Summit fever, a lack of mountaineering skills, and the allure of social media are leading to serious accidents on the lower 48's highest peak. Can anything be done to stop the injuries and deaths?
At 3 a.m. on June 10, my brother-in-law Dan and I started walking uphill from the Whitney Portal trailhead. Our goal: the top of California’s 14,494-foot Mount Whitney, three hours north of Los Angeles, at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada. It’s the tallest peak in the lower 48, and the grueling 11-mile hike gains more than 6,000 vertical feet on its way to the summit. I’d scored a hard-to-get permit through the Forest Service’s online lottery in March, paid my $15, and spent the past few months training with long runs and high-elevation hikes. For years I’ve wanted to stand on that peak, and finally the pieces were coming together.
I’d read online that the trail wasn’t entirely melted out and that the steep section of the hike known as the Chute, at about 12,500 feet, was still covered in snow and ice. Crampons and ice axes were required to ascend it. I’m not a veteran mountaineer, but I’ve climbed a dozen or so 14ers. I had the necessary gear and experience using it.
It didn’t take long to realize, though, how significantly unprepared other hikers on the mountain were. While picking up our permit at the ranger’s station the day before the hike, I overheard a couple chatting with a ranger. “You need crampons and ice axes and to know how to use them,” the ranger said. “We do?” the guy asked. “Where can we get some?”
After a couple hours on the trail, a brilliant sunrise lit up the towering granite walls that make up the eastern Sierra Nevada. Soon, we came across a woman in her twenties from Los Angeles. She’d slipped in a stream crossing and banged her knee. Her friends were way ahead of her. Dan wrapped her knee in a bandage, and the three of us trudged on together. She said they’d driven up from sea level for the weekend and had rented ice axes and crampons. But they had never used either before.
We came upon snow six miles in around 7:30 a.m. Dan and I stopped to eat, hydrate, and ready our crampons, helmets, and ice axes to ascend the Chute. To reach it, we first had to traverse a snowfield. Several other people were also gearing up, and a few of them looked completely ill-equipped for the conditions. I saw a guy wearing shorts and trail running shoes start making his way onto the snow and a woman with a tag still on her ice ax holding it backward and in the wrong hand while traversing. (You’re supposed to carry an ice ax in your uphill hand.) Several people didn’t have crampons, and others were using trekking poles instead of an ice ax. It felt as if everyone had raided an REI and landed here, posing as mountaineers.
As we inched closer to the bottom of the Chute, I looked up and watched in horror as three hikers toppled uncontrollably head over heels hundreds of feet down the 30-degree, ice-covered slope, none able to self-arrest. I later learned that one hiker, who wasn’t equipped with crampons or an ice ax, had slipped and taken out several others below her. That domino fall apparently spooked another woman, who fell separately moments afterward and tumbled down into rocks jutting out from the snow near the bottom of the Chute. She suffered the worst injuries—major head trauma and a possible pelvic injury. When we arrived at the scene minutes later, fellow hikers were shouting assessments: One person had a broken arm, another was unconscious and bleeding badly.
A guy nearby yelled, “Do they have a pulse? Check their pulse.”
“Yes, there’s a pulse,” a hiker shouted back.
As people tended to the injuries, Dan handed off his first-aid kit, and the two of us elected to head down the mountain to call for help. The person with the head injury would require a helicopter evacuation. We soon encountered a hiker with a satellite messenger beacon and later ran into a volunteer search and rescue member on his way in to assist with the rescue.
Nearing the trailhead a couple hours later, we ran into a group of muscular guys with huge backpacks. “Do you have spikes you want to sell?” one asked. He was attempting to buy crampons on his way up. I felt like telling him to turn around right then, but instead I just told him, no, I wasn’t selling my crampons.
In the end, the rescue, which took many hours, required 11 volunteer SAR members and a California Highway Patrol helicopter flying in dicey high-wind conditions. I later spoke with two hikers who were among the first responders and saw the incident unfold up close. They said five people fell in a matter of minutes. The hikers I spoke with, who asked not to be named, helped stabilize the injured with aid from a Coast Guard medic and a physical therapist who also happened upon the incident, in addition to countless other hikers who donated food, water, first-aid supplies, and spare clothing.
