A 17-year-old Michigan girl died last week in Estes Park when she was hit by a falling rock. The fatality happened at about 4 p.m. in downtown Estes Park near town hall. The incident happened in a town “green space” in a grassy area with a creek running through it. A cliff, also part of the public parcel, rises above the open space. The top of the park, where the rock outcropping peaks, is an area known as Willow Knolls. The safety of the area is being assessed by the town’s civil engineer.
While vacationers are flooding into Colorado, many are unaware of the danger posed by falling rocks in our mountain areas. Just three months ago, Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs was closed after a rockslide smashed through a bridge and dumped boulders the size of tractor trailers on the highway just west of the Hanging Lake Tunnel. Detours of up to 200 miles lasted for days, before the 17-mile stretch of interstate re-opened.
Gov. Bill Ritter declared a disaster emergency shortly after the slide in order to ask for money from the Federal Highway Administration to help pay for repairs. A similar slide in the same area in 2004 cost $700,000 to repair.
In a cruel irony, a 55-year-old Craig woman was killed on a stretch of mountain highway when a boulder smashed through the roof of the vehicle she was riding in. A single rock, about 12- to 18-inches in diameter, struck the roof of an eastbound 2004 Buick, killing the passenger in the car. Both women in the car were heading to work, using the detour established after the Glenwood Canyon slide. U.S. 40 was one of two main detour routes established around the large rockslide that shut down Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.
And in March of 2009, a 63-year-old woman from Wisconsin sustained life-threatening injuries when she was struck by a falling rock as she hiked near the Boulder Falls Trailhead. The woman was hiking with her husband near Colorado 119 in Boulder Canyon, according to the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office.
These types of accidents are frequently described as “freak accidents'” but some precautions lessen the threat. Every rock mountain is slowly disintegrating due to erosion, the process being especially rapid above the snow-line. Avoid sitting under cliffs or at the base of a rock face – particularly where rock debris has accumulated, indicating frequent falling rock. And keep in mind that rocks fall more frequently on some days than on others, according to the recent weather. Ice formed during the night may temporarily bind rocks to the face but warmth of the day or lubricating water from melting snow or rain may easily dislodge these rocks.
When driving, pay attention to signs and radio warnings concerning falling rocks and rock slides. Never go into an area where officials have requested you not enter. And avoid areas prone to falling rocks after a heavy rain or snow storm, or when the snow begins to melt. If you encounter a stretch of highway marked with falling rock warnings, hurry through the. This is not the place to stop and take pictures or try to climb the rock wall.