‘Never say never’: Longtime CDOT avalanche expert puts this month’s slides into historical context (podcast)

It was a relic of grainy Disney Studios footage from 1957 that elicited the loudest gasps from the audience at Wednesday’s Colorado Department of Transportation avalanche lecture at the Frisco Historic Park & Museum.

In the brief black-and-white clip, a deep-voiced narrator describes the fatal nightmare filmed by photographer John Hermann. At the time, 62 years ago, Hermann asked people living near the Continental Divide for the best location to film an avalanche. The story goes that longtime High Country locals pointed Hermann to what they referred to as the “Dam Slide,” an avalanche path above Berthoud Pass on U.S. Highway 40 on the border of Clear Creek and Grand counties.

In sharing this story on Wednesday, longtime CDOT avalanche mitigation and snow removal expert Ray Mumford said that the longtime locals Hermann spoke to thought there was no way a Dam Slide avalanche would ever reach the road where he and highway department supervisor Wayne Whitlock would set up.

“So both men set up the camera on the highway and filmed,” the Summit Cove resident said, “and continued filming the avalanche until it reached the highway. This is that avalanche.

“Those are trees up there,” he said pointing to the top of the monstrous avalanche cloud as the video played. “Imagine standing there watching that coming and not getting out of there. And that happened in 1957. That was the last time it hit the highway until three weeks ago. I’ll be saying that a few more times in this presentation.”

Mumford repeated that phrase or phrases similar to it — that avalanches hadn’t reached certain High Country Colorado roads for years — several times on Wednesday. That included when he referred to the slides that reached portions of Interstate 70 within Ten Mile Canyon between Frisco and Copper Mountain.

In fact, it was Mumford whom CDOT reached out to earlier this month, the same weekend the first powder cloud engulfed the highway in the canyon. Mumford describes himself as “the old guy” of CDOT’s avalanche mitigation and snow removal community. He’s a lifelong Coloradan, originally from his family’s ranch on the land where Denver International Airport currently resides. He’s lived in Summit Cove for the vast majority of the time since he departed the U.S. Army in 1973. Way back when, Mumford set his sights on Summit County in 1973 with the hopes of getting a job with the state’s highway department, one of the few full-time gigs you could get in the High Country at the time.

In the near half-century since, Mumford estimates he’s worked on and witnessed hundreds, if not thousands, of avalanches across the state. From 1975 through 2008, Mumford worked full time with CDOT, including for a time as the department’s avalanche coordinator and trainer. From 2008 to 2016, he worked in a part-time role. In the few years since, he said CDOT continues to consult him for his expertise, including earlier this month.

To further put his career of avalanche work into perspective, Mumford said it wasn’t uncommon before new technology was introduced a few years ago for him to take part in 35 to 40 avalanche missions each winter in the Seven Sisters area near Loveland Pass.

But all of his years working on avalanches with CDOT paled in comparison to this month.

“When Ten Mile Canyon, when it starts putting snow on the road, it takes a special storm to do that for those paths to load up,” Mumford said. “When that happens something big is happening for sure. … When the first powder cloud came across Ten Mile Canyon, they asked me then, ‘when was the last time you saw an avalanche hit the highway?’ And I was like, ‘gosh, it was well over 30 years.’ And I’ll be darned the very next day an avalanche came across the highway and pushed a car over. And it started progressing from there.”

Over the next two weeks, more avalanches naturally triggered at locations such as Ten Mile Canyon, the “Disney Slide” at Berthoud Pass and at Mount Bethel just east of the Continental Divide. Even for an avalanche-lifer like Mumford, it was clear this was becoming quite the event.

“It was something to see,” Mumford said, “once in a lifetime, I hope.”

That said, there is a three-word phrase Mumford shares when putting this past month into proper context historically: “Never say never.”

Similar to the locals who suggested Disney’s Hermann film the Dam Slide in 1957, before this month, many Summit County locals had little to no knowledge that avalanches of certain magnitudes were possible in specific locations. That even includes someone as knowledgeable as Mumford.

In the lead-up to this month, Mumford said CDOT’s two highway avalanche forecasters gave him and CDOT a heads-up several days before the avalanches began that something was coming and that it could be significant. Although it was on their radar and control teams prepped mitigation equipment, Mumford said there is always a degree of uncertainty.

The positive news for Mumford, CDOT and the people of Colorado is that since CDOT joined forces with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in 1992, there have been no highway deaths due to avalanches. Before 1992, there were 22 recorded deaths, including five CDOT employees.

Along with CAIC’s informational contributions, Mumford said improved and more dialed-in technology in recent years has helped CDOT’s cause. These days, remote-controlled technology and helicopter access makes the job of a highway avalanche mitigator easier and more efficient. Still, Mumford doesn’t shy away from bringing up the word “luck” when referring to avalanches.

As Mumford puts it, Mother Nature always wins. You can never beat her. You can try to at least even the score sometimes, but nature will always win. And whatever she throws at you, Mumford said, sometimes there is nothing you can fight back with.

“We can’t take these avalanches for granted,” Mumford said. “We learned that here three weeks ago. These avalanches are still killers out there and we always have to keep our guard up when we are out there traveling on these highways.”

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