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 14ers.com 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!
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.