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Quanti Experientiam?

Pyramid Peak, Thunder Pyramid is on the ridge to the right

What is the price of experience?

A couple weeks ago a climber was killed while descending one of the more hazardous peaks near Aspen. Though these incidents are always sadly tragic, this particular accident received a lot of attention from the Colorado mountaineering community because the victim was a highly experienced climber who was widely known and well loved by both his peers and protégés. Though all climbing disasters are unique in their way, a few things stand out for me about this one.

The climber who died was Steve Gladbach, a high school teacher in Pueblo. On June 23rd, he and two partners summited a peak known as “Thunder Pyramid,” a point on a ridge connected to the summit of Pyramid Peak, one of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks. Thunder Pyramid is not an officially named peak and was actually christened “Thunder Peak,” by a party that claimed the first ascent in 1970. It is not considered a separate peak but is climbed fairly often by “point baggers” who want to climb every possible high point named (or not) in some guidebook somewhere. If you think it takes a lot of determination to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers, consider how much work and determination it takes to bag every high point around all the 14ers and possibly all the 13ers. Gladbach counted himself as one of these persistent climbers.

On the descent from Thunder Pyramid, Gladbach intentionally separated from his climbing partners. His partners later reported that Gladbach wanted to check out another route possibility. They agreed to meet up later at an appointed time and place below and continue descending. Gladbach never showed up and so his partners called for help. Apparently, Gladbach also called for help using his SPOT beacon. Because of the late hour when the call for help was received, Mountain Rescue Aspen was unable to locate Gladbach until the next morning when they found him deceased.

No one witnessed the accident but it was reported that it appeared he died after a fall of hundreds of feet. This is certainly possible, the mountains in the Elk Range are very fractured, loose and steep, kind of like a bunch of rocks stacked on top of each other for thousands of feet. Spontaneous rockfall in this area is very common and makes the area extremely dangerous, it is foolish to climb here without a rock helmet. And you might step on a Volkswagen-sized boulder and cause it to roll down the face.

Ironically, Gladbach died directly across the valley where he was involved in another deadly accident on Maroon Peak almost exactly 21 years earlier with the Colorado Mountain Club. I wrote about the accident, a late season slab avalanche, in a chapter of Colorado 14er Disasters  (page 101) “The Dangerous Leader Syndrome” (Gladbach had nothing to do with the title of the chapter). Gladbach was one of the survivors and I never mentioned his name. As a matter of fact, I did not know the names of the participants in that 1992 trip up Maroon Peak when I wrote the book, the description of the accident came from the guy who turned around and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

But when Gladbach read the chapter, he became upset because it resurrected many bad memories for him. He sent me an email about how he felt. He had a lot of guilt about that accident which killed two people in his climbing party, though there was certainly no blame directed at him or anyone else. That didn’t matter, reading about it had triggered something that had been buried for years. I apologized but emailed back that it was something that had to be said, I certainly did not single out anyone and indeed did not even know the names of those involved. It reinforced the point with me that these incidents are the most tragic events suffered in the lives of those involved, almost like having a family member or friend killed on the battlefield. I do my best to write about these disasters with the utmost respect but with an unflinching eye toward describing what went wrong.

Gladbach is a pointed example of someone who had a massive amount of experience but still succumbed to an accident that might appear to be immanently preventable. He is not alone in that community. Climbing accidents can happen to anyone!


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