They sat vigil for hours, wrapping the victims in sleeping bags and checking their vitals. Two of the injured people were transported by helicopter and taken to the nearest trauma center. I reached out to the two most injured victims through one of the first responders but didn’t get a response. The sheriff’s office can’t share names or contact information of the injured for privacy concerns. But I was told by one of the first responders that both patients have since been released from the hospital and are recovering.
On the drive home from Whitney that day, I started to wonder: Are accidents like the one I witnessed a fluke, or are they a regular occurrence because people with minimal experience are taking weekend jaunts to 14,500 feet?
A few days later, I called some friends who’d spent time on Whitney. One, who works in an outdoor gear shop, said he won’t go near the mountain anymore because it’s such a cluster of catastrophe. Another, who skied Whitney a number of years ago, said she passed a dead body, wrapped and awaiting transport, on her way down the mountain; a woman had died from a fall while descending an icy section of terrain. “Try skiing after seeing that,” my friend said.
There’s no database recording fatalities on the mountain, but they’re hardly infrequent. In May of this year, a 29-year-old man was killed after a 2,000-foot fall while solo climbing Whitney’s more technical Mountaineer’s Route. Two other hikers spotted his body on their descent.
Carma Roper, the public information officer at the Inyo County Search and Rescue office that serves Whitney, told me that accident rates jump up and down. Over the past five years, they’ve performed between six and 20 rescues a year within the Whitney Basin. She said emergency calls ramp up in late spring and early summer, when climbers arrive in droves, and that snow travel and glissading are common causes of the more serious or deadly accidents.
The Forest Service says it’s seeing a steady increase in the number of permit applications, and because of that, just 33 percent of those who want a Whitney permit get one. Only 100 people per day are permitted for day hikes, plus 60 more for overnight backpacking trips. Often, a ranger told me, since folks have put in the effort and had the luck to score a permit, they have an overly committed attitude about reaching the summit.
In July or August, a strong-willed person with solid fitness and no altitude sickness could pull off the long hike up the Mount Whitney Trail. But in a snow-covered May or June, certain sections are life threatening without proper mountaineering skills and equipment. An estimated 20 percent of hikers aiming for Whitney’s summit don’t make it to the top.
“I’ve seen people hiking up there who had no business being there,” Roper says. “They’re getting sick and continuing to push themselves. These accidents are hardly isolated incidents. People are looking to get that great selfie from the top of Whitney.”
It’s not that the warnings aren’t out there. On a well-used forum called WhitneyZone, posts about what can go wrong on the mountain include group separation, darkness, lightning, dehydration, altitude sickness, injury, and rescue. Pages with tips on safe mountaineering warn climbers that YouTube is not a substitute for personal instruction and offer links to guide services, mountaineering courses, and accident reports. Before you even leave the Whitney Portal trailhead, there’s a huge photo of a rescue underway that reads: “Don’t let this happen to you!”
“You can educate all you want, but people spent their $15, got their permit, now they want to go play,” says Bill Kirk, a Southern California resident who has summited Whitney seven times and runs a Mount Whitney hiking blog. “There’s no Plan B up there. People want to summit no matter what. I’ve seen hikers at the top of Trail Crest, two miles from the summit, and they’re completely out of water and they’re still going forward.”
Ryan Huetter, the head guide with Sierra Mountain Center, a local outfitter that guides clients on the more technical routes on Whitney, says he’s been involved in many rescues of troubled hikers he’s encountered on the mountain and its neighboring peaks, including two fatalities in the past three years.
“People are getting lost. They’re looking incredibly sketchy using ice ax and crampons,’” Huetter says. “Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48. It should be treated as a culmination climb, not as your very first peak.”
The guidebooks, the forums, the rangers—they’ll all tell you this climb is hard and can be dangerous. But when you see your friend’s Instagram photo from the summit, you think: I can do that, too.
Mount Whitney isn’t the only U.S. peak with these issues. While some think iconic high points like Denali or glaciated peaks like Mount Rainer are the most dangerous to climb, more and more accidents are happening on far less technical mountains.
