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Sorry for the slow posts last week. Family emergencies intervened, and currently I’m writing from a sidewalk cafe in downtown Iowa City, Iowa. Interestingly, one of Backpacker’s competitors recently listed my old hometown as one of the top outdoor sports towns in the U.S. Twin brother Mike and I had a big laugh about that one. Sure, Iowa City’s nice, but an ‘outdoor mecca’ it definitely ain’t.
The subject was going to be flash floods, but I’m changing the menu here, because it’s been a busy two weeks for search and rescue teams throughout the U.S.. That’s how things go in late summer, when everyone’s out recreating, often in unfamiliar vacation destinations, and many of them are new to the activities they’re pursuing. Things were equally chaotic in Scotland, the Alps, and New Zealand, with numerous falls, avalanches, lightning, and hypothermia deaths.
In the U.S., by my count, at least 5 people have drowned or been rescued from sea kayaking accidents since August 6th, mostly in the Northeast and northern Midwest. Most of these victims were not wearing life jackets. Several were inebriated. Most epics occurred when the victims were unable to Eskimo roll back up after tipping over, or were unable to re-enter their capsized boat in a ‘wet entry.’ Being able to do a wet entry is an ultra-basic kayaking skill. Even vacationers who are renting boats should tip them over near shore and practice getting back in. This is not rocket science, people.
On dry land, at least a dozen “lost hiker” searches went off big enough to make the newswires. Most of these incidents were simple overnight strandings where the victims were quickly found. However, one charter school group of 15 went missing in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico , and four missing hikers were found dead from solo falls while peak-bagging and hiking. Almost all these fatalities were vacationers scrambling in unfamiliar mountains. Three of the missing hikers were senior trekkers who had preexisting Alzheimer’s/dementia problems, and the search continues for 70-year-old Allen Maderas, who remains missing in the French Gulch region of northern California’s Shasta country.
In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a front-country black bear attacked eight-year-old Evan Pala of Boca Raton, Florida as he was playing along LeConte Creek near the Rainbow Falls Trailhead. The bear was only 86 pounds, and father John Pala was able to drive it off with sticks and rocks. The bear was located and killed. It had not been previous captured or identified as a problem bear. Black bear attacks have occurred in the park, and neighboring Cherokee National Forest, in 2000 and 2006. The area has one of the highest black bear population densities on earth.
As a postscript to all this mayhem: Falls compete with drowning as the most common cause of backcountry death. The two causations trade top spot between mountain and lake/seashore terrain. Wandering Alzheimer’s patients are the most common search scenario nationwide, but most incidents occur in suburban/front country settings.
Here’s a brief summary of the falls:
—Montana Man falls while mountaineering in Tetons
On Saturday, August 9th, 55 y.o. Chris Pazder of Helena, Montana died after slipping on a snow traverse and falling 800 feet from the ridge between Cloudveil Dome and South Teton in Grand Teton National Park. Pazder fell while rounding 12,320-foot Gilkey Tower, and slid down steep snow gullies and over steep band of rock before coming to rest, dead, on the north side of Avalanche Canyon, where his body was located by helicopter.
—Missouri Died from Fall on Quandary Peak, Colorado
31-year-old Ryan Torpey, a master chef from Kansas City, Missouri, took off for a short hike up the Blue Lakes Trailhead near Breckenridge, headed toward Mr. Quandary. Torpey was in Colorado to attend a sister’s wedding. When he didn’t return home by 4:30pm, his family alerted authorities. At least 30 searchers look for two days before a search helicopter spotted Torpey’s body lying beneath a gully-bottom cliff near Quandary’s West Ridge Route. Torpey had hiked up Quandary before, but the West Ridge is a scrambly affair that often requires technical gear. Torpey was equipped only with standard hiking equipment. The moral: Many rugged peaks look easier from below then they do from partway up the route.
—Texas man falls off Crestone Needle in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristos
On August 11th, SAR authorities recovered the body of Robert Koudelka (44) of Dallas, Texas, who fell to his death while descending Crestone Needle (14,197) in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Range. Koudelka was climbing with a partner who experienced altitude problems, so the two separated. Koudelka met up with two other climbers and summited with them, but the pair descended before Koudelka. On Saturday afternoon, Custer County authorities received a call from the man’s partner. Searchers began looking immediately, but storms hampered search efforts. On Sunday, a helicopter spotted Koudelka’s body above Cottonwood Lake. Authorities estimate he fell at least 1,700 feet. Crestone is one of the steepest 14ers in Colorado. Even the standard hiking route involves steep, loose scrambling and complex routefinding.
—Kentucky Man falls to death near Big Thompson Canyon
Hiker David Price (48) of Richmond Kentucky went missing on a hike Sunday, August 10th in the Big Thompson Canyon area between Loveland and Estes Park, Colorado. On Thursday, August 14th his body was discovered during a helicopter search. lying at the base of a cliff on Palisade Peak. Little is known about Price’s route, preparations or plans.
–Florida man falls off cliff near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado.
57-year-old Dennis Kasten of Dover, Florida went missing on a hike near Red Feather Lakes in (CO). On August 14th, during the search, deputies found him dead from an apparent cliff fall. A photo at hikerhell.blogspot.com, shows the surprisingly benign nature of the area.
–hike safe, Steve Howe