Rock fall danger on the Dolores - Mountain Buzz

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Old 05-20-2017   #1
Austin, Texas
Paddling Since: 2006
Join Date: Aug 2011
Posts: 10
Rock fall danger on the Dolores

I apologize if this is old news, but we had a rather harrowing experience Wednesday while camping on the Dolores at about Mile 80 (2/3 of the way through a 3-day, 50-mile Slick Rock to Bedrock run @ 800 cfs.) The snowstorm that hit most of Colorado rolled in on us early Wed afternoon as a rainstorm. We set up camp in the rain and were in our tents trying to stay warm and dry (NOTE: the alcove camp sites were taken.) The rain turned to snow at around 6 PM, and soon after, we heard what sounded like thunder at first, but it kept repeating and getting closer. By the time I figured out what was going on, it was too late. A gigantic thud shook the ground, and I poked my head out of my tent to see a 500 lbs sandstone rock that had landed only a few feet in front of the tent, with enough force to make a crater several inches deep. It very likely would have been fatal had it landed on me. This was an established campsite with de facto tent pads. There were other rocks strewn about between the tent pads, but none looked recent, and I had set up my tent well outside of the existing rock field. The freak snowfall no doubt had something to do with triggering the rock fall, but my takeaway was: be more aware of your surroundings. Look up as well as around when you're pitching your camp. The locals told me that rock falls are common around there because of the soft sandstone. I have no sense of how common or how likely/unlikely this particular fall was. It may be something that only occurs every 100 years in this particular spot, and we were just unlucky enough to have been there when it happened (and lucky enough not to have been killed by it), but we did hear some subsequent rock falls down the canyon during the night.
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Old 05-20-2017   #2
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
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Buy a Lotto ticket now, You are way lucky. Wow
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Old 05-20-2017   #3
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Tabernash, Colorado
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We camped mostly on tall islands during a major rain event one time, there were so many rock slides during the day, it was the only place we felt safe camping. They had to be TALL islands though, since the river rose 8,000 to 30,000 in about a day!

Maybe a good rule of thumb if you are TL, is always pay extra attention to camp site choice when you see the signs of inclement weather. Thanks for the story!

Glad your ok!!
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Old 05-20-2017   #4
Ridgway, Colorado
Join Date: Mar 2009
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As previously stated, Wow!
I'm glad you'r still with us.
That being said, many/most of the camp spots that I love the most have similar hazards.
Camp out in the open and be safeish, or camp in the rocks and roll the dice. I've never heard a story of someone being smashed in their tent; I'm sure that it's happened, probably on y-tube.
Rocks fall from high places. The best way to avoid this is cities.
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Old 05-20-2017   #5
Electric-Mayhem's Avatar
Lakewood, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1993
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Oh geez...that rock went passed my tent and landed next to his. We both had a close call on that one. The whole back side of my tent was covered in rock shards and there was another rock about the same size that landed closer to the rock face too. I was freaking out in my tent since I knew what that noise was and I was jumpy for a few days after with loud noises. Pretty hairy feeling sitting in a tent waiting for a rock to come your way.

In the end, it was a great story and I'm glad that is all it was. I've slept under cliffs like this before but this is the first time I've been in camp where it fell in close proximity to tents and people.

I don't think its worth not camping near cliffs, but at the least have a look up and see what the situation is and maybe plan on what you'll do if you hear them coming down. In this case we had a good 10-20 seconds of hearing the rock start to come down before it impacted in camp.
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Old 05-20-2017   #6
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Wheat Ridge, Colorado
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A few years ago on Westy we were in the flats a half mile or so above Cougar Bar when Roger from SLC pulled out his digeridoo and started to play. After a minute or so I heard a loud CRACK! and BAM!

Looking up there were some big ones that had cut loose from the cliff up above the river. One about the size of a Kenmore came down, hit an outcrop and sailed spinning in an arc out into mid-channel about 50 feet from Roger's bow. A few more bowling-ball sized chunks went into the river as well just in front of him.

He's sworn off playing the Dige in narrow canyons...

Be safe out there! And remember, don't find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time...

Nothing in the world is more yielding and gentle than water. Yet it has no equal for conquering the resistant and tough. The flexible can overcome the unbending; the soft can overcome the hard. - Lao Tse
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Old 05-21-2017   #7
Austin, Texas
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Originally Posted by rtsideup View Post
As previously stated, Wow!

I'm glad you'r still with us.

That being said, many/most of the camp spots that I love the most have similar hazards.

Camp out in the open and be safeish, or camp in the rocks and roll the dice.

Rocks fall from high places. The best way to avoid this is cities.

Not ever having overnighted in the canyons of Western Colorado, I didn't have a good sense of whether this was typical or not, but after talking to the locals and seeing other reports on here, it does seem as if these rock falls are more of a thing along canyons in that area than in other places. We certainly don't get them with any kind of frequency in the river canyons of Texas (Rio Grande, Devils, etc.), despite the fact that some of those canyons have much higher walls than Slick Rock Canyon. Two of the guys that were on the Dolores trip have paddled the Big Ditch many times and have never witnessed a rock fall down there either. The weather was certainly a factor. When water freezes, it expands, so rain followed by freezing is the worst-case scenario for rock falls, but the geology was also apparently a factor.

Also, to clarify, I set up as far away from the canyon wall as I could without pitching my tent on the mud flat. Because the canyon wall in that area is sort of a 45-degree slope, the rock in question bounced several times before hitting. I remember it taking less than 10 seconds-- it was certainly not enough time for me to process what was going on and emerge from the tent to see what was happening (good thing, because had I poked my head out, it would've been in the line of fire.) The last bounce sent the rock flying over the tents that were pitched closer to the canyon wall. Where the rock landed was, at least for this location, an unprecedented distance from the canyon wall. There were no other rocks that far away from the wall. So in that sense, it may have been as much of a fluke as a lightning strike, but there are also places where lightning strikes are more common, and one needs to be aware of that risk when camping in those places.

I am not advising against paddling the Dolores-- it's a beautiful river and needs to be enjoyed. This is just literally a "heads up." BTW, the exact coordinates of the campsite are 38.202597, -108.908753.

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Old 05-21-2017   #8
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Cedar City, Utah
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A good friend was TL on a Commercial Grand Canyon oar trip, camped in Fern Glen waiting for the afternoon rise to run Lava. He heard what he thought was thunder, then realized refrigerator-sized boulders were falling into camp. Luckily one was injured. You just never know.
In life, pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional.
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Old 05-21-2017   #9
Pieter Porcupine
Salida, Colorado
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On the original NOLS courses, Paul Petzoldt would throw rocks at students tents if they pitched them under cliffs.
The larger the river of knowledge the longer the shoreline of wonder.
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Old 05-21-2017   #10
Join Date: Aug 2006
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When I was guiding on the Grand the company I worked for had the first helicopter launch in the morning so we always camp at the pad the night before. I was making dinner and one of the passengers came up to me and said that he had a problem with his tent and due to him being German and his lack of English he made it sound like there was a defect in the tent. I went to investigate and he pointed to a hole in the fly on the top of the tent and I asked him if he had been inside and he said no he had not been inside since he noticed the hole. I unzipped the tent and sitting on top of his pad and sleeping bag was a rock about the size of a softball and I have never seen someone's eyes get so big so quickly. He had set up his tent in the back of the camp up against the loose wall and the rock had dropped off and gone through the tent. Pretty scary.
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