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Avoid Climbing on Loose Cliffs
10/6/2010 9:20:32 AM

Avoid Climbing on Loose Cliffs

Loose Rock Tip 2

By Stewart Green

This is sort of a no-brainer—to avoid rockfall then avoid climbing on cliffs with loose rock. It’s that easy. If you don’t climb on cliffs with rotten rock, loose flakes, precariously stacked boulders, and recent rockfall then you probably won’t have a lot of problems with loose rock.

Popular Cliffs are Cleaner
The rule of thumb is that cliffs that are popular and regularly see lots of climber traffic tend to have most of their loose sections cleaned up. If you’re at a climbing area for the first time, ask local climbers if certain cliffs have a reputation for loose rock. They can direct you to the cleaner cliffs. Also look at cliff names and route names. If you’re at Eldorado Canyon in Colorado, do you really want to climb on The Rotwand Wall? The name says it all.

Analyze the Cliff
Look at the cliff and analyze it. Look for clues to the cliff’s stability. Does it have blocks stacked on ledges or boulders choking chimneys? Does the rock quality itself look kind of funky from a distance? Are there places with fresh rockfall scars or where it appears that surface rock has shuffled off? What kind of rock composes the cliff? Granite tends to be the hardest and most secure rock for climbing. Sandstone usually has loose flakes, blocks, and holds. Limestone is variable with solid panels interspersed with crack systems choked with loose boulders and, because limestone cliffs are usually not that high and erode out of mountain slopes, the tops of the cliffs are usually fractured, loose, and covered with blocks ready to take the plunge.

Steeper Cliffs are Often Cleaner
Remember also that routes that are seldom climbed tend to have more loose rock than those that get even a medium amount of traffic, which cleans most of the loose stuff off. Steeper cliffs often are cleaner than lower angle ones simply because gravity plucks the loose stuff off faster. Likewise, steeper routes usually have less loose rock. Many easy and moderate routes, even well-traveled ones, will often have loose sections because of their angle.

Harsh Climates Make Loose Cliffs
Lastly, cliffs that have harsh winters and lots of rain will almost always be loose. Through the process of erosion called frost wedging, chunks of rock are slowly liberated from bedrock by repeated cycles of freezing and thawing over many years. Watch when you climb at alpine areas in the springtime because lots of loose rocks are usually waiting to fall at the slightest touch. These include areas in the Colorado Rockies like Rocky Mountain National Park and the Ophir Wall; cliffs in the Canadian Rockies; cliffs in California’s High Sierras; and cliffs in northern New Hampshire including Cannon Cliff and Cathedral Ledge.


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