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The 200,000-acre Caldor Fire has made history as just the second fire to ever jump from one side of the Sierra to the other. Until the Dixie Fire did the same thing earlier this month, it was believed that wildfires couldn’t sustain progress across such rocky, mountainous terrain. So far, over 600 homes have burned, as has the area around the historic crag Lover’s Leap. The impact likely extends to dozens of South Lake Tahoe’s smaller crags and bouldering zones. Remarkably, the fire has at this point caused few reported injuries and no known deaths.
The fire is a blow to the South Lake region and will impact the area’s climbing resources. Some of these zones will need significant reinvestment to rebuild trails and fixed gear infrastructure. Other areas may be permanently damaged.
Don’t go near Tahoe
Michael Habicht, an ER Doctor who leads the Tahoe Climbing Coalition, says that dozens of climbing areas are being impacted, though it is unclear how extensive the damage is. Habicht notes that everyone should stay away from the Tahoe area.
“The entire region is stressed,” he says. “There are no emergency services. The only full service hospital in Tahoe has evacuated all of the patients and the ER is closed. Most of the regional EMS, police, fire, and SAR are either evacuated or completely occupied by the fire. A majority of the climbing is on forest service lands and they are officially closed to the public. Now is not the time to plan a trip to Tahoe (whether North or South Lake) of any kind. Biking, boating, hiking, climbing—none of that is viable right now.”
How fires damage climbing areas
Fire cleanup often involves rebuilding trails, replacing fixed gear, and waiting for a new environment to grow back among the ashes. Fires can also change the nature of the rock itself, as it did at Cochiti Mesa, which until 2011 was a sport climbing area in New Mexico. Fire temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees burned Cochiti’s hard patina, destroying it.
Such damage isn’t likely on Tahoe’s harder granite, but if the fire burns hot enough it could cause exfoliation, especially among Tahoe’s forest boulders.
Climbing areas effected
Reports say that Lover’s Leap has burned. The classic granite crag is striated with unusual horizontal dykes and is home to hundreds of historic routes and beautiful boulders. (It was the scene of Dan Osman’s famous speed solo of Bear’s Reach, 5.7, and Alex Honnold’s replication of that event.) While the rock on the cliff itself—which ranges from 250 to 600 feet tall—is unlikely to have been heavily damaged, it will could years to rebuild the trails and replace compromised fixed gear (bolted anchors). The adjacent town of Strawberry has been mostly saved, but many outlying cabins and homes have been destroyed. It’s unclear what kind of condition the fires will leave the boulders at the base of the cliff.
It’s also unclear whether the Sugarloaf area—the huge granite spires off US-50—have burned, and if so at what intensity. But based on fire maps, it seems clear that areas around the Phantom Spires and Echo Summits have burned, as have the Lake Audrain Boulders and the PCT Boulders and the Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort. (The extent to which the firefighters were able to save the resort’s structures and lift infrastructure remains unclear, but images of the snow cannons being used to fight the fire are sobering.)
Right now, Meyers and Christmas Valley are on the front line, with fires on both sides of SR-89. The Christmas Valley Boulders, on the west side of the valley, seem to have experienced fire. Benwood Meadows and the areas around Luther Pass are also at risk.
The fire has simultaneously advanced on the climbing areas further south, near Kirkwood. It is currently burning in and around The Lost World and Erratica, both popular bouldering areas. It’s also burning near the cliff where Carlo Traversi’s modern classic Empath (5.14d/5.15a) is located.