Carrie Welton (1842–84) was a relatively well-known socialite and amateur mountaineer who climbed Colorado Fourteeners in the 1880s. When Welton perished during an ill-advised autumn ascent of Longs Peak in 1884, she became the focal point of a national discussion concerning backcountry safety and etiquette. Today, as Colorado’s outdoor recreation remains a large draw for tourists around the globe and thousands of hikers summit Longs Peak every year, Welton’s story remains a cautionary tale and a reminder of the mountain’s dangers.
Caroline Josephine Welton, known to her family and friends as “Carrie,” was born on June 7, 1842. By the time she was eleven years old, the Welton family had moved back to Waterbury, Connecticut, where her father, Joseph, purchased interests in both the Waterbury Brass and the Oakville Pin companies. Success and prosperity quickly followed, culminating a decade later, in 1863, with the purchase of Rose Hill Cottage, a handsome stone mansion on Prospect Street. The Weltons spared no expense in securing their daughter’s education, sending her off to Miss Edwards’s School in New Haven and the Mears-Burkhardt School in New York, after which she studied drawing and oil painting in New York with several well-known artists of the day. None of this, including attentions paid by Waterbury society and its eligible bachelors, seemed to have mattered much to Carrie Welton.
From the age of twenty, the center of her life was her beloved horse, Knight, a gift from her father. Welton loved animals—she kept cats, dogs, and rabbits—but Knight was her favorite. She installed him in a velvet-draped stall in the Rose Hill stables, equipped him with special shoes and tack trimmed with silver, and fed him oats from a bone china bowl hand-painted with pansies and gold lettering bearing Knight’s name. Welton and her spirited black horse became familiar figures around town as she rode through the woods, fields, and streets of Waterbury in all sorts of weather.
Long before she left home for Colorado, Welton had earned a reputation among her contemporaries as a woman of social graces “with a propensity to do uncommon things” and “a reputation for courage and physical endurance.” She was also impulsive, headstrong, and accustomed to having her own way and confronting life on her terms. On March 26, 1874, Joseph Welton, by then the president of Waterbury Brass, died after sustaining a kick from Knight. Joseph had seen to it that his wife and daughter were well taken care of, although the distribution of his estate was odd in one respect: Rose Hill was divided, with Jane Welton getting the house and Carrie getting the grounds.
Both women initially sought consolation through travel, and in 1875–76 the pair visited California. By 1880, their relationship had changed. For reasons never entirely clear, there was a deep and lasting estrangement. Though disagreements over money were sometimes cited, the causes were more likely rooted in their personalities. Jane was known as stern and majestic and was as headstrong and determined to have her way as her daughter. Whatever the reason for their quarrel, Jane and Carrie were content to go their separate ways. After 1880, Carrie never returned to Rose Hill, and in 1883 she removed her mother as the executor of her will.
By 1884, Welton had become what was then regarded as a spinster, whose life was plainly in transition. She traveled, coming West in the spring to explore Yellowstone National Park for several weeks before moving on to Colorado Springs. This was Welton’s second visit to Colorado. It would later be intimated that she suffered from a heart condition and lived with Augusta A. Warren in one of her two boardinghouses. The highlight of this visit would be a summiting of 14,110-foot Pikes Peak, which Welton completed despite encountering a severe storm. She took up residence in the splendid Antlers Hotel that had opened that June. Carrie and Augusta—now fast friends—shared a love of nature and the outdoors. During the weeks following her arrival, Augusta took Welton to Bear Creek Canyon, where she kept a homesteader cabin, and to other attractions, including Manitou Springs.
Welton was determined not only to repeat her success at Pikes Peak but to accomplish the mountain’s first ascent of the season. The winter of 1883–84 had been exceptionally cold, and well into summer the trail remained impassable, clogged by deep snows. An augur of things to come, Welton had been warned that the undertaking was foolish and dangerous. Somehow obtaining the services of two guides, she departed Manitou at midnight and reached the summit after a cold, tedious trip. From Colorado Springs, she went north to Denver by rail, where she stayed with friends at the Brown Palace Hotel. Welton’s love of the mountains drew her to Estes Park during the week of September 14, 1884, where she took up residence at the Estes Park Hotel. On Monday, September 22, she announced her intention to ascend 14,255-foot Longs Peak, a significantly more technical and difficult climb than Pikes Peak. Theodore Whyte, Dunraven’s resident manager, attempted to dissuade her from the attempt, citing Colorado’s unpredictable September weather and the remaining winter snows that rendered the north and west faces of the peak unclimbable.
