Backpacking season is officially here in North America, the time of year when the Instagram feeds of outdoors-inclined trail hounds migrate from deep powder days to river trips, summit hikes, and craft beer sessions. For hiking novices, the photos are tempting. If some random couple on Instagram can summit that peak, so can I, right?

Unfortunately, the social media age is drawing people to trailheads they are wholly unprepared for. Colorado’s 14ers are a huge draw, and rightfully so. They’re beautiful. They’re challenging. The feeling of accomplishment when you summit your first massive peak can rival that of landing a great new job. Photos of hikers holding cardboard signs emblazoned with the summit elevation of their hike look so tempting — but typically fail to touch on the trip planning it took to get there. Like anything worth celebrating, these challenging peaks take proper preparation and gear. Buying a Patagonia fleece at REI doesn’t prepare you for a scramble with 2,000-ft drops on both sides.

Is social media luring hikers beyond their limits?

In The Atlantic, writer Sarah Tory brought up the issue of social media luring aspiring summit seekers beyond their limits. The piece focuses on Colorado’s Capitol Peak, a 14,000-ft behemoth notorious for being the most challenging of the state’s 58 ‘14ers.’ “The internet has opened up a world of free online guidebooks filled with detailed route descriptions, like 14ers.com, while social media has helped fuel a new appetite for outdoor excitement, broadcast through electrifying GoPro videos and Instagram selfies,” she said in the piece.

While the article documents in detail one fateful journey on Capitol Peak, the biggest takeaway for aspiring summit seekers lies in Tory’s statement that, “The mountains are more accessible than ever, and to our wired selves, they often appear less dangerous, too, their risks obscured by an expanding digital universe of information and its strange mix of security and adventure.”

Last summer, it seemed Colorado couldn’t go more than a few days without a headline in The Denver Post detailing another fallen hiker on Capitol Peak. We lost five hikers in less than two months, largely a result of what has become known as Death Gulley. It’s important for users to realize that planning a trip based on an Instagram post is about as productive as living in constant jealousy of a friend’s Facebook timeline. There’s always more to the story.

What is Death Gully?

The area that has spelled doom for multiple hikers on Capitol Peak is an offshoot of the normal trail that from the ridgeline of the peak, known as the Knife Edge, appears to jut down through one side of the the loose-rock scramble field towards Capitol Lake and the campsites used as a base by many summit hikers. Unlike most 14ers, where sticking to a well-defined trail for long enough will bring you to the summit, Capitol Peak requires a long scramble across a field of loose rocks with death or serious injury a certain should you fall. Instagram photos do no justice to the intensity of this section of the trek.

Death Gully looks like a shortcut, a roughly cut path likely carved as much by mountain goats as hikers, that will take you down to Capitol Lake without having to traverse the entire way across the Knife Edge. What hikers can’t see from the top is the cliffline that separates the path from the destination. So many hikers have fallen victim to the deception that the area earned a permanent name, of sorts.

Due to weather, exhaustion, injury, or a combination of the three, some hikers become trapped atop the cliffs, often unable to trek back up to the scramble on the loose rock. Without technical rock climbing gear, it is impossible to make it down to the valley below the cliffs.

Back up on the Knife Edge, the way up towards the summit can be panic-inducing even when staying on the trail, but even here your troubles are far from over once you make it through. This legs-over-the-edge scramble is as two-faced as the Devil himself. It’s often on the return down the mountain, after the celebration of reaching the summit, that the real problems ensue. Much of Colorado, including the high country, is prone to afternoon rain storms in the summer, which can be perilous for those not reaching the summit well before noon. The rock faces, already giving way to a no-mercy 2,000-foot tumble on both sides, become slick with rain and thus are often harder to cross on the way back down. Many hikers also succumb to overconfidence after having made it across once. The rocks are loose and can give without warning.

Here is a video documenting the Knife Edge:

How to stay safe when hiking a 14’er

14ers.com is a great resource for advice and for having your questions answered for specific hikes, trails, and routes. This thread on Capitol Peak offers an informative perspective on Death Gully and the Knife Edge, detailing exactly what to avoid.

Always pay attention to weather reports, and in general, aim to summit the peak and be on your way back down by noon at the latest. This often requires hitting the trail near sunrise, but that’s actually a good thing. The crowds are much thinner the earlier you go, making the hike itself more enjoyable, and your odds of actually reaching the summit are much higher. Once you hit the trail, the ‘trip plan’ includes sticking to the route in dangerous situations. Shortcuts should never be prioritized, nor should photos.
If you don’t have a clear answer to each of the following points, do more research:

  • How long is the hike, and how defined is the trail?
  • What gear do I need?
  • What is the best time of year to go, and what hazards are likely to present themselves when I hope to go?
  • What is the elevation gain?
  • Are there alternative routes?

It all comes down to trip planning. Know the route before you go, and ensure that each person in your crew is on the same page. Any who aren’t prepared or can’t come to an agreement on the trip plans are not welcome in your party.