The Crestone Eagle • November, 2021

GIS data shows dangerous climbing patterns in the Sangres

by Karen Caddis

The tragic death of a woman climber (Madeline Barharlou-Quivey) on Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range this last October makes the research project completed in July 2021 by Kim Jones Thomas, a recent graduate of the Emily Griffith Technical College’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) program, even more relevant. Using GIS climbing incident data, Ms. Jones Thomas, also an outdoor climbing enthusiast, has discovered dangerous patterns in the Sangres that trip up experienced climbers, resulting in at least 1-2 fatalities every year, particularly in the Crestone Group (that includes the 5 northernmost 14ers in the Sangres: the Crestone Needle, Kit Carson Mountain, Humboldt Peak, Challenger Point, and Crestone Peak). In just the Crestone Group alone, Custer County Search and Rescue (CCSAR) had 41 rescue missions between 2015 and 2020, with 46% on the Crestone Needle, 22% on Crestone Peak, and 12% each on Kit Carson Mountain and Humboldt Peak.

Ms. Jones Thomas found that most accidents occurred on descent when climbers were tired and took a different route down than they used going up, and, unlike last month’s death, most fatalities were men hiking alone. Many accidents happened in the same locations. Kim wrote, “Climbers can be so focused on the summit push, that they fail to realize that upon reaching the top that they are only 50% there and need to still properly navigate the descent, have plans, equipment, a weather window and the energy to get them back down.” Ms. Jones Thomas also noted that “We saw people were having accidents in the same location repeatedly.” 

To try and prevent more accidents, Ms. Jones Thomas presented the evidence as her college capstone project in an interactive ArcGIS StoryMap microsite, “Rescue Patterns in the Crestones,” that she created in cooperation with CCSAR and input from Saguache County Search and Rescue. The StoryMap uses text, video, photography, charts, and maps to create a narrative about climbing accidents and the resultant search and rescue missions in the Crestone Group that hikers can reference before they climb. The StoryMap also includes graphics identifying several of the problem routes and the correct routes climbers need to take to follow the same path on descent as they did when ascending. More details on the study and a link to the full report can be found at: www.emilygriffith.edu/gis-grad-discovers-dangerous-patterns-in-sangre-de-cristo-14ers.

“The idea is to keep (climbers) safe and on route,” Ms. Jones Thomas said. “On your way down, it looks like one path is easier, but that gets you off the standard route, which is not a walk down, it involves more scrambling and technical climbing and climbers are tired. But if you make a mistake and fall 100+ feet, it’s definitely fatal.”

Ms. Jones Thomas and CCSAR advise climbers to use GPS, download existing routes from trusted sites, carry a power bank phone charger with plenty of power, climb with a trusted partner, and understand their limits. She notes in her report, “The mountain will be there, when weather windows or other setbacks/challenges impede your planned summit day. Be flexible and adjust/cancel your plans as needed!” 

Visit 14ers.com for more information on climbing in the Sangres and consider getting a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) Card for $12 that is good for 5 years to help support Colorado Search and Rescue teams. CORSAR cards can be purchased at https://cdola.colorado.gov/funding-programs/search-and-rescue-fund.

“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” —Ed Viesturs