3 hurt during search for hiker missing on notorious Capitol Peak

Local News

PITKIN COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — Members of a search and rescue team were hurt as they looked for the body of a hiker who died attempting to climb one of Colorado’s most difficult 14ers.

Kelly McDermott of Wisconsin was climbing Capitol Peak alone on Sunday and never returned to the trailhead, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. Three members of Mountain Rescue Aspen search and rescue team were injured as they worked to recover his body.

“Capitol Peak is a class four mountain. It is, I would say, the toughest of the toughest mountains in our entire area — if not the state of Colorado,” Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta told FOX31.

‘Very narrow, very technical’

In 2017, five people died on Capitol Peak in a span of just six weeks.

Search and rescue efforts began on Sunday, but because of weather and difficult conditions, rescuers did not find McDermott’s body until Wednesday afternoon. The Sheriff’s Office said he was discovered dead about 500 feet below the notorious “knife edge” section of the trail.

Joseph Comer reaches for the next hold on Capitol Peak’s Knife Edge. (Credit: Pinpoint Weather meteorologist Chris Tomer)

Teams from Mountain Rescue Aspen began recovery efforts soon after.

Mountain Rescue Aspen is a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office on backcountry emergencies.

All 50 rescuers with the organization are certified as FEMA Type I Mountain Rescue Team with qualifications in search and rescue operations in high-angle, scree and avalanche terrain. They are all unpaid volunteers, and most are considered accomplished mountaineers.

“They were in an area that was off-trail, because they were trying to recover the body. They were making their way up into an area that is not very heavily traveled. Very narrow. Very technical,” Burchetta said.

What went wrong

According to Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, recreational climbers were above the rescue team. Rescue crews attempted to ask the climbers to move but were unsuccessful in communicating with the group.

“Moments later, a massive rockfall, described as ‘an avalanche of rocks’ by one of the rescuers, came crashing down the mountain toward the four Mountain Rescue Aspen members,” Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office said in a press release.

One rescuer was able to get out of the way safely. Two suffered minor to moderate injures. The fourth rescuer suffered major injuries “after being struck by a rock which knocked the rescuer roughly 20 feet through the air in a ‘rag doll,’ or somersault motion,” the press release said.

All three injured rescuers were airlifted to the hospital. Two were released and one was transported to Lakewood for surgery.

Burchetta described the accident as a rare event but a reminder of the dangers present in the backcountry even for seasoned professionals.

“Luckily we haven’t had too much experience with our Mountain Rescue Aspen members getting injured. A lot of planning. A lot of thought goes into missions to make sure that people are safe. And a lot of training,” Burchetta said.

Rescue teams are now planning on how to safely recover McDermott’s body. It could take days or weeks depending on conditions.

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