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Climbing with a risk

The Maroon Bells are two peaks in the Elk Mountains about approximately 12 miles southwest of Aspen, Colorado. Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak are separated by approximately 1/3 of a mile. Both peaks are 14ers and are considered the most photographed peaks in Colorado. (Courtesy photo)

The Maroon Bells are two peaks in the Elk Mountains about approximately 12 miles southwest of Aspen, Colorado. Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak are separated by approximately 1/3 of a mile. Both peaks are 14ers and are considered the most photographed peaks in Colorado. (Courtesy photo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

In Colorado, there are many opportunities to explore and experience the outdoors, one of the most popular is likely hiking in the mountains.

But what happens when an outdoor adventure goes from a fun outing to taking a turn for the worst?

It was on his climb at the Maroon Bells in Aspen, Colorado, that Capt. Chad Brenner, 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, engineering flight commander, had to help to save the life of a fellow climber in his group, Aug. 15, 2015.

“My buddy and I, that morning, had ascended South Maroon Peak, we had just done the Maroon Bells traverse which is a ridge connecting two mountains from South Maroon peak, 14,156 feet, to North Maroon peak, 14,014 feet,” said Brenner.

The traverse between Maroon Peak and North Maroon is a complex climb requiring experience, patience and taking the time to figure out the route. The Maroon Peaks routes are constantly changing due to how bad the rock is on the traverse.

“We met two climbers on the summit of the North Peak which made us happy because on a traverse you don’t ascend a route you descend so we were worried about route finding on the way down,” said Brenner.

Brenner and the individuals he was climbing with were not green when it came to difficult climbing.

“We talked at the summit of North Maroon Peak, they had done most of the 14ers as had my partner and I so between all of us we were very experienced,” said Brenner.

Once they determined their level of experience and a route, they decided to set out on descending the peak single file, when they encountered more technical sections.

“We were descending a steep wedge like section on the face of the mountain when the last person in our chain of four accidentally dislodged a boulder,” said Brenner.

Brenner estimates the dislodged boulder was 200-300 pounds. It had careened down the side of the mountain and through the group.

“I was able to dodge out of the way, but in attempting to dodge the first person that was descending was glanced by the boulder. It was enough to knock him down and start him falling,” said Brenner.

The individual fell down several small cliff bands landing about 30 to 40 vertical feet below where they were climbing.

“Judging from the way he was struck, falling that distance and the sounds we heard, we knew he was injured but still conscious, so we went down to him and did an assessment of his injuries,” said Brenner.

 Brenner’s Self-Aid Buddy Care training kicked in and he took charge of the situation.

The climber had a broken wrist, multiple lacerations and possibly a broken jaw. Once they determined the extent of injuries, Brenner and the other climbers began stabilizing the victim.

 “We assessed he was in a good enough condition to conduct a self-rescue and radioed for search and rescue operations. It took a long time to descend because we were still on a semi-technical part of the mountain face. He came down under his own power,” said Brenner. “Once we got past this part one of our group members went ahead to go contact the park rangers who met us about a mile from the trail head.” said Brenner.

Brenner and the rest of the group brought the victim down to the trailhead where, an ambulance, park rangers and sheriffs were waiting for them. The rescue personnel were grateful and credited Brenner and the rest of the group with the victim’s survival.

“When I heard about Capt. Brenner assisting a fellow climber it was no surprise.  It's just the kind of guy he is.  He's exactly the same way at work, he's got a level head in high-stress settings and always knows how to get to the right answer,” said Lt. Col. Zachary Owen, 3rd SES commander.

The injured individual was treated and required multiple surgeries. According to Brenner, the individual kept his fellow climbers updated on his recovery and is now fully recovered. Brenner continues to climb with his indoor/outdoor climbing partner.

“If you are doing stuff where you are out in the back country and there is potential for injury, the SABC training is invaluable. Some individuals may not take it seriously, but the average civilian may not know what to do in that situation. The training allowed me to be ready for this kind of situation,” said Brenner. 

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