|The body of a 70-year-old Pennsylvania man was recovered from the Sangre de Cristos last Thursday, Aug. 11, more than a week after he apparently fell to his death while climbing in the Fluted Peak area.
James Beckerich, a West Chester, Pennsylvania resident and experienced climber, was reported missing last Wednesday, August 10. When the report came in to the Sheriff’s Office, a deputy was dispatched to the Horn Creek trailhead, as Beckerich was reported to have been hiking in that area. He hadn’t been heard from since August 3, and family members became concerned when he did not respond to texts wishing him a happy 70th birthday. In his last communication, Beckerich had noted he had fallen short of the summit, turned around, and was working his way down the mountain.
His vehicle was located at the trailhead, and Search and Rescue (SAR) was immediately activated to begin a search for the missing climber. Beckerich’s tent was found near the base of Fluted Peak, but there was no sign of him. The search was suspended at dark, and resumed at 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning, August 11.
Thursday’s search was augmented by a team from Western State Mountain Rescue, and by logistical support from the Colorado State Rescue Board. Forensic data retrieved from the missing man’s cell phone by the Air Force Rescue Coordinating Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida narrowed the search area significantly. A Blackhawk helicopter from Colorado National Guard out of Berkley Air Force Base in Aurora dropped searchers onto ridgelines along the Horn Creek drainage area. Beckerich’s body was found just before noon; he had apparently fallen to his death about mid-way on the ridgeline on August 3. The retrieval was completed and all teams back safely at base by 4 p.m.
Although as of press time the autopsy report was not complete, according to Cindy Howard, director of the Office of Emergency Management, coroner Art Nordyke is initially noting that his fatal injuries were consistent with a fall.
Beckerich’s death is the second Sangre de Cristo’s climbing fatality of the season. John Hunt of Parker, Colorado, a very experienced climber, died falling 100 feet on Crestone Needle in mid-July. Howard says that two deaths a season are about average for this area.
The recent active work of Search and Rescue however, has also been engaged in retrieving a number of non-fatally wounded hikers and climbers. From mid-July through last Sunday, August 14, SAR has been involved in at least eight operations involving serious injury or death. Details of these rescues and retrievals, along with photographs, can be found at SAR’s website, http://custersar.org. Perhaps the most somber note however, is found in the article “Two Weeks in July,” where Howard writes, “Despite trail head kiosks warning of the dangers of descending off-route, popular forums such as 14ers.com and modern navigation tools, SAR teams continue to see climbers encounter difficulty and even death, when descending off route, when they choose to continue to descend, rather than regaining safe ground by climbing back up to find the trail, which on the return heads generally east along the ridge back to BHP. Descending Crestone Needle off-route leads to well documented terrain traps or worse.”
Heartfelt sympathy goes out to the families of the deceased and wounded, and cautionary counsel to all who hike and climb in this rugged terrain for trail sense, equipment safety, and companionship along the way.
– W.A. Ewing