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‘As the snow melts, we will assess the damage’

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Conundrum clearing

Clearing through avalanche debris along Conundrum Creek Road following a historic slide on March 9 has been challenging. That parking area at the Conundrum Creek Trailhead, accessing the popular backcountry hot springs, is closed indefinitely.

As Maroon Creek Road winds past Stein Meadow and the peaks of the Maroon Bells come into view, the debris from a massive avalanche has buried the road 60 to 70 feet deep, according to reports from the T Lazy 7 Ranch.

The debris field is impassable by snowmobile, said Rick Deane, of the T Lazy 7 Ranch, which runs snowmobile tours in the Maroon Creek Valley. Relaying reports from ranch employees and backcountry skiers, he said that more avalanches have occurred above Stein Meadow approaching Maroon Lake. One slide took out hundreds of trees that are now blocking the Maroon Creek Trail from the East Maroon Portal, running on the left-hand side of the valley. Another displaced a footbridge at the far end of Maroon Lake, part of a hike that is normally jammed with tourists in the summer months.

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A home in the Conundrum Creek Valley was likely saved by a concrete wall designed to deflect avalanches, when a massive one came down from 3,000 vertical feet above circa March 9.

A slide farther down the road that originated in Maroon Bowl is 15 to 20 feet deep across the road, Deane said.

There’s still three weeks left in a ski season that has been notable for one of the best snowpacks in recent memory. According to one metric tracking snowfall at Grizzly Reservoir near Independence Pass, this was the fourth wettest winter out of the last 39. But as eyes turn to warm-weather recreation, the impacts of all that snow and a historic avalanche cycle in early March could be far reaching.

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Avalanche debris pile 60 to 70 feet high along one slide path in the upper Maroon Creek Valley near Stein Meadow. As the snow melts and the high country begins to open, more avalanche damage is likely to become apparent. In the case of Maroon Creek Road, a May 15 opening target may be missed.

Normally, the Pitkin County Road and Bridge Department aims to have Maroon Creek Road open by May 15, but that could be a tall order this year. Sustained warm temperatures could help the county meet that goal, said Scott Mattice, road and bridge supervisor. But when it comes to avalanche debris full of downed timber and rocks covering roads, “that is going to make it significantly harder.”

“You just never know what you are going to find,” when the plowing and digging out begins, Mattice said.

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The Conundrum Creek Trailhead is shown in a previous winter.

Deane, who has been running snowmobile tours out of his family’s ranch for around five decades, said this season has been one of the most remarkable for avalanches he has ever seen. Some paths slid that he has never seen slide before, while other avalanches that typically run have yet to do so, suggesting there is more danger lurking. While the ranch suspended snowmobile tours higher in the valley earlier this winter because of that danger, tours that avoid danger zones have been available daily and will remain so for another week to 10 days, Deane said.

Access restricted, naturally

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The Conundrum Creek Trailhead is after the massive March 9 avalanche, right. It is unknown when the parking area at the trailhead will reopen.

Aspen awoke to another powder day on March 9, but on that particular morning, more than just snow had come down. A slide closed Castle Creek Road 4 miles above the roundabout, and higher up the drainage, a slide broke off from a mile-wide start zone along Highlands Ridge and ran 3,000 vertical feet down to Conundrum Creek, flushing out most of the Five Fingers chutes and more. The slide took out hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of trees and damaged a home on the valley floor before running up the opposite side of the valley. The damage to the home would have been much worse if not for a concrete structure built to protect against just such an event.

The surrounding landscape will bear the marks of the slide for a long time. In the immediate future, the status of the parking area at the popular Conundrum Creek Trailhead is closed indefinitely. Anyone looking to access the Conundrum Creek Trail, which is open but impacted by numerous areas of avalanche debris, can do so, put there is no parking in the vicinity and cars are advised against trying to drive up Conundrum Creek Road, as the road dead ends into avalanche debris with no place to turn around.

Hillside

A barren hillside was covered in trees before a massive slide came down from Highlands Ridge and ran up the opposite side of the Conundrum Valley.

“We are anticipating debris and damage at the trailhead and parking area when the snow melts,” Karen Schroyer, Aspen-Sopris district ranger with the White River National Forest, said in a press release. “The trees are virtually gone from the both sides of the drainage. We assume that hundreds, if not thousands, of trees are buried under compacted snow and other debris. We are up against a big challenge this summer to restore vehicle access at the trailhead.”

The Forest Service last year launched a new protocol for accessing Conundrum Hot Springs, 8 miles up from the trailhead, requiring all overnight campers to have a permit. Those permits must be secured in advance and demand for busy summer weekends well outstrips supply. The new program came about after years of overuse, when hundreds of campers would pack into an area that cannot handle more than a few dozen.

Dug out

Conundrum Creek Road is dug out through debris from the March 9 avalanche.

It’s unclear what those reservation holders should expect for this summer, but it might be prudent planning to figