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Watch your step

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Alpine mountain climber and instructor Bill Houghton knows what mistakes are worth. During his 40-year career and the 105 peaks over 13,600 feet he's conquered -- including Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the towering Huayna Potosi in Bolivia -- he's made his share of mistakes.

"Good judgment is the product of experience," Houghton said, repeating a phrase drilled into his head by his Grandma Babs. "Experience is normally the product of bad judgment."

But when it comes to rock climbing, one mistake can easily turn deadly -- as it did for Efren Delacruz, a Mitchell High School student who fell to his death last month in Cheyenne Canyon. Delacruz's accident marked the latest in a decades-long pattern -- approximately one person falls to his or her death every year in Cheyenne Canyon or Garden of the Gods.

"Pikes Peak granite comes apart easily," Houghton said. Some who go climbing don't notice the crumbling rock turning into "roller bearings."

At age 60 and after two decades in Colorado Springs, Houghton, who teaches climbing through the Colorado Mountain Club's Pikes Peak Chapter, can attest to the mountain's deadly legacy. But difficult areas, he says, should be not placed off limits because of the missteps of some. Nor do posted danger signs alerting climbers to potential dangers constitute a solution. "You can have skull and crossbones signs, and people are still going to ignore it."

Rather, Houghton says, every climber should take two steps: First, contact a local climbing group or mountaineering store for information on climbing routes and necessary equipment. Second, go climbing with people who know more than you do.

"If people don't know what they're doing," he said, "they should stay out."

Photo by Bruce Elliot

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