to stress this doesn’t mean that all companies in less economically developed countries are unsafe. You just have to set a few basic standards, and know how to pick the best one! No matter where you are in the world, there are a few basic things to look for in a rafting company to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable whitewater experience.

Rafting in Morocco. Photo: Ben Baber

Leader to Participant Ratios

The whitewater industry has general safety standards for guide-to-participant ratios on commercial rafting and kayaking trips.  

A safe industry standard on a fourteen-foot raft is one guide to every six participants. Most companies won’t live up to this standard, but if you want the safest experience – this is it! Ask your company what their leader to participant ratio is! 

It all boils down to this – any raft can flip. When that happens, one guide is expected to rescue the raft, re-flip the raft, then save each participant. If you are one of those participants, do you want to be the sixth person to be rescued or the ninth? The better companies will reduce the number of people in the raft to keep the weight balanced, the trip safe, and to maximize the rafting experience.

Kayaking carries greater risk than rafting simply due to the fact that the participants are in control of their own boat, rather than a trained guide. Instead, the guide is usually in their own kayak telling you how to manoeuvre from a separate craft. Industry standards recommend a ratio of one guide to every four participants for kayaking and canoeing. However, this ratio may decrease and become 1:3 or even 1:2 as the whitewater gets more challenging and consequential.

Read next on TOJ: A veteran river runner turns 70, and heads off into the Peruvian wilderness to raft the Rio Marañón, the headwaters of the Amazon.

Safety Boats

Safety boats are your best friend on the river. If a participant falls from a raft, they run the risk of being swept away by the current. This is when the safety boat shines. It will pluck you out of the water and give you a safe ride back to your raft or shore. It is a recognized industry standard to never have a single-boat trip. If there are only enough customers to fill one boat, then there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft along with the participant-filled raft.

With multiple rafts on the river, there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft to support the trip. This may pose an extra financial burden for the rafting company, but it is a small price to pay to increase participant safety. Problems sometimes arise when companies try to cut corners, perhaps deciding to take a guide off the water and undercut the competition by 5 dollars. If your company doesn’t have a safety craft, find out why.

In some locations, it has become standard for single or half-day trips to not have a safety boat when they have 2 or more full rafts. The theory here is that the other boats on the river will provide safety for one other. This is a debatable standard, but in some locations, you might not be able to find a company that uses safety boats for shorter trips. Certainly for multi-day trips, no matter how many rafts, there should be a safety boat.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Cut-Off Levels

Every river rises and falls according to snowmelt, rainfall, or changes in upstream dam release. It can happen with the changing of the seasons, or it can happen in ten minutes with changing weather patterns. Companies should have a set cut-off limit for each river they operate on. This cut-off level should be based on their own expert knowledge of that river.

One good way to double-check a company is to find out the cut-off levels for several other companies running that river. Call them up, send them an email, check their website – whatever you need to do to find out. If your company’s level is much higher than the competition’s, ask why! Is it because they have more experienced guides and provide more safety kayakers or rafts? If not, it may be a money-motivated decision that could translate to a dangerous experience for customers.

Equipment

Properly maintained and up-to-date equipment is a vital part of whitewater safety. All participants should wear a Personal Floatation Device (PFD), closed-toed shoes, and a helmet. If the guide hasn’t checked that your equipment is fitted correctly, don’t get on the water.

The shelf-life of most outdoor gear is around 10 years. You can use this as a guideline when deciding which equipment will keep you afloat and keep your head intact.

All PFDs from the United States must be approved by the United States Coast Guard. They will be marked to show they have been through a standardized testing process. You will see this written as “USCG Type V.” Any product from Europe must have a certification “EN ISO 12402-5 / 12402-6.”

Find out more information on IOS standards relating to PFDs here.

For Helmets, look for the CE standard CE EN 1385. This ensures your helmets is suitable for whitewater and has been tested accordingly.

Further reading:

Buying a canoeing & kayaking helmet – what does the CE mark really mean, and Sweet Protections guide to Helmet testing.

Whitewater Kayaking in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Alcohol

It is forbidden for guides and participants to consume alcohol on the river. Intoxicated participants can pose as much of a threat to the safety of the trip as an intoxicated guide. Take note of the company’s alcohol policy, and if you have any concerns that your guide or another participant may be intoxicated, make sure to raise those concerns.

Qualifications

There are various different qualifications for whitewater guides. From the British Canoe Union, to the American Canoe Association, to Rescue 3 International. The trouble is that certifications cover different skills according to the river and country in which the certification process took place. However, no matter how much the certifications vary, every guide should have a minimum of a swiftwater rescue certificate, a First Aid/CPR certification, as well as some sort of whitewater guide certification and/or in-house whitewater training.  

Conclusion

Whitewater activities are risky. There is no way around it. However, with proper training, skill, equipment, and experience, this risk can be mitigated. Take the time to research the company you go with, and make it a lasting memory for the right reasons.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

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