Historic avalanche cycle wreaks havoc in Colorado mountains

When Frisco residents went to sleep on Wednesday night the view of Mount Victoria was familiar, with densely crowded lodgepole pine trees resting branch-to-branch above the snow-packed slope.

But when they woke up Thursday morning, the view had changed considerably after a massive avalanche near the J Chute — just off of Rainbow Lake — tore through the landscape, stripping trees and leaving a gigantic white scar on the side of the peak.

“The trees that are gone were full-sized lodgepoles,” said Kathryn Grohusky, a Frisco resident who saw the damage from the avalanche from her home Thursday morning. “The avalanche debris is really deep, it came down the hill and took the trees out. The path is a ski run wide.”

When asked if she’d ever seen anything similar in her 20-plus years of living in Frisco, the answer was clear: “Nope.”

That’s the type of week it’s been for residents and visitors making their way through the mountain corridor as substantial snowfall led to historic avalanche conditions in the area. Following major avalanches that shut down roadways in and out of Summit County on Sunday and Tuesday (both natural and controlled slides), Mother Nature again refused to cooperate on Thursday, as another series of slides shut down roadways and schools, caused power outages and delayed resort openings.

Issues began well before first light, when an avalanche hit Vail Pass at around 1:30 a.m., dumping 6 feet of snow onto the roadway and catching a tow truck in the slide, though there were no injuries, said Tracy Trulove, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Department of Transportation.

At around 5 a.m. another avalanche between the water-treatment plant and Conoco gas-station complex near Copper Mountain ruptured a natural-gas line, closing off access to the area and delaying the resort’s opening. In addition to Copper Mountain, which didn’t open until about 11:30 a.m., Arapahoe Basin closed down for the entire day due to heightened avalanche concerns, and Breckenridge Ski Resort had a delayed opening of almost all upper-mountain lifts and terrain.

CDOT began avalanche mitigation work near Vail Pass at 7:45 a.m., creating another slide that brought 15 feet of snow onto the center line, effectively closing the pass for most of the day. Along with major road closures early in the day, avalanche mitigation work near the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels closed I-70 between Silverthorne and Vail into the afternoon.

For drivers who weren’t expecting major closures to I-70 — or additional closures at US 24, CO 91 and Loveland Pass — it was a frustrating experience.

“So far I’ve had Vail Pass closed, Fremont Pass closed and now Loveland Pass is closed,” said Elizabeth Eckert, an Avon local who was trying to get to Golden for the day. “I left around 7 this morning, and I should have gotten there at 9. It’s just ridiculous. Everywhere I go I hit something and have to go around.

“I’m trying to stay positive in that I wasn’t caught in an avalanche or stuck waiting for a pass to open … but it’s still super frustrating. I keep having to pull over going, ‘OK, where do I go now?’”

Perhaps the scariest moment of the day happened around 4 p.m., when another giant avalanche hit CO 91 at mile marker 21, near Copper Mountain, spreading 15-foot-deep snow across 300 feet of roadway and trapping multiple cars. While emergency crews were able to rescue all of the trapped individuals, it was still a frightening scene with at least one car completely overturned and totally buried.

Not all avalanches affected roadways, such as the large-scale slide on Mount Victoria or a much smaller slide at Mount Royal around mid-day, though road closures weren’t the only concern.

Early Thursday morning the Summit School District announced that all Summit schools were closed for the day. Colorado Mountain College made the same decision, shutting down their Breckenridge and Dillon campuses to try to keep students off the road.

Additionally, areas of Frisco, Breckenridge and Silverthorne suffered power outages due to the weather, with some outages lasting throughout the day. Michelle Aguayo, a spokeswoman with Xcel Energy, said that about 1,900 customers were affected in total.

“We anticipated some of this weather coming through so we had staffing in place,” said Aguayo. “It’s just a matter of our crews being able to make it out individually to these different outages. With some of the roads being closed, it was really difficult trying to access some of those areas.”

St. Anthony Summit Medical Center remained open and fully operational throughout the day, along with the hospital’s walk-in urgent care clinics at the base of Breckenridge and Keystone. The clinic at Copper Mountain was delayed, but opened later in the day.

While the last few days have been difficult, officials aren’t sure there’s any relief coming over the weekend.

“We have another storm coming in tomorrow, and expect good snow through early next week,” said Ethan Greene with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). “Certainly where the problems are and how they’re manifesting will change. But avalanche crews will continue working hard over the coming days.”

Greene went on to characterize the avalanche cycle over the last few days as somewhat unprecedented. He said that he reached out to several former employees at both the CAIC and CDOT to get their take on the last time things were this bad, but even they were at a loss.

“I think it’s safe to say that nobody alive has seen a week like this,” said Greene.

Antonio Olivero contributed to the reporting of this story.

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