ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. — As the group of four men ran down the rocky southern shoulder of Hallett Peak on Tuesday afternoon in their climbing shoes, they looked back to see rocks the size of an apartment crushing where they had been climbing a few minutes earlier.
Jeremy Fullerton, 31, of Boulder and his three friends — William Mondragon, Levi Van Weddingen, and Mike Vice — climb in Rocky Mountain National Park often. Fullerton said he enjoys bouldering around Hallett Peak and its Upper Chaos Canyon. He's visited that area roughly 40 to 50 times a year since he moved to Colorado nine years ago. The friends would lug large foam mats up the slopes and climb up giant boulders that previously fell off the mountain. At the end of an attempt, they simply let go and fall on the mat.
For the average national park visitor, Hallett Peak may be more familiar from its eastern face, which looms above the west side of Dream Lake (the left side when reaching the lake from the Bear Lake Trailhead).
"So yeah, we were just out for a normal day of climbing and then it kind of got a little crazy obviously, with all the rockfall that happened," Fullerton said.
Every year, the area goes through a freeze-thaw period as snow melts off the cliffs. He said it's not uncommon to see large rocks — sometimes the size of cars or even houses — fall off that shoulder of Hallett Peak a couple times a day.
On Tuesday afternoon, they saw that the rocks were a bit more "active" than normal, he said. They had even paused a few times throughout the day to watch the rockfall from a safe distance.
Around 4:30 p.m., Fullerton took a turn climbing a boulder in a cave as his friend Mondragon took a video. Fullerton's three friends were quiet — which is custom in climbing — as he carefully navigated the rock.
"But my friend Mike and Levi were outside of the cave, and they just start screaming and being like, 'Oh my God, the top just fell off.' And just like freaking out," Fullerton said.
Fullerton let go of the boulder and fell on his mat.
"We ran outside the cave and sure enough, within five minutes, we were essentially running for our lives away from the rockfall area because if we stayed where I was just climbing five minutes ago, we would have died for sure," he said.
They abandoned their gear and ran downhill in climbing shoes.
"It was this catastrophic thing that none of us have ever, ever experienced," he said. "I would even go as far as saying historic rockfall that Rocky Mountain might not see in our lifetime ever again."
The group managed to find their way to a safe space and the rockfall sputtered out. When all was quiet, they debated going back for their gear, shoes and cell phones.
"I'm going to be a dad this upcoming September," Fullerton said."So, the three guys were like, 'Well, if anyone should go recover the gear, it shouldn't be you because if anyone's going to get hit and die from the rockfall, it should probably be us.'"
Fullerton agreed, but said he'd keep an eye on the rocks above in case they started to move again.
"And sure enough, I was looking up at this cliff band and I noticed that this crack in part of the cliff was starting to widen," he said. "I was like, 'Guys, you need to hurry up, the crack is getting bigger, I think it's about to fall again.' And sure enough, 30 seconds later, I'm just like, 'Run!'"
As the three men scrambled back downhill, Fullerton yelled directions to guide them out of the way of boulders tumbling above them. All three made it back to Fullerton and they continued moving away from the slide.
"I don't like exaggerating about this stuff," Fullerton said. "And by no means am I trying to exaggerate with a story, but we were literally... We got engulfed in a cloud of debris and smoke to the point where I couldn't see my hand in front of my face.... I had a moment where I was like, 'OK, I think this might be it. I'm just waiting to get hit in the back of the head by a rock because I can't see.'"
Once they reached a place far away from the rockfall trajectory, they sat down to collect their thoughts. Mondragon, Van Weddingen, and Vice had haphazardly grabbed whatever gear they could before fleeing back down the mountain. From their resting spot, they quietly traded equipment and gear back and forth.
"I've been friends with these guys for many, many years," Fullerton said. "And when you go through something like that with some really good friends, it makes you realize how much you would miss them if they were to get killed or if we had to try to recover their body or something like that. We go climbing several times a week all together and it's just like, wow, if one of us got hit or we all got killed, like, dang. That could have been it."
Fullerton said while the climbers were thankful to have escaped unscathed, the climbing community is now, in a way, mourning the loss of the boulder problems — or a specific sequence of climbing moves — in that area of the park. It's comparable to a beloved lake or trail getting demolished, he described. You have so many memories of a place that's now erased from the Earth.
On the other hand, he said there are now plenty of new climbs and first ascents to be had along that side of Hallett Peak.
Just not in the immediate future.
“I (know) quite a few people that are climbers — they're like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna go up there and explore.’ And I'm like, ‘If you go up there, you're going to die.’ Because there's going to be a lot more rockfall that's going to happen because that glacier is now exposed to the sun and the permafrost is kind of melting out a lot more. So I think we're going to see quite a few more historic rockfalls coming from that very same spot."
A spokeswoman for RMNP echoed those statements and confirmed the incident, saying that there is a "significant possibility" for more rockfall at any time.
All areas in Chaos Canyon west of Lake Haiyaha are closed for the foreseeable future due to the "highly unstable" terrain, plus the impacts of possible precipitation in the forecast. The spokeswoman said the closure will last through the projected rainstorms and after National Park Service geologists can evaluate the slope.
The hiking trail to Lake Haiyaha, Lake Haiyaha, and hiking trails on the north side of Hallett Peak remain open. The bouldering area in lower Chaos Canyon, on the north and east shore of Lake Haiyaha, are also open.
The cause of the rockfall is unknown.
There have been no reports of any injuries, as of Thursday at 9 a.m.