MountainHiker wrote:My friend Ed, and I were in the second gulley when this happened. I first heard a high pitched sound I later learned was a sustained female scream. Then we heard the unmistakable sound of a lot of rock falling our way. We were able to duck behind a rock out-cropping and watch as an unbelievable amount of rock came falling by. I was thinking “WTF is going on up there?” The rock kept falling past us for perhaps 30 seconds or more. Some were big. If someone were in their path they would be screwed. We saw a backpack come falling down with the rock. I though “Oh No”. Then we saw the climber fall past us. He was maybe 20 or 30 feet away as he tumbled by. We didn’t see him for long before he disappeared over the ledges we were on. After he passed I said to Ed, “I think we just saw someone die.”
The gulley is a series of ledges. Although most of the climbing isn’t particularly hard, there is a lot of loose rock and some awkward moves. It is steep in a way the ledges have some real exposure.
Everyone who was above us in the gulley had past us on the trail that morning. So we had a pretty good idea how many people were likely above us. But we didn’t have a visual. We also didn’t know how far above us the climber was when he fell. What we did know, was we were likely the closest people to him who witnessed the fall. We were about 400 feet above the traverse between the first and second gulleys.
I activated my Spot and pressed the SOS. We were both shaken by what we had seen. Ed asked me what first aid training I had. I told him “Wilderness First Aid once and CPR a few times” and “ the first rule is no more victims.” meaning we had to be really careful as we down climbed to him. No only were we concerned about more falling rock I was concerned about our own abilities to master how shaken we were.
We really didn’t expect to find somebody alive, but on that chance, I took a mental inventory of what I had for stopping bleeding. As we down climbed we stayed to side of the gulley as much as we could. We could see another climber above us down-climbing the other side. We maintained a methodical pace and kept looking back and across in case the climber had stopped on any ledges we were passing.
Another party that did not witness the fall came up through the traverse. We met them as we reached the body. I’ll not share details but it was determined he was dead. He lay above where the trail crosses the low point at the entrance to the second gulley. Ed saw his pack below the trail and climbed down to retrieve it.
We still had not made contact with the climbers high in the gulley. We didn’t know that cell phone contact had been made with SAR. The climber who was closer above soon arrived. The new party that had come up continued climbing the gulley. This served to allow word to be passed to the climbers higher up of his fate. Eventually all six climbers who witnessed the fall gathered on the ledge between the first and second gulleys.
We learned the fallen climber had arrived alone. We probably met him just above Maroon Lake and spoke for a few minutes as he passed us. Higher up he met another climber who he climbed the second gulley with. They arrived at what they identified as the crux chimney. He climbed up first and had trouble negotiating the very top. There was a loose rock that came off. He fell. His momentum took him over the side of the ledge below.
A couple was not far behind them. The scream I heard was her witnessing him tumble down the gulley.
SAR had received word this was now a body recovery. Four of us started to hike down. The couple needed more time to settle. They caught up to us not long after we made contact with SAR members who were on their way up. While we were talking to SAR the helicopter recovered his body. We met another SAR member on the way down and were also interviewed at the command center set up in the parking lot.
The Pitkin County SAR and Sherriff do an amazing job. The SAR members are volunteers who give their time to do a very tough job. We saw they are not immune to these realities either. The opportunity to receive counseling is part of their service. We really owe them a lot.
On the way down, both before and after meeting SAR we spoke about the incident a lot. We were all very cognizant of how careful we needed to be in our shaken state. We spoke of how he was leaving loved ones behind. We knew his first name. The climber who was with him, especially needed to talk. We shared a lot more details than I will relate. I’ve not said the other climber’s names. They were all familiar with this site, but were not posters. I will leave it up to them if they want to share more.
To be clear, Ed and I did not see the beginning of the fall. The climber who was with him had to duck the rock fall so didn’t see everything either. He was interviewed extensively by SAR and the Sherriff’s staff and indicated a willingness to speak to the victim’s family.
My sincere condolences to Derek’s family and friends. I am really sorry for your loss.
I am part of the party that came around the gully and found Derek as you were descending. First things first - Derek, the climbing community is with you in spirit and may your's live on beyond any mountain!
I am very grateful that we took a break prior to entering the gully as the way you described the rock fall was not pretty. I am also thankful that you were equipped with the SPOT to swiftly assist the recovery.
Everyone be safe out there and live on with the mountaineering community as one.
Much love to Derek and his family and all!