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Problems Reaching New Heights in Colo.

Weather: Melted snowpack worsens the drought and adds more risk to climbing season.

June 06, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — The miserable news on weather just keeps coming for Colorado. The entire state has been declared a federal disaster area because of a prolonged drought. Blistering temperatures and hot winds fanned at least four wildfires over the weekend, including one that destroyed 100 homes.

Now comes the sobering but not unexpected announcement that the snow in Colorado's mountains is totally melted, about two months sooner than normal.

The absence of a snowpack worries the cities and towns that rely on snowmelt to fill reservoirs. But the bald peaks are causing another concern: the early onset of the Fourteener Season, usually a four-month window in which about 250,000 climbers mount assaults on Colorado's famous 14,000-foot peaks.

The Fourteeners are a great source of pride in Colorado, which is home to 54 of the nation's 91 peaks over 14,000 feet. But rescuers and alpine experts fear the weather conditions here could conspire for a risky climbing season. Already, they say, inexperienced and ill-prepared climbers have attempted ascents they would have balked at in years past, when portions would have required slogging through snow and ice.

Now, more enthusiasts are climbing earlier, just when the state's high-altitude peaks are potentially more dangerous than ever. The extensive snowmelt has exposed vast, unstable boulder fields that usually remain snow-covered year-round and that now are prone to slide. And, if current weather patterns hold, the early heat and lack of moisture suggest the likelihood of sudden and severe lightning storms in the mountains, which can prove highly dangerous to exposed climbers.

"They've been climbing since late April, and the summer season usually begins in July, if you want some kind of measure of how it is now," said Melissa Maestas, a visitor information specialist for the San Isabel National Forest near Leadville. The forest had eight Fourteeners, including Mt. Elbert, Colorado's highest peak at 14,433 feet.

"Without a doubt, we are seeing more people on the mountain, and much, much earlier. We tell them they climb at their own risk."

Many here saw the deaths of six climbers on Washington's Mt. Rainier and Oregon's Mt. Hood last week as cautionary tales for the summer climbing season. Three people died on the 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier after being trapped by a severe storm. On Mt. Hood, a climber's misstep sent nine people plummeting into a deep crevasse, and a helicopter dispatched to rescue the climbers crashed.

"I think it's a foregone conclusion that people will venture into the back country earlier this season than in a year of average snowpack," said Charley Shimanski, executive director of the American Alpine Club, based in Golden, Colo. He is also the club's education director for search and rescue. "It's important for people to know that the absence of snow on the ground does not change the fact that snow is still likely at night. One variable to climbing is gone--the snowpack--but other variables still remain."

Ed Crothers is one of the owners of the Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park, which is the oldest guide service in the state. The school recently held a guide meeting and reviewed the special problems in store for this season.

"Our biggest concern is rock fall. There are receding snowfields with rocks held in place by snow and ice. Those rocks are no longer being held in place," he said.

"The other problem is the weather predictions about a dry, hot summer. That means more lightning in a state where lightning is already a huge factor. In the middle of our discussion, we got a burst of thunder in the mountains that could be heard in town. That drove the point home."

With hundreds of climbers heading to the mountains each weekend, biologists and others are concerned that hikers will unwittingly damage the fragile off-trail plants that are already stressed by lack of moisture.

"Alpine vegetation is very brown right now; it's very brittle and fragile. We know that people can be very unaware of the landscape," said Bruce Morrow, outreach director for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a group that seeks to preserve the peaks' ecosystems. "We're concerned that this year people will be less diligent about staying on the trails and staying off fragile vegetation that looks dead anyway. These plants take a long time to regenerate."

In a year when climbing a Fourteener seems more possible, Shimanski said, the belt-notching urge will increase.

"People call peaks like Mt. Rainier 'cocktail peaks,' " he said. "People are drawn to it because they overheard someone at a cocktail party say they climbed Rainier. They want to be overheard at the next cocktail party.

"Longs Peak and Pikes Peak [in Colorado] are like that. It's going to be an interesting summer."

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