Missing Man Who Planned To Summit Capitol Peak Last Weekend Found Dead
A man who was reported missing after planning to summit Capitol Peak in Pitkin County last weekend has been found dead.
According to an official press release from the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, the Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center received a call from a man at around 8:15 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 1, who reported that his friend, 32-year-old Kelly McDermott, had not returned from a climb on Capitol Peak.
Capitol Peak, a mountain with an elevation of 14,130 feet in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area about 14 miles west of Aspen, is considered a very difficult mountain to climb with numerous exposures and loose, crumbling rock.
At around 9 p.m. last Sunday night, a deputy from the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office responded to the Capitol Lake trailhead and was able to locate McDermott's vehicle.
The following morning (Monday, Aug. 2), a team of rescuers from the Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteer group began their search for the missing Wisconsin native; rescuers searched the trail and valley floor in the area from the Capitol Lake trailhead to Capitol Lake, while a helicopter from the Colorado Army National Guard High-Altitude ARNG Aviation Training Site (HAATS) led a search for the missing man from the air in the areas near the summit of Capitol Peak, as well as the surrounding basins.
Search and rescue efforts went on for several hours until bad weather made conditions too difficult for rescue teams to continue searching safely. However, a break in Monday evening's weather pattern made room for a helicopter from CareFlight of the Rockies to continue the search for the missing hiker from the air until sunset.
On Tuesday (Aug. 3) at around 6 a.m., rescuers began their search for McDermott from the Snowmass Creek drainage toward Moon Lakes, located on the east side of Capitol Peak, while other crew members continued to search for McDermott in the Capitol Creek drainage. A helicopter from CareFlight of the Rockies also continued to search the area from up in the air, but intermittent rain showers and cloudy skies limited the air search for McDermott.
By early morning Wednesday (Aug. 4), a group of twenty-three searchers had split into five individual search teams and re-entered search areas to find McDermott. A helicopter from CareFlight of the Rockies was utilized to help transport ground searchers to difficult-to-access areas near Capitol Peak, such as the Pierre Lakes basin. The HAATS Blackhawk helicopter from the Colorado Army National Guard was also further utilized to assist in search and rescue efforts.
At 9:45 a.m. Wednesday morning, two rescuers from the Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteer group who were flying aboard the HAATS Blackhawk helicopter spotted McDermott's body about 500 feet below the south end of a ridge - better known as the "Knife Edge" - located near the summit of Capitol Peak.
As per the press release, it appeared as though McDermott had fallen and sustained fatal injuries at some point prior to the arrival of rescuers.
Less than an hour later, four rescuers began their ascent toward McDermott from the area above Pierre Lakes. In the midst of their climb, rescuers heard someone yell "Rocks!" from far above McDermott; suddenly, a massive rockfall - described as "an avalanche of rocks" by one of the rescuers - came crashing down the mountain towards the four rescuers.
Although one of the rescuers was able to avoid being struck by the fallen rocks, the other three crew members were struck by the flowing rockslide and each sustained injuries.
According to the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office press release, one rescuer received minor injuries to an extremity, while another sustained moderate injuries to the lower part of their body. The third injured rescuer sustained major injuries after being struck by a rock which knocked the rescuer roughly twenty feet through the air in a “rag doll,” or somersault motion.
Fortunately, the rescuers were able to administer immediate medical care to their seriously injured crew member, and the HAATS Blackhawk helicopter quickly returned to their location and used a hoist to pick up the rescuers and transport them to the Aspen Pitkin County Airport, where two ambulances from Aspen Ambulance were waiting to transport them to Aspen Valley Hospital.
Helicopters from CareFlight of the Rockies and Flight For Life also assisted in the rescue efforts of the injured Mountain Rescue Aspen personnel. Two out of the three injured rescuers were treated and released from Aspen Valley Hospital, while the fourth rescuer was flown via helicopter to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood for emergency surgery.
All rescue teams were out of the field by 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday (Aug. 4).
A plan to recover McDermott's body is currently in the works - according to the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office - but the conditions on Capitol Peak may delay the recovery for days or weeks, depending on safety conditions; the area around Capitol Peak is typically considered extremely dangerous based on its steep terrain and composition of loose, crumbling rock, but recent monsoon weather patterns have created even more instability and dangerous conditions on the mountain.
No further information regarding the injuries to the rescuers will be released due to rescuer's privacy. In addition, any further information about the recovery of 32-year-old Kelly McDermott will be released if and when conditions allow for the safe involvement of rescue personnel.
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen are now reminding the public and recreational climbers to be aware of their surroundings while climbing, including things that may be happening below them.
Based on firsthand accounts from the rescuers involved in this accident, it is believed that the large cascade of rocks that fell on the rescuers was likely triggered accidentally by the climbers above them on the ridge. It is important to keep in mind that, while terrain might typically be stable in dry conditions, the terrain could change dramatically and become unstable after heavy rains.