Devastating Floods Sweep Through Colorado

posted by dpm on 09/13/2013


Boulder, Colorado and other Front Range towns have been hammered with flooding that has washed out roads, closed businesses, and cut off access to climbing areas. Climbing, however, is the last thing many residents are currently worried about. Boulder resident Peter Beal stated that, "This is by far the most significant natural disaster in the area in at least a generation, probably longer in Boulder proper." He went on to say that, "Nobody really knows how bad the whole picture is since travel is restricted throughout the region, especially due to washed out roads."

Hwy 36 west of Lyons, Colorado. Photo: Jamie Emerson/Facebook

USA Today reports that Boulder received 7 inches of rain in a 24 hour period. On Thursday morning, the National Weather Service issued a bulletin calling for "major flooding/flash flooding" and "biblical rainfall amounts." That evening, with rain still falling at a rate of 1 to 2 inches per hour in some areas, President Obama signed a declaration of emergency.

The mountainous geography of the region creates a landscape where many highways parallel rivers through gorges and valleys, connecting the small mountain towns to lower elevation cities along the Front Range like Boulder, Colorado. Many of these thoroughfares are completely washed out making evacuation difficult or impossible.

The town of Estes Park, which acts as the jumping off point for Rocky Mountain National Park, has been almost entirely isolated. All major roads leading out of the town have been closed and many have been completely destroyed. Climber Nick Duttle, lives next to Hwy 34 which travels through Big Thompson Canyon, connecting the towns of Estes Park and Loveland. Last night, he laid in bed feeling the house shake as giant boulders tumbled through the canyon under the force of the waters. "I couldn't believe what it looked like when I woke up this morning," he said. "It's just a mass of swirling, raging mud. My house is OK right now but the road is closed downstream." Nick also described how the only way in and out of Estes Park right now is via Trail Ridge Road, a winding mountain road unsuitable for large trucks that could carry gas and food supplies.

Nick Duttle's driveway, literally feet from his house. Photo: Charles Cundiff/Facebook

But Estes Park is just one of the towns in a state of emergency that spans the entire Front Range including Boulder, Golden, Fort Collins, Denver, Greeley, Aurora, and many mountain towns at higher elevations. Of course, for now, staying safe is the top priority of residents but the near future of climbing opportunities is uncertain. Peter Beal remarked on the current state of climbing.

"Nobody should plan on coming to Boulder specifically for climbing near term. Clear Creek Canyon to my knowledge is closed to traffic. Eldorado Canyon has been evacuated and the road washed out west of the Bastille. Boulder City and County Open Space are officially closed and many trails have been seriously damaged. Boulder Canyon has had massive rockslides and is closed to traffic as far as I can tell. Steep hillsides and loosened boulders will make for hazardous conditions in many locales for weeks, along with destroyed trails.

Access to the high country is seriously compromised with major highway washouts on Route 7 and Route 36. The town of Lyons where 36 comes over from Boulder has seen massive destruction and there is no access west or east through it. Estes Park itself has seen major flooding and roads and trails within RMNP may be closed due to damage as yet unknown.

Further north, route 34 along the Big Thompson River is closed due to rockslides and the river itself may well wash out the highway completely. Further east 34 has washed over I-25 and other significant roads making N/S travel in the state impossible north of Denver for most. In Fort Collins proper, the Poudre river is at flood stage making access to Poudre Canyon impossible and the possibility of rockslides is high with continued rain."

Revolution Climbing posted this photo on Facebook with the caption, "Heading up to Estes for a little climbing session? Not anytime soon..."

The lasting effects on the numerous world-class climbing areas affected by this natural disaster are uncertain. While access is certainly compromised for a number of weeks or months, there is also the potential for long-term damage. Lower elevation boulder fields may have been severely affected, but Beal remains hopeful stating, "The long-term picture is uncertain without an on-site review but my guess is that a large number of important climbing areas along the Front Range will need trail work and other forms of rehabilitation. Boulder climbers have a history of coming together to meet challenges like this and I am confident this will happen in this case."