Massive glaciers carved out the landscape that is now the third most popular National Park in the United States based on visitation. What today is known as Rocky Mountain National Park(RMNP) was first visited by humans 11,000 years ago. Spearheads and scrapers along with other artifacts shed light into the cultural history of this land. Up until the 1700’s RMNP was a summer get-away for the Ute tribe who enjoyed the vast alpine tundras, green valleys, and turquoise lakes. Early Spanish explorers, French fur traders, and the United States Military steered clear of the intimidating mountain range up until 1843 when Rufus Sage wrote down the first accounts of the park. (NPS 2015)
Longs Peak, the guardian of the park and its highest point at 14,255’, catches anyone’s eye along the Front Range, whether they be a “ski-bum” or not. The prolific diamond face and flat summit comparable to a football field make Longs one of the most well known peaks in Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park a go-to destination for many mountain-oriented travelers. As a result of this popularity and because of the extreme terrain, more than 70 people have lost their lives on Longs due to hypothermia, past medical conditions, altitude related injuries, or falling.
RMNP contains many classic Colorado ski lines that are outlined in the guidebook and topo map. Some of the steeper lines that are outlined are the Y couloir on Ypsilon peak (55 degrees), the Dragontail couloir in the Tyndall Gorge (55 degrees), the Elevator Shaft in Chaos Canyon (55 degrees), the Sky couloir in the Loch Vale (55 degrees), and McHenrys Notch in the Upper Glacier Gorge (55 degrees). If these grades worry you then they should! However, RMNP also contains mellower tours for those who wish to enjoy the view and keep their risk tolerance low such as Fall River South, Upper Hidden Valley, Lower Hidden Valley, and Chaos Canyon.
This past summer of 2022, a significant change to the geography of the park happened at Hallett Peak in Chaos Canyon. A very large debris slide came free off the south side of Hallett Peak. Apartment-complex-sized boulders, along with rocks of other varying sizes, slid from just below the existing snowfield. In some areas the debris ripped all the way down to the bedrock. No injuries or deaths occurred due to the slide. One of the unexpected results of the slide is the change in color of Lake Haiyaha, from that of a typical clear alpine lake, to a sea-green color from the “rock-flour” transported into the lake after the slide. Chaos Canyon past Lake Haiyaha is closed until further notice because there are still many active slide areas.
While there have been geographical events throughout recent history, such as the rock slide shown above, that significantly impact the physical appearance of certain backcountry skiing locations, it’s important to understand that these are few and far between; and that in almost all situations, the one part of the avalanche recipe that will never change is the terrain. Rockslides and rare terrain changes at least remind us that researching the terrain beforehand becomes even more important when putting together a plan that takes geography into consideration. Erring on the side of caution is always a viable idea when touring the backcountry, but in situations where one may be feeling usure about the terrain, studying the ski topography and land becomes imperative. Using Beacon’s powerful planning and execution tools, you can read your run the night, week, or month before. You can zoom in on the important parts of a tour plan with features like maximum slope angles, ATES ratings, aspects and elevations. Then you can refer to it as you travel through the field, assess your conditions, and adjust your plan as necessary.
“Brief Park History.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1 Dec. 2015, https://www.nps.gov/romo/learn/historyculture/brief.htm.
ABC News, director. Hikers Escape Rockslide in Rocky Mountain National Park | ABC News. YouTube, YouTube, 1 July 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gu9OTDS3a6g. Accessed 17 Apr. 2023.