80% of Chaos Canyon’s Bouldering Is Closed. Some Question Park Service’s Motive
Upper and Upper Upper Chaos Canyon were closed due to a rockslide this summer. The extent of the closures may be the result of pre-existing tensions caused by bad climber behavior.
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Nestled on the southwest side of Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, Chaos Canyon, one of North America’s best known bouldering areas, is home to nearly 1,000 boulder problems on impeccable Rocky Mountain granite. Due to a massive rockfall event on the south slope of Hallett Peak on June 28, 2022, the National Park Service has indefinitely closed access to all areas west of Lake Haiyaha, including all of Upper Chaos and Upper Upper Chaos, home to some 80% of the canyons boulder problems. These closures have raised questions about the future of climbing in the canyon and lead some to speculate about the National Park’s long term attitude toward climbers.
A statement released by the National Park Service explains the reasons for the closure: “The area is still highly unstable and active. Saturated areas are still sliding and large boulders may still slide downhill, especially during or after large precipitation events.”
Geologists are studying and monitoring the rockslide area to determine when it would be safe to open these zones to the public. But in the meantime, the closures will be enforced. “People who violate the closure would receive a misdemeanor charge and would be issued a violation notice and collateral fine,” Kyle Patterson, RMNP Management Specialist told Climbing. “Depending on the situation, the person may also receive a citation to appear in federal court.”
Jamie Emerson, longtime RMNP climber and author of the Bouldering Rocky Mountain National Park and Mt. Evans guidebook, hiked to a high point on the ridge above the rockslide this past October to investigate which areas and boulders had been affected. By his estimation, eight to ten problems have been damaged or buried by the slide, all located in the Upper Upper Chaos area. “In the scheme of things it was a very small area that was affected,” Emerson said.
Given the fact that the park has instituted sweeping closure when only small sections of the canyon were affected by the slide, some disgruntled climbers have speculated that the closures are evidence that the park is somehow becoming “anti-climber.”
The pre-existing tension between climbers and the park service stems largely from climbers stashing of gear in the park, particularly bouldering pads, which has been an ongoing problem for as long as people have been climbing in Chaos Canyon. The rules regarding stashed gear in the park are simple and clear. Per nps.gov: “Carry out all climbing gear. Stashed ropes, rock protection, and bouldering pads are considered abandoned property as well as trash. Leaving climbing gear behind harms wildlife, damages wilderness areas, and is illegal.”
“Unfortunately, we do find stashed crash pads,” Patterson said. “These pads are often chewed by marmots and rodents, resulting in small pieces of foam littering the area as well as harming wildlife.”
In the past, when a ranger found a stashed pad, they’d hike it down to the ranger station where the owner could claim it and pick it up at a later date. But since this method didn’t serve as a deterrent to people stashing their gear, the park has updated their rules: now the owners of stashed pads forfeit any claim over their gear.
“Despite the messaging that I’ve put out,” Emerson said, “despite the messaging that the rangers have put out, despite the fact that the rangers have a presence as climbing rangers in Chaos Canyon, it has not stopped [certain climbers] from stashing their pads. The rangers are really frustrated about that. They think it is insensitive. They feel like it’s entitled. The rules are that people cannot leave gear overnight.”
Another discrepancy between the park and climbers stems from Chaos Canyon’s wilderness designation, which comes with its own set of regulations to protect the Wilderness Area. One of these rules is that the use of motorized equipment is prohibited anywhere 50 feet beyond a road or parking lot. This means cars, E-bikes, drones, and… fans. Yes, the portable fans that some boulderers use to mimic windy conditions are against the rules and are on the park rangers’ radar.
“Most climbers behave well,” Emerson said. “I do believe that most people go up there with respect. There are a handful of climbers that behave poorly. Unfortunately, most of the bad behavior is coming from the best climbers.”
Emerson explains that the park rangers are aware of who is doing what. “They walk up and see XYZ pro climber without a crashpad on their back, the rangers understand what’s going on.”
He adds that, while it is accurate to say that there is friction between climbers and park rangers, to say that the Chaos Canyon closures are because the park is “anti-climber” is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. The Chaos Canyon closures are for the safety of RMNP visitors—it remains an active rockfall zone. This is confirmed by Emerson: “This is a place I’ve bouldered for more than 20 years. Maybe once a summer I would hear rockfall. When I was up there this autumn rockfall was going off basically the whole time. The entire landslide is still really unstable.”
That said, the closures may indeed have been so expansive because of the park’s distrust in climbers’ ability to follow the rules.
“If they closed just half of Upper Chaos it would be easy for people to sneak into the closed areas that are still affected by the rockslide,” Emerson said. “So they just said, ‘No people west of the lake.’”
Sadly, there have already been reports of climbers sneaking into closed areas.
“[Rocky Mountain National Park] is not ‘anti-climber,’” Patterson said. “Fortunately, most climbers who recreate in [Rocky] minimize their impacts by practicing Leave No Trace ethics. Most climbers also adhere to closure areas whether it’s related to safety concerns in the Upper Chaos Canyon area or other seasonal closure areas due to raptor nesting.”
The measures taken by the park to accommodate climbers contradict the “anti-climber” narrative. RMNP’s climbing ranger program, for instance, involves hiring core climbers and enlisting volunteers as bouldering rangers and tasking them with talking to civilian climbers about the preservation of the wilderness.
“There is a team of volunteers who go out basically everyday, climbing in the park, talking to climbers, doing outreach, and a person who manages that team as a paid ranger,” Emerson said. “To me that says that the park is not anti-climber, but they are trying to manage it in an effective way. That makes it seem like they care and want to manage it and not just shut it down.”
Patterson ends by noting that our behavior as climbers will ultimately dictate the fate of climbing access in places like RMNP. “Responsible stewardship of public lands is necessary for all user groups,” she said, “helping to ensure the freest possible access and appropriate recreational use consistent with long-term preservation of park resources. Adhering to the principles of Leave No Trace and adhering to closure areas are two ways to help accomplish this.”