In Utah, the National Park Service reported a 67 percent increase in rescues within the state’s national parks between 2014 and 2017. In Colorado, 14,137-foot Capitol Peak, one of the state’s harder 14ers to climb and about four hours west of Denver, near Aspen, claimed the lives of five people within a six-week span in 2017, compared to four deaths over the previous 14 years.
Most of the deaths on Capitol Peak were caused by climbers getting off the route, intentionally or accidentally, and falling in loose rock above high-consequence terrain. A forthcoming analysis on the Capitol Peak fatalities, being published this August in the American Alpine Club’s annual Accidents in North American Climbing, offers this: “Capitol Peak is not a beginner climb and should not be attempted unless the climber has extensive Class 4 mountaineering experience. Climbers should build their capability patiently, creating a solid foundation of experience.”
“There are generally two kinds of peaks that have a lot of trouble,” says Dougald MacDonald, executive editor of the American Alpine Club. “One are technically difficult peaks, like Rainier, Denali, Grand Teton, where you have bad weather, crevasses, and climbing accidents where bad things happen or people make mistakes.”
The other kind? “There’s this category of less technical mountains that attract hordes of people: Whitney, Shasta, Hood, the Colorado 14ers, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington,” MacDonald continues. “Most of those accidents are people falling on snow and not being able to stop themselves. On Whitney, people seem to get in over their heads. They get exhausted, they get trapped by bad weather, they stumble and fall.”
In response to the accidents on Capitol Peak, the National Forest Service, the local Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, and the nonprofit Mountain Rescue Aspen teamed up to create a coalition that launched this summer with classroom workshops and outdoor skills courses to educate climbers on mountain safety. “We want people to build up their experience,” says Justin Hood, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen. “Go with a guide service or learn mountaineering skills on a peak where, if you slip, there are not crazy consequences.”
Hood says there’s been some debate if the Forest Service should add more route-finding and warning signage on mountains like Capitol Peak. But do we really need more billboards telling people that what they’re about to do is dangerous or provide hikers a dotted line to the summit? That’s not why people head into the mountains.
While we can’t tell people to stop posting smiling selfies from 14,000 feet, we can encourage each other to start posting more photos of the day we turned around and didn’t summit—which is what I did after my Whitney attempt.
Magazines like this one and writers like me are also part of the problem. For every story published on the six iconic peaks you need to climb before you die (literally a story I’ve written for this magazine), should there also be an asterisk warning readers that with poor decision-making or bad lack, you could actually die in the process of reaching those summits? Nobody wants to read that, trust me.
So, what’s the solution? Rangers don’t have time to evaluate applications and experience levels, and no one has the right to turn someone away from their wilderness objectives. The mountains should be open to everyone.
“I don’t have the answers,” Roper, from the local SAR, told me. “I’d hate to deter people from going outside and recreating. I don’t like leading with a horrific narrative of people getting hurt. I’d rather lead with public education, teaching people what they can do to be safe.”
Education is key. Chamonix, France, has set a good example of what public education in mountaineering skills can do for safety records. Since 2006, the town’s mountain rescue operation, La Chamoniarde, has offered one-day mountaineering safety courses to teach skills like glacier travel and crevasse rescue. While accidents still happen amid a growing number of aspiring alpinists, the education certainly hasn’t hurt.
But we also need to hammer home the message that 14,000 feet is serious business. Huetter, the Whitney climbing guide, said, “If you go to Mount Rainier, they don’t pull any punches—they’re very forthright about the dangers and conditions. It can scare people away. Maybe we need more of that on Mount Whitney.”
The solution, if there even is one, is self-regulation. It’s up to us to take ourselves out if we’re not up for the challenge. Sign up for a course; hike smaller, easier peaks first. And when you’re ready, hire a guide, go with a mentor, study the conditions and your route, have the right gear, and most important, know it’s always okay to turn around.
As for me, I’m not sure I need to return to Mount Whitney. I’m enchanted by the Sierra, but after the day I had on Whitney, I no longer feel the need to top out on the highest point. It’s too crazy up there. I think I’ll go climb some lesser-known, lower-elevation peaks nearby instead.