So there I was last Saturday afternoon having a restful weekend when I get a call.  That call changed the complexion of that day and all the days since.  And the entire odyssey has been an amazing adventure. Every day brings a new challenge and different set of complex dynamics.  The problem solving and risk management is very engaging.

On the evening of January 12, the Ruby Walls above highway 550 just south of Ouray, Colorado unleashed a massive spontaneous rockfall.  The debris spilled across the highway rendering it unpassable.  Rockfall at the Ruby Walls is par for the course, but this particular volley was exceptional in nature. Basically, an entire cliff face about the size of an office building calved off of the wall spilling down to the slopes below.

On Saturday, January 18, I got brought into a conference call with the incident management team from CDOT.  They were interested in getting one of their top geologist/rockfall specialists safely inserted into the rockfall zone from above.  Moving live loads in technical terrain is our specialty, so it seemed like a natural fit. We signed up.

The next day, four Rigging for Rescue personnel and the CDOT rockfall specialist were flown in on helicopter to a pretty spectacular one-skid landing on the slope above the main Ruby Walls headwall.  We were in the care of the capable hands of Lee (pilot) and Joe (spotter) from Helitrax in Telluride.  Lee was steady as a surgeon every time and set us in there just right. Thank you Lee and Joe!

The terrain was pretty tricky with snow, ice, and downsloping rock. We constructed anchors, rigged ropes, and after about 2 hours of site prep were ready to lower an RfR rope tech down the wall.  Kevin drew the long straw and he got to go down with the scaling bar and send down several massive boulders over the headwall. Does that ever get boring? I doubt it. After the top was properly cleared of objective hazard, Kevin and the CDOT specialist were lowered down the main headwall to the talus slopes below.

The lower was 125 meters or about 400 feet. A big wall by anybodys standards.  We lowered over the unchanged rock to the north of the newly exfoliated rock.  Great, solid rock and very, very steep. Overhanging for a good portion. Steep is good. The rocks from above sail over your head should they dislodge.

Bob, the rockfall specialist from CDOT gathered the information he needed and then he and Kevin took a rope and some rigging equipment and descended the relatively moderate terrain to the north of the scar all the way to Highway 550.  We packed up gear at the top and took the scenic flight home to Ouray.

I kind of thought that might be the end of our job.  Little did I know…The info that was gathered by Bob was compelling and now the rockfall mitigation plan was starting to take shape.  Our services were retained to set a rope access path up to the debris field from the highway below.  We completed this the next day using a top-down strategy. We were flown in as before and then rappelled down the 400 foot face.  I drilled a 2-bolt anchor midway down so that we could complete the rappels using shorter ropes.  Once at the bottom, we called in for the helicopter sling load and they delivered 500 meters (1800 feet) of rope and rigging material.

We started the process from the apron of the wall and followed our noses down the path of least resistance trending well away from the shooting gallery to our south.  It took all day and a lot of scaling and rigging to make it safe.  But by late afternoon we did our last rappel and had our boots on highway 550.  Some of the Yenter company personnel were there to meet us and they were psyched!  They had spent some time up high on the wall earlier in the week and felt that it needed a different approach. We were glad to help and proud to link the highway to the work area in a logical and effective manner.  Solving puzzles is a lot of fun. Particularly when it involves ropes and rigging.

So that was really going to be the end of it for our part…Yeah, right :). One thing lead to another and we were asked to be the rope access and slope safety officers for the scaling, rigging, and rockfall mitigation. We said yes, enthusiastically!  Highway 550 over Red Mountain Pass is the recreational and business lifeblood of a few small Western Slope communities including our own in Ouray and we wanted to help. Plus, we were now invested.  This rope access path we constructed was our baby and we wanted to manage it and fine tune it.

The past week has been an absolute blur. I don’t even know what day it is. All I know is that we have a fantastic team up high on the hill that is gelling and getting some serious work done. I only wish the highway were open so you could see the MASSIVE amount of rock we are scaling off of this face.  It is mind boggling.  The newness of the geology is fascinating. It is a very unique environment to be able to explore. You can feel the rawness. One tree WAY down the slope is probably around 60+ years old and is still standing strong.  However, it has almost no branches. They were raked clean off. Amazing display of energy.

Tomorrow we plan to continue to work on drilling the anchor holes for the main cable that will support the drapery panels.  Once the cable is securely in place, the helicopter will fly in 46 panels one at a time and those will be attached in-series to the anchored wire rope.  These panels will lock in the remaining talus and reduce the rockfall hazard significantly.

Thank you for your patience with the highway closure.  It is an incredibly dynamic and challenging work environment. I have spent a lot of time in remote alpine ranges of the world and the upper portions of the Ruby Walls are as wild as any of them. We are diligently addressing safety throughout the entire day and are empowered by our progress.  I hope to come up for air soon and get some video edited. I have some pretty amazing footage on my SD card. Stay tuned and enjoy the eye candy.

End of the rappel off the Ruby Walls-Mt Abrahms as a backdrop

Kevin and Bob above a sea of choss

Lowering on the scout day

Rotor clearance is not abundant- very technical flying

Kevin scoping the debris with rappellers above

Receiving our sling load of rope for the rope pathway

Kevin about to have fun with the scaling bar

A-Star B3 taxi in Ouray. Thank you Helitrax!!

Sling-loading gear to the base of the wall

Now it is time to drill some anchors!

Coming in for the one-skid landing

Our LZ up top. The helo puts the skid on the orange tape. 

Ruby Walls from the air

Ruby Walls from Mother Cline at Hwy 550

Sling load approaching

Wade seeing the site for the first time. Awe inspiring!