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Floods Lead to Unprecedented Shutdown of Colorado Climbing

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Eldorado Canyon on September 12, with South Boulder Creek flowing at 12 times normal levels for September.
Eldorado Canyon on September 12, with South Boulder Creek flowing at 12 times normal levels for September. Bastille formation on right and Redgarden on left. Photo by Terry Murphy.

9/26/13 – Some trails and a few climbing areas have reopened. Read our latest story for a summary.

9/22/13 – The flooding across northeastern Colorado took an enormous human and economic toll—eight dead, more than 1,500 homes destroyed, and hundreds of millions in infrastructure damage. Now, although it pales by comparison, climbers across Boulder and the northern Front Range are feeling another impact as they dry out their homes and get back to work: The fall climbing season has been erased from the calendar, and the future for many local climbing areas is extremely uncertain.

Eleven days after the floods began, nearly every road accessing climbing in the nearby mountains and foothills is closed. Some towns, such as Estes Park and Lyons, remain mostly cut off or evacuated. Moreover, nearly every public trail and foothills park between Golden and the Wyoming border is closed, meaning popular climbing areas such as Eldorado Canyon State Park, Boulder Canyon, Lumpy Ridge, and Rocky Mountain National Park are off limits indefinitely.

A representative from Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks said that, “Hundreds of climbing and bouldering routes are all closed, including the Flatirons and Flagstaff. Everything that falls within the 70 square miles surrounding Boulder [is closed].”

Highway and park officials say it may be months or even years before full access is restored. Late last week, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper called for temporary access to major canyon roads to be completed by December 1, still two months away. The state Department of Transportation said late last week that 85 percent of U.S. 34 (Big Thompson Canyon) is a “total loss.” Fifty percent of Colorado Hwy. 7 (South St. Vrain Canyon) is a total loss, and 20 percent of Hwy. 119 (Boulder Canyon) is a total loss.

Flatirons trailhead on September 13.
Flatirons trailhead on September 13. Photo by Terry Murphy.

Parts of Boulder County, especially in the foothills, received more than 16 inches of rainfall during the floods, around the average annual total. Elsha Kirby, a public affairs representative for the U.S. Forest Service, confirmed that Boulder Canyon, directly west of the city, was heavily affected.

“We are still accessing the damage,” Kirby said last week. “We are still rescuing people, so while the teams are rescuing, we are not allowed to go in and scope out things.” Although it’s impossible to predict the impact to specific crags and boulders, the soil on Boulder Canyon’s hillsides is thin and unstable, and large, destructive landslides were observed during the floods.

Steve Muehlhauser, head climbing ranger of Eldorado Canyon, said late last week, “The park is closed. There’s no access, no vehicular access, no pedestrian access, no access at all.

“There’s a 150-foot section of road between the Bastille and Milton Boulder that’s gone,” Muehlhauser said. “The configuration of South Boulder Creek has dramatically changed.”

Muehlhauser would not speculate on Eldorado’s reopening date, even for limited climber access, but he did hold out some hope: “If there’s any good news, it’s that most of the climbing access trails and most of the hiking trails are reasonably reparable.” Last week, the park requested a volunteer team to begin work on the trails, and the 25-person cap was reached within minutes. On Saturday, the crew worked on the most easily accessible trails.

Eldo Restoration
Volunteer trail crew beginning restoration work in Eldorado Canyon, September 21. Photo courtesy of Boulder Climbing Community.

Rocky Mountain National Park has partially reopened, and Trail Ridge Road, which crosses the Continental Divide in the north side of the park, is open to traffic (at least until snow flies), providing one of the few ways to access Estes Park. However, almost all of the trails on the east side of the park, where most of the climbing takes place, remain closed. No date has been given for reopening.

Almost all of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks is completely closed, with officials warning of fines up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail time for anyone entering the parks.  “Very few people have been into the Flatirons, and rangers would potentially issue a citation,” said Terry Murphy, head of the Flatirons Climbing Council.

As in Eldorado, volunteers have been champing at the bit to help rebuild trails and regain access. Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks says it has received hundreds of offers to volunteer. (Sign-up and trail closure information is available here.) Three Boulder-based climbing organizations are collecting donations for rebuilding projects, once park officials have prioritized needs and allowed trail crews to begin work. The Boulder Climbing Community, an umbrella organization for local climbers, has set up a donation page at its website. The Flatirons Climbing Council and Action Committee for Eldorado also are collecting donations and will be organizing volunteers for future rebuilding projects.

Even after access trails are rebuilt and reopened, the danger level at many routes and crags is likely to be elevated for months to come. The heavy rainfall uncovered tree roots across all areas, leaving many trees at risk of falling. Some crags and boulders also likely have unstable ground surrounding them.  Murphy estimated that the damage done by the flood was comparable to years of run-off.  “With that kind of erosion going on for several days straight, routes will have loose rock on them now, of all sizes,” he said.

The volunteer Boulder Mudslingers at a clean-up site.
The volunteer Boulder Mudslingers at a clean-up site. Photo courtesy of Donate Boulder.

With literally no place to climb outdoors in Boulder and much of northern Colorado, climbers eager to get outside are likely to head south and west. Table Mountain, in Golden, and Clear Creek Canyon to the west of that town are the closest major areas open to climbing. Predictably, these areas reportedly have been “insanely crowded.” Farther afield, South Platte granite, Shelf Road limestone, and the many areas of the Western Slope and beyond (Rifle, Black Canyon, Indian Creek) have been much less affected by recent heavy rains and are likely to be jammed with climbers this fall.

With few local options, many climbers are choosing to refocus their energy on clean-up. In addition to helping friends and neighbors dig the mud and trash out of their basements, climbers have organized several groups, most notably Donate Boulder (a.k.a. the Boulder Mudslingers). The brainchild of Boulder climber Aly Nicklas and friends, this community-based effort, fueled by social media, has rallied hundreds of volunteers (many of them climbers) to mitigate flood damage throughout the Boulder area, cleaning up dozens of homes. On Friday, September 20, the effort was featured in a segment on NBC Nightly News.

“Yesterday, I had a very climbing-centric crew in Salina [a severely damaged mountain community], like Jamie Emerson, Caryn Courcier, and a bunch more,” Nicklas said on September 23. “Climbers are the ones I take to the gnarly spots because they are less likely to kill themselves on accident. Getting access up there is sensitive, and I’ve spent hours on the phone with the county. It helped that I’ve told them many of the volunteers we are taking up there are climbers.”

This story will be updated frequently as more is learned about the impacts on specific climbing areas, and as access begins to reopen.