Capitol Peak, where wisconsin climber died
The northeast ridge of Capitol Peak, known as the 'Knife Edge.' (Photo/nyker, Shutterstock)

A Climber Died on a Colorado Mountain, His Body Will Stay There

A Wisconsin climber died during a steep scramble on Colorado’s Capitol Peak in early August. After a month of analyzing options to recover his body, officials have elected to leave it where it rests.

Local officials have elected to scrap recovery plans for the body of climber Kelly McDermott, 32, of Madison, Wis. The announcement from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office comes 6 weeks after McDermott was reported missing on the peak.

deceased Wisconsin climber Kelly McDermott
McDermott was 32. (Photo/Colorado Search and Rescue Association)

Alex Burchetta of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that a virtual meeting recently took place between Pitkin County authorities, rescue personnel, and McDermott’s family. Despite a month spent scrutinizing options, the department concluded that a safe recovery operation would not be possible.

“It was a difficult decision, but we’ve collectively decided to leave Kelly McDermott’s body on the mountain where it currently rests,” Burchetta told Denver’s CBS4. “We’ve spent the past month or so working on alternate recovery plans and simply were not able to come up with one that provided the level of safety necessary to conduct another recovery mission.”

The department’s misgivings weren’t unwarranted; rockfall had already injured three volunteers during the recovery attempt.

The Search for Kelly McDermott

McDermott was first reported missing on Capitol Peak on Sunday, Aug. 1. After bad weather derailed his group’s summit bid the day before, he decided to wait for better conditions and go up alone. He’d slept in the parking lot. When he didn’t return to his car by Sunday night, the sheriff’s office initiated a search.

In that particular terrain, search tactics aren’t straightforward. McDermott had sought the mountain’s 14,130-foot summit on the Knife Edge, the peak’s well-known northeast ridgeline. It’s not a technically difficult route, but as the name suggests, it’s highly exposed. The ridge is a pointed edge in some places, with 1,000-foot drops on either side.

For the search effort, helicopters scoped out the upper slopes while ground personnel combed the approach trails. Volunteers from the Mountain Rescue Association joined helicopter crews from the Army National Guard and CareFlight of the Rockies.

capitol peak and valley
Capitol Peak at left, above Capitol Lake. (Photo/Lucas Fritsch)

For 2 days, blowing rain and low clouds hampered the search. Then, on Wednesday, a HAATS Blackhawk helicopter operated by the Army National Guard “spotted McDermott roughly 500 feet below the south end of … the ‘Knife Edge,’ near the summit of Capitol Peak,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “It appeared as though McDermott had fallen and sustained fatal injuries.”

Sadly, significant rockfall hit four MRA volunteers tasked with climbing toward McDermott’s body. Hikers on the ridgeline above the team triggered the event, which injured three members and sent one to the hospital with serious injuries.

While the HAATS Blackhawk crew was able to airlift the MRA personnel to safety, McDermott’s remains will stay on Capitol Peak. Though Burchetta told CBS4 that a change in conditions may allow a safe recovery, he didn’t elaborate on what those conditions might be.

Sam Anderson

Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.