Buoyed by her successful climb of Pikes Peak, Welton was adamant about making the bid for Longs. On Monday afternoon, leaving behind a small package at the hotel but taking her jewelry, she engaged Henry S. Gilbert, a local livery operator, to take her to Lamb’s Ranch. By 1884, the Reverend Elkanah Lamb (1832–1915), the first professional guide to the Longs Peak region, had turned the guide business over to his son, Carlyle (1862–1958). It was with the younger Lamb that Welton made arrangements for the eight-mile ascent of Longs Peak the following day. The pair left on horseback early the next morning.
Although the day broke warm and pleasant, it took some five hours to make the first six miles. As on Pikes Peak, the snows of the preceding winter were still very deep, often obscuring the trail. The going proved difficult for the horses, and Carlyle and Carrie decided to leave them well below the usual tethering place at the Boulder Field, the tumbled mass of rocks at the east edge of the peak’s formidable face. This decision, made in sunshine while the two climbers were still fresh, is what likely cost Welton her life.
At the Keyhole the weather began to turn against them. They encountered a strong, chilling wind and dark clouds, a sign of worse weather still to come. Carlyle, an experienced climber who had summited the peak for the first time at age seventeen, wisely advised retreat—even if they succeeded in taking the summit, there would not be any view. Welton would have none of it. She had heard such objections from her guides on Pikes Peak. Her response, Carlyle later told his father, was that “she had never undertaken anything and given it up.” And so they proceeded up the imposing east face under gathering storm clouds.
Even at the time, general knowledge held that it was best to be off the summit well before noon to avoid the inevitable afternoon storms, many of which are quite fierce. By the time Welton and her guide reached the summit it was frigid and very late—after 3 p.m., by Lamb’s account. Welton was weary, and the stay at the summit proved brief. As Lamb had feared, dark clouds had intensified, a sign that a storm had already set in below them. Leaving the summit, the clouds briefly lifted; but now, as they recrossed the Narrows and headed down the Trough, they found themselves caught in a fearsome snowstorm—the worst Lamb had ever seen in the mountains. Their descent became increasingly slow, and Welton began to complain of exhaustion. Over the next two hours they failed to cover even a mile of ground. The pair struggled to the Keyhole, but by then Welton had grown entirely numb from the cold and could not stand unassisted. The moment of crisis and decision had come—it was now 10 p.m.
The pair descended a short distance below the Keyhole, and Lamb called a halt. Sitting down, he confided in Welton that he too could barely stand after the exertion of helping her across the Narrows and down the Trough. The only chance that either of them had for survival, he told her, was for him to leave her and go ahead for help. At first, Welton objected to being left alone, but eventually she relented. The pair situated Welton as best they could against the biting cold and fierce winds, and Lamb stumbled into the darkness, continuing his descent. The storm lifted momentarily, and the moonlight aided him in his rapid descent. He reached the horses and rode one while leading the other five miles through the storm to his father’s ranch. The Lambs immediately began a return trip up the mountain, reaching timberline at 1 a.m. the next morning, but a gale made progress maddeningly slow as they continued up the moraine toward the Boulder Field. Just before daybreak, the elder Lamb reached the edge of the uplift. He would never forget the sight waiting for him: “I came in sight of the tragic spot, where Carrie J. Welton lay at rest, having died alone amid the wind’s mad revelry and dismal dirge, and which was holding high carnival over her body by blowing every section of her garments in its unrelenting fury, seemingly sporting with its victim in demonical triumph. I remember, with clear distinctness, my involuntary expression as I approached the body: ‘I fear, my young lady, that you are past saving.’”
Welton had struggled about ten feet from the spot where Carlyle left her and had fallen over a rock, badly bruising her head and wrist. She lay in a snowbank, still wearing her silk sun mask, next to the ivory-handled riding whip upon which she had hoped to record her mountaineering achievements. On October 17, 1884, she was laid to rest in a service held at Rose Hill Cottage. In the following weeks and months, newspapers across the country weighed in on the ethics of Lamb’s decision to leave Welton and go for help, prompting a national conversation about wilderness safety at a time when outdoor recreation was still in its infancy.
Adapted from James H. Pickering, “‘Alone Amid the Wind's Mad Revelry’: The Death of Carrie Welton,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 18, no. 3 (1998).