‘Sounded like a lightning strike’; huge rockslide in Little Cottonwood
Aug 23, 2023, 7:29 PM | Updated: Aug 24, 2023, 5:16 pm
SANDY, Utah — A huge rockslide pulverized a popular hiking trail and climbing area up Little Cottonwood Canyon, with boulders crashing down hundreds of feet. Not only did people in the area catch the slide, and its aftermath, volunteers are already working on trying to clean it up.
Firing up an electric chainsaw Wednesday afternoon, Pete Lenz cut down debris. He worked on chopping up tree branches into smaller, more digestible pieces that he and Brian Smoot could pick up and carry.
The debris was sprawled across the trail in the Gate Buttress area. The trail normally takes climbers from a parking area, up to the cliffs.
Lenz and Smoot, both longtime climbers themselves, knew the debris was bad. They just didn’t expect it to sprawl as far as it did.
“I’m guessing it came down 300 vertical feet,” Lenz said, standing next to a giant, jagged boulder taller than him. The boulder was also about as wide as he was tall.
Brian stepped up and the two looked up the hill. Through the trees, one could see a cliff a few hundred feet up where the boulder came from.
“We had no idea that it came down this far,” Smoot said.
John Rogers had an idea, because he was there Monday evening when everything came crashing down.
“I heard what sounded like a lightning strike, and then thunder, you know, a low, large rumble,” he said, making a rumbling noise. Rogers had just pulled up to the Gate Buttress area to meet a friend to go climbing.
He stepped out of his car and saw a huge cloud of dust. Rogers, who has been climbing for 40 years, quickly realized that the noise he heard was rockfall from the cliff.
“The first thing was, I hope nobody was hurt, nobody was killed,” he said. “There was a lot of trees, a lot of trees down.”
Rogers flagged down police, and hiked up the hill to make sure no one was climbing where an estimated house-sized rock broke off and violently tumbling down the hillside. It shattered into human-sized sharply pointed boulders that took down trees and obliterated the trail down to the trailhead.
Normally, climbers love to head up to that route after work and it’s usually busy during the summer, explained the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA).
“We were just super lucky that I think it was a little bit drizzly that evening when the rock fall occurred,” said Julia Geisler, executive director of the SLCA. “There weren’t climbers in this exact zone, and our trail crews were not also in this exact zone.”
She explained that they lease the area from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the SLCA acts as stewards of the property by maintaining the trail and anchor points.
Geisler said they’ve spent thousands of hours and dollars hiring professional trail crews into building up that space. All of it was taken out by the rockfall.
They will now need to come up with a plan to rebuild.
With this huge rockfall event, Geisler urged climbers to be aware and check recent weather patterns when choosing a spot. And she explained that the area where the debris now sits is not safe to navigate or climb.
“The canyons are really active this year, especially after the huge winter we’ve had,” she said. “We don’t know, you know, how stable it is still. So give it time to dry.”
Rogers now has a story to tell that, thankfully, doesn’t involve finding anyone hurt.
“It was just nice that it was just rockfall,” he said. “The trees will grow back; the dead branches will be taken away in time.”
Lenz and Smoot are already working on clearing those dead branches. By the end of Wednesday afternoon, they had cleared some of the area down below by the trailhead. The trail was once again visible.
At the same time, they marveled at Mother Nature, looking at the aftermath of her action.
“Just the power of nature and seeing geology in action,” Smoot said, looking up to the cliff. “This is this is it. This is erosion. And it’s a natural process.”
The Salt Lake Climbers Alliance is hosting a Climbing Festival on August 26th and 27th in the High Uintas. The festival will focus on education, safety, connection and fun.