Snowpack levels for January reached historic levels and on Tuesday, Feb. 11 Colorado Department of Transportation officials witnessed firsthand just how serious the avalanche danger is in Summit County.
Stu Schaeffer, an avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center assigned to CDOT, said snowpack through January had reached 187 percent of normal on Loveland Pass and 200 percent of normal on Vail Pass. The high snowpack values motivated CDOT officials to conduct avalanche mitigation operations at a number of high-risk areas in Summit County, namely the Black Widow and the Professor slide areas on U.S. Highway 6 at Loveland Pass.
The slide areas were shot Tuesday morning with an avalanche cannon, Schaeffer said. The Black Widow slide area, which was shot second, triggered an avalanche about 100 feet wide and buried a portion of Highway 6 near milepost 220 under 20 feet of snow and debris.
In his 15 years working in conjunction with CDOT, Schaeffer said he has never seen snow from an intentionally triggered avalanche on the Black Widow run onto the highway.
“This is far from an average snow year and when we start out with a winter like this you have to worry about avalanches,” Schaeffer said. “We’ve (CDOT) shot in that area hundreds of times in the past and I’ve never seen an avalanche hit the road.”
Tracy Trulove, a CDOT spokesperson, said three front-end loaders were dispatched to Loveland Pass to clear the highway. It took crews about two hours to clean the snow and debris before Highway 6 was reopened to traffic, Trulove said.
The slide drew the attention of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area COO Alan Henceroth, who alerted the public about the highway closure on his blog at www.arapahoebasin.blogspot.com.
Adrienne Saia Isaac, marketing and communications manager for A-Basin, said although the avalanche didn’t force the ski area to close, it was quiet on the slopes for much of the day. The avalanche, located on the Keystone side of the pass, prevented potential skiers from making it to A-Basin until the highway was reopened shortly after 1 p.m.
After the highway was cleared, Isaac said A-Basin returned to normal business operations and was prepared to welcome afternoon visitors.
Sticking to the resorts might also not be a bad idea for the foreseeable future, Schaeffer said. He cautioned backcountry adventurers from venturing too far off piste, even if skiing or riding with a buddy, because of high avalanche risks.
“We have a very serious avalanche problem statewide and at all elevations,” Schaeffer said. “We’d hate to see someone get killed trying to have a good time.”