Like most drivers on Independence Pass, Don Poole watches his speed and where he is on the treacherous road.
Poole had extra reason to be cautious on Monday afternoon, as there was a 4- to 5-foot wall of snow in front of him on the stretch of road 2 miles beneath the summit.
Poole, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s maintenance patrol supervisor for Highway 82, and two other employees took two reporters up to show CDOT’s process and progress in clearing the state’s second-highest paved road.
Crews on the east, or Leadville, side are also working toward the 12,095-foot summit. It’s a friendly competition to see who arrives there first, Poole said. And once the sides meet, the road can open, ending Aspen’s annual existence as a dead-end town, freeing up the recreational activities on the pass and beyond, and trimming the drive time to Denver. The work started on May 6.
Behind the wheel of a 26-ton loader with what looks like the world’s largest snow blower out front, Poole said CDOT remains on track for the traditional opening on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend. That Thursday this year is May 23.
It could be sooner. And the pass, of course, could also be shut down before or after because of weather.
What Poole was doing Monday near the Linkins Lake trailhead could hardly be called driving. Crawling along — Jeff Lewis, another member of the crew, said he doubted Poole was even going 1 mph — Poole said that he mainly tries to not get too close to the roadside, so as to avoid tumbling into the valley. He also listens to how the massive blower is functioning.
“You can hear when it’s working really hard and you know it’s going to plug up” the blower’s output shaft, he said over the cacophony.
And soon after starting, he stopped, grabbed a shovel and cleared the shaft.
Lewis said the wet snow increases that problem, as well as another much more serious one: avalanches. The colder snow in the mornings drops the avalanche danger and is easier on the machines, which is why the work day can begin as early as 5 a.m.
Just getting up to where the snow blower and another loader with a front-end blade were took several hours because of the slide danger, as crews had to wait for a helicopter to drop explosives on avalanche zones. April in Aspen, not to mention thousands of feet above, was a heavy snow month. And there were 10 to 12 inches of fresh snow as recently as Wednesday on the pass, Lewis said.
To help it clear highways, CDOT has an annual contract with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) for forecasting work, paying the center about $414,000 in 2012-13, said CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks.
CDOT also hires a helicopter for ordinance drops to set off avalanches that may cross the highway, a process that delayed the crew from getting to the loaders and the resumption of the upward slog.
For a few hours of the wait, the pass above the ghost town of Independence was mostly silent. There were bird calls, the trickle of running water and the occasional cyclist asking how far they could go up (as of Monday, it was about 2 miles beneath the summit). Interspersed were the sounds of more than 30 bombs exploding on slopes on the Leadville side of the pass.
“It’s very peaceful,” Poole said of the work environment. “You don’t have to worry about traffic. It’s a really good place to work.”
But around 12:35 p.m., the helicopter crew flew over the Aspen side of the pass and dropped a bomb a few hundred feet above the last stretch to the summit. A minute or so later, it threw up a gray cloud of snow, rock and smoke, though little of the area slid. A few seconds after that, the bomb’s thunderclap reached the crew and bounced off the valley walls toward Aspen.
“That’ll wake the bears up,” Lewis quipped.
Poole and the others were glad nothing slid. Had that happened, they would have had to trudge on foot across the avalanche path to the machinery.
Slides weren’t a danger last spring because of the paltry snow, but in 2011 crews were grappling with drifts on the road as tall as three stories in places, Lewis said.
Given the potential danger this year, the crew was equipped with avalanche beacons, probes, shovels and snowshoes. They had also taken avalanche awareness courses through CAIC, which was advising CDOT on the conditions.
The crew was eventually radioed the news that they could proceed. Poole said he expected another half mile or so could be cleared Monday.
While there is some competitive spirit between the west and east sides, “it doesn’t matter who gets to the top first,” Poole said.
Safety is the main concern, and the final stretch contains “the toughest 2 miles for sure,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun.”