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Teeming with world-class granite, Rocky Mountain National Park is a beloved destination by the climbing community. On June 28 at approximately 4:30 p.m., a rockslide rumbled down the south side of Hallett Peak, sliding into the Upper Upper Chaos Canyon area.
“We’ve never seen this much rock fall. We probably never will again in our lifetime,” says Jeremy Fullerton, a Front Range climber who witnessed the historic rockslide. “The towers just started collapsing and rolling towards us. The whole hillside turned into mud, and the snow from the permafrost was turning it into a river. At that moment, we started to run.”
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No injuries were reported. A day later, via an update on their social media accounts, the Rocky Mountain National Park Service closed all areas in Chaos Canyon west of Lake Haiyaha citing more possible rockfall activity from the forecasted rain.
Alongside Fullerton, Front Range climbers William Mondragon, Mike Vice and Levi Van Weddingen were bouldering in the Upper Upper Chaos area near the Colossal Boulder. The Upper Upper Chaos area was first explored by Jim Belcer, Paul Otis, and Jon Linhart in 2003, and developed more extensively in 2010 by guidebook author Jamie Emerson and climbers Colin Horvat, Jimmy Webb, and Justin Jaeger. It’s home to world-class lines such as Full Chaos (V8), Lonely Mountain (V9), Wheel of Chaos (V14), and a myriad of five-star problems across the grade spectrum. Fullerton was projecting Way Down There, an unsent low start to Way Down Inside (V9), when the rockslide occurred.
Fullerton says he knew something was wrong when his friends began yelling louder and louder. “Normally your friends stay pretty quiet,” he says, “so you can focus on the boulder.” The trio had been hearing minor rockfalls all day, but this time they ran. “I have never run so fast in climbing shoes,” says Fullerton.
The group scrambled as fast as they could across the talus field, stopping 60 feet west of their location as the rockfall subsided. There, they debated whether or not to retrieve their gear. None of them had shoes, jackets, or car keys. While Fullerton kept watch, Mondragon and Levi clambered back into the cave where Fullerton was just climbing. After tossing backpacks, jackets, and gear back out, Mondragon heard Fullerton give a loud warning, “you guys need to run, now!”
Looking out from inside the cave, Mondragon saw a plume of dust billowing across and bits of rock flying through the air. For a split second, he considered staying in the cave. “It was so big and catastrophic, I [thought I] might not be able to escape either way,” Mondragon says, “I mean, you can’t really outrun a mountain.” But in a split-second decision, he ran again.
Less than a minute after Fullerton yelled his warning, he watched as the south side of Hallett Peak broke off. “It was an apartment-sized rockface coming loose,” says Fullerton, “I started yelling to direct my friends down the canyon.”
Luckily, all safely escaped the crashing debris. Looking back on the day, Fullerton acknowledged that it was not wise to return for their gear. “It’s best to be on the safe side and bail,” he says, “we were lucky.” Witnessing such a monumental rockslide will not deter him from returning. “I just love being up there so much, once it opens back up I plan on returning to Chaos Canyon.”
Rockslides and falls are synonymous with steep mountainous terrain with a freeze-thaw cycle. Dr. Alan Lee, a Geologist at the University of Colorado says, “The reason that the boulders are there is because rockslides happened thousands of years ago.” Lee recalls climbing the Northcutt-Carter route on Hallett Peak, only to return a year later to find the entire route had slid off.
With this latest slide, the boulder field of Upper Upper Chaos has been changed drastically—classic lines on the Colossal Boulder are buried. The boulders directly below the south side of Hallett Peak like Tarzan and the Brown 45 are likely buried or altered beyond recognition as well. The conditions of Full Chaos are currently unknown. Other climbers hearing of the rockfall made jokes about how Mother Nature decided to reset the area like Routesetters at a gym, but Hayden Miller, a Geologist at Los Almos National Laboratory, New Mexico says “after a rockslide, the area will remain unstable in freeze-thaw cycles for years to come.” Miller adds that rockslides are generally not predictable, but do happen in warmer parts of the year with wide temperature swings.
Due to forecasted rain, area closures will remain in effect at least until July 3. Visitors to other parts of the Park should remain vigilant as well.
Jamie Emerson, the author of Rocky Mountains National Park and Mount Evans Bouldering guide, says he called Fullerton immediately after hearing about the rockslide. “It reminds us all of how things can go from feeling completely safe to totally extreme in a matter of seconds,” says Emerson.