After a quiet start to the Fourteener climbing season in Colorado, a flurry of four deaths in a week has sobered up mountaineers. All the accidents occurred on relatively benign peaks--Mount Evans, Mount Princeton, and Missouri Mountain--unlike last year when most of the fatalities were on harder peaks. This could, however, be due to the heavy snowpack still on the Rockies.
The latest confirmed deaths were today when the bodies of Boulder doctor 53-year-old Michael von Gortler and his 20-year-old daughter Makana von Gorter were found on 14,067-foot Missouri Mountain in the Sawatch Range. The pair headed up the peak on June 22 and planned to arrive home on June 24 according to a text message received by Makana's boyfriend on the night of June 22.
On Tuesday, June 28, they were reported missing and overdue. The Chaffee County Sheriff's Office sent out dogs, almost 180 search and rescue personnel, and helicopters to look for the pair. This morning, after several days of intensive searching, a helicopter pilot spotted the pair on grassy terrain at about 12,000 feet and a mile from the summit. Ground searchers confirmed that it was a deceased man and woman. The bodies, evacuated by helicopter, were confirmed this afternoon to be Michael and Makana von Gorter.
It's premature to speculate what might have happened to the pair, although a lightning strike, hypothermia, or fall are all possible scenarios. Fred von Gortler, Mike's brother, said: "I cannot report yet on how they tragically died, but can assure all that both Mike and his daughter Makana loved high country wilderness hiking and had much experience. They always packed correctly and in were in good physical shape. Remember, danger of death is present in the simple act of taking a shower or driving to the store. Our family is deeply saddened by the loss, but at the wake/eulogy, we will rejoice in both of their contributions to our society, their love of nature, and both were bold enough to live life on their terms."
Another accident happened on Thursday, June 30, on 14,197-foot Mount Princeton, about 15 miles south of Missouri Mountain. A distraught man called the Chaffee County Sheriff's Office on his cell phone at 1:15 p.m. and reported that his climbing partner, 30-year-old DeAnna Miller from Denver, had fallen below the summit and had head injuries. Shortly afterwards he said she was unconscious and not breathing and he began CPR.
Rescuers, including local physician Dr. Rick Ruider, reached the pair at 5:30 in the afternoon after climbing in a severe lightning storm. The two victims were in a rocky chute below the main summit trail. The woman was dead but the man was unharmed. Apparently the pair had sought shelter beneath a large boulder during a thunderstorm. The boulder shifted and fell on DeAnna. Her body was recovered yesterday. The coroner reports that she died of chest injuries.
The third tragic accident happened on Saturday, June 25, when 50-year-old Mary Elizabeth Bowles fell over 400 feet off the Sawtooth Ridge between 14,264-foot Mount Evans and 14,060-foot Mount Bierstadt in Colorado's Front Range. She was crossing a steep snowfield below the ridge when she slipped and was unable to self-arrest. She tumbled over a big cliff below the snow slope.
Steve Wilson with the Alpine Rescue Team, which recovered the body, says, "It was a steep area where there was a combination of snow and rocks, and it seems likely that she stumbled or fell and was unable to stop herself before gravity accelerated her.... With all the snow up there, it is just dangerous. It is inherently dangerous to be up on a mountain that high."
Hopefully these four deaths will be the end of this summer's Colorado climbing fatalities. My condolences to the family, friends, and climbing partners of the victims. Be careful out there and remember to wear a helmet, carry an ice axe, and watch for lightning and severe storms.
Photographs above: (Top) A fatal accident occurred just below the summit of Mount Princeton. (Bottom) Rescuers evacuate the body of Mary Bowles below the Sawtooth Ridge. Photographs © Stewart M. Green and courtesy Alpine Rescue Team.