ASPEN - Diehard skiers who went in search of snow atop Independence Pass on Friday morning got more than they bargained for.
An hour after the pass gates opened, snow was blowing sideways at the summit, where skiers and boarders from the Aspen side and mountain towns to the north and west converged in search of spring turns on the Continental Divide.
Perhaps a half-dozen carloads of skiers were lined up at the gate southeast of Aspen, waiting for Colorado Department of Transportation officials to unlock the barrier at 9 a.m. They were about 5 minutes late.
Outside of Twin Lakes, the gates on the opposite side also swung open Friday morning.
CDOT generally shoots for a pass reopening on the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, but this year's rapidly disappearing snowpack allowed highway crews to get the road cleared and repaired early. Friday's opening is among the earliest in recent memory, but the pass did open May 13 in 1988, a CDOT spokesman said.
Last year, plows left huge walls of snow along the upper reaches of the pass, and skiers were still making tracks in July. The skiing faithful queued up at the gate Friday weren't sure what they'd find but were confident they'd find something.
"I just can't wait to be on snow," said Jonathan Love of Carbondale. "Any spot of snow we can ski on, it's going to be great."
Aspen native Matt Lanning, now a Breckenridge resident, was going to scan the higher reaches of the pass before deciding where to ski.
"I wouldn't have driven over here if I didn't think it was going to be good," he said, choosing to stay with friends and head up the pass from the Aspen side.
"We're just going to kind of see what looks good," said Paul McKay of Aspen, as he strapped skis to a pack while he and Snowmass Village resident Will Hollister waited for the gate to open.
"We'll probably go to the top unless we see something that's really looking good," Hollister added.
Along the highway, there is little evidence of winter. Weller Campground is devoid of snow, as is the ghost town of Independence. Even at the summit and on the peaks, plenty of patches of bare ground have emerged.
Traditional ski spots at the summit still held crunchy snow, however, and Vail resident Corey Seemann was among those who came over from the Interstate 70 resort towns to check out conditions.
"This is the only place that has any snow left. We're just here for the nipple-deep powder," he joked.
Jack Rossman of Vail made a solo sojourn to the pass and was prepared to camp out and ski for several days. It's an annual ritual, said Rossman, who's been skiing the high country closer to home, at places like Loveland Pass.
"The snow's better over here," he said.
Independence Pass, closed during the winter months, offers a scenic shortcut between Aspen and Denver during the summer and fall. It's scheduled to close Nov. 7 each year, though wintery weather often forces an earlier closure. Last fall, the pass was closed Nov. 1 in advance of an approaching storm.