Getting plowed on Independence Pass: CDOT crew makes steady progress

Scott Condon

A massive avalanche that deposited tons of snow as much as 15 feet deep and a quarter-mile long on Highway 82 up Independence Pass proved no match for the Colorado Department of Transportation maintenance crew.

Using a combination of a snowcat fitted with a blade, a small bulldozer with a plow and a full-sized grader equipped with a massive snow blower, the crew working the west side of the Pass punched through the slide debris this week. Their traditional goal is to have the Pass over the 12,095-foot summit open for Memorial Day Weekend.

A reconnaissance trip up the Pass by bike and ski Thursday (see related story on page A6) showed the avalanche rumbled down from the summit of Green Mountain, widened the historic slide path and uprooted numerous mature evergreen trees. The slide site is at about mile marker 53.25. For reference, the lower Lost Man parking lot is at about mile marker 54.75.

The slide hit the valley floor, covered the Highway 82 corridor in debris and ran up the north side of the valley — gouging out scores of additional aspen trees.

“When we were skiing (along the Final Cut) we’d be quite a few feet above the guardrail.” — Karin Teague

Trees trunks and branches jut out from the smooth vertical cut equipment made in the snow piles. Aspen trunks too numerous to count were strewn like pick-up sticks.

The avalanche rated a 3 to 3.5 on the D-scale, which measures destructive force, according to Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation in Aspen, toured the 14-mile stretch of highway from the winter closure gate to the summit to get a feel for conditions. She said the Green Mountain slide debris was the most formidable stretch the maintenance crew would encounter.

There is a significant amount of snow creating an Arctic-like setting along the Final Cut and last section before the summit, according to Teague.

“I’d say a lot more snow than usual,” she said. “When we were skiing (along the Final Cut) we’d be quite a few feet above the guardrail.”

However, the CDOT maintenance team has been chewing through a hefty snowpack the entire way at a quick pace.

At the start of Thursday, their equipment was parked just shy of mile maker 54. East of that point, the sunbaked snowpack was about 3 feet.

Toward the end of their shift Thursday, the crew had cleared snow along an additional 3 miles of road, all the way to Independence ghost town. That left them with about 4 more miles to clear to the summit of the Pass on the Pitkin County side.

CDOT will have the additional challenge of repairing a section of guardrail that got uprooted by an avalanche on the Final Cut. Teague said she paced it off and found about 100 feet of rail gone.

Other avalanches were apparent along the corridor, some hitting the highway and some just depositing snow along the Roaring Fork River below the highway grade. Lazar said debris from an avalanche off Independence Mountain deposited a small amount of snow on the highway just west of the ghost town.

Teague said there was debris from a small slide on the Final Cut.

“There’s a lot of snow, but I didn’t think there was anything unusual,” she said.

Tim Holbrook, the CDOT maintenance supervisor for the area, was working Thursday on the Pass. He said it was the most snow he has dealt with on the corridor since he started working the route in 2004.

On Thursday, the crew methodically approached its task.

The snowcat made the first pass, using the blade to skim off layers of snow. The small bulldozer was plowing snow out of the hairpin corner just above the lower Lost Man parking lot and campground. The grader chugged up behind. Its front auger chewed up the remaining 1 to 2 feet of snow layer that the snowcat left behind. The snow blower hooked to the grader blew the snow 20 feet into the air and off the side of the highway.

The Pass closed this winter Nov. 2 after a series of early-season storms. That was the earliest closing since 2010.

A CDOT officials said Thursday there is more snow on the Lake County side of the Pass, and Lazar added there were a number of new avalanche paths created on that side.

CDOT’s official word is the agency cannot make any promises about getting the route open May 23. However, it is a source of pride for the crews to make the traditional Thursday-before-Memorial Day opening each spring.

According to past reports and CDOT records, the Pass has opened on time (or early) every year since 2009. The last time it was late to open was after the big winter of 2007-08 when the road didn’t open until June 5.

By the looks of the progress Thursday on the Aspen side, the crew should achieve its goal with hard work but without a problem.

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