Attempting to access knife ridge from summit
By Alissa Johnson
A 46-year-old Minnesota woman fell and died near the summit of Crested Butte Mountain last week. The tragedy occurred after she and family members hiked to the peak, and it provides a sobering reminder that recreation in the mountains requires extra care.
According to information provided by the Mt. Crested Butte Police Department, Michelle Kartschoke of Prior Lake, Minn., was hiking with family members at the time of the fall on Thursday, July 14. According to police spokesperson Marjorie Trautman, Kartschoke had reached what is most commonly considered the end point of the peak trail: the flat surface at the top of the peak.
Piecing together eyewitness testimony, Trautman said it appears that Kartschoke attempted to access a knife ridge below the peak.
“At the time there was a little flag out there [about 100 feet]… Our understanding is that she was attempting to lower herself onto the knife ridge in a backwards position, facing the flat part of the peak and lowering herself down onto the knife ridge,” Trautman said.
The woman lost her footing and fell, tumbling between 145 and 175 vertical feet along a steep face with loose scree and rocks. “It is our expectation that she never got onto the knife edge climbing down off the peak proper,” Trautman said.
According to Trautman, when the police department was paged, the two officers on duty, chief Nate Stepanek and officer Nate Turco, went to the Base Area of Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) to handle incident command. Crested Butte Bike Patrol and resort staff began making their way toward the scene of the incident and Crested Butte Search and Rescue was on standby.
“There happened to be a doctor hiking the peak at the time. He witnessed the fall, and he and another CBMR patroller scrambled down to her,” Trautman said. The doctor confirmed that the woman had died, and she was later officially pronounced dead at Gunnison Valley Health Mountain Clinic. Once it became clear that she had not survived the fall, Trautman said the operation became a search and recover. SAR assisted Bike Patrol in recovering her body.
CBMR issued a statement after the incident, stating, “Our thoughts and condolences are with the family during their time of loss, and to all of those who assisted in today’s incident, thank you for your time and care. Our hearts are with you all as well.”
“It was a hard day for everybody out there, the family included,” Erica Mueller, CBMR’s director of innovations and relations, told the News. She credited everyone who responded to the situation with quick responses and professionalism. “Mountain employees, Crested Butte Search and Rescue, the Mountain Health Clinic, and the Mt. Crested Butte Police Department were all very prompt, very professional and very respectful.”
Mueller did not comment on the details of the fall, but did emphasize the need for caution and awareness when hiking or biking on the mountain in any context.
“It’s the mountain environment. It’s the same as the ocean whether it’s sharks or rip tides. It’s Mother Nature… and there’s a respect for her that we all need to consistently remind ourselves of,” Mueller said.
This most recent, heartbreaking reminder comes at the height of summer as more hikers and bikers will head to the mountain. Mueller reiterated that staying on trails, following signage and knowing your own abilities are all important parts of staying safe. Whether hiking or biking, the trails are there to protect visitors and sometimes the fragile environment.
“Even though the peak seems like there’s not much of a trail, there is a designated route and a clear area where it stops once you get up there, so we ask that everybody follow those rules and have awareness out there,” Mueller continued.
Trautman also emphasized the risks inherent in the mountain environment. “We have a lot of safety measures in place to keep us all safe, but we’re still out there. There are still wild animals out there, there’s still some unsafe terrain and rocks can slide. It’s not necessarily a walk through a city park,” she said.
If there is one silver lining—though that is admittedly hard to find in a tragedy like this—it’s the knowledge that local emergency personnel work well together and respond efficiently when help is needed.
“From Search and Rescue to Ski Patrol to the police department and the fire protection district, they all work exceedingly well together in cases of emergency, even when coordinating with other counties… We’re fortunate in our community to have such teams that can work so cohesively [and also have] the level of experience our teams have dealing with extreme conditions,” Trautman said.