Avalanches close I-70 Colorado mountain corridor much of Tuesday
January 10, 2017
Storm-caused avalanches on Tuesday closed Interstate 70 through much of the day.
The trouble began with a large avalanche early Tuesday morning in the Narrows portion of I-70 on Vail Pass, roughly 6.5 miles east of the main Vail interchange. A slide brought tons of snow and debris onto the westbound lanes, burying the highway up to 15 feet deep. Some snow fell into the eastbound lanes, but the entire highway was closed during cleanup operations.
Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said that while the avalanche came down a known path, the fact that it was naturally caused brought down rocks, tree limbs and other debris. That debris meant cleanup crews couldn't use truck-mounted snow blowers, which slowed down the operation.
Other slides were reported on both approaches to the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels. One avalanche, on the Summit County side of the tunnels, buried the westbound lanes in a slide about 150 yards wide and up to 10 feet deep.
Those areas are known as avalanche zones, and receive frequent attention from crews. The fact these areas slid naturally is evidence of just how much snow has fallen in a matter of days — and how wet that snow is.
In an afternoon conference call, Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Ethan Greene said the early week storm was "a really unusual event," both because of the depth and moisture of the snow, and how widespread the storm was.
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While most storms will affect part of the Colorado Rockies, this one hit along the length of the range, with slides reported from Berthoud Pass in the north to Wolf Creek Pass in the far southern portion of the state.
Greene said some portions of the mountains have received 4 to 7 feet of snow since Jan. 1, with up to 3 feet falling in 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday.
Resources stretched thin
The spread-out nature of the storm has stretched resources thin. The size of the storm is apparent when you consider that crews did avalanche-control work in the Narrows as recently as Jan. 6.
Colorado Department of Transportation director of highway maintenance Kyle Lester said the need to maintain public safety has resulted in numerous highway closures until avalanche zones can be cleared.
"We want to keep the roadways open as much we can," Lester said. "But we're always going to come down on the side of public safety."
With I-70 closed much of the day Tuesday, a steady stream of vehicles rolled down Main Street in Minturn, on their way to Leadville, then back to I-70 over Fremont Pass. Sticky Fingers Cafe owner Sage Pierson said traffic Tuesday was constant — although only a handful of people stopped into her shop.
"People mostly were just pressing on," Pierson said.
While roadways around the mountains were shut down for parts of Tuesday — and, in the case of Loveland Pass, shut down at least until Wednesday morning — flights into and out of the Eagle County Regional Airport were almost all running on schedule.
Eagle County director of aviation Greg Phillips said the only interstate flight that didn't make it Tuesday was an early morning American Airlines Flight to JFK airport in New York. That plane didn't leave because the evening flight from JFK didn't arrive.
Staying another day
Phillips said passengers on delayed or canceled flights often re-book flights from other Colorado airports. That's especially true on routes where there's only one flight per day to a destination, since there aren't usually enough seats to cover a canceled flight.
But, Phillips added, a lot of people don't mind spending another day or so in the mountains.
Those people need places to stay, of course. Often, passengers on canceled flights will return to the lodges where they'd stayed — when people can't leave, others can't arrive.
At the Comfort Inn in Avon, general manager Rich tenBraak said that hotel was almost sold out Monday night.
At the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, general manager Robert Purdy said he had a number of guests return for another night. But, he added, a 60-room group booking had to stay its first night in Colorado at a Hyatt hotel in Denver, since they couldn't get to the Vail Valley.
While a number of people found travel hard, at least one person was trapped in a commercial building in Eagle-Vail. Heavy snow collapsed the awning at Rocky Mountain Adventure Rental Tuesday, trapping a next-door neighbor.
Clay Bidwell of Rocky Mountain Adventure Rental said people that neighbor was freed by firefighters.
Bidwell was philosophical about the building damage, saying more snow is always a good thing.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at (970) 748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @scottnmiller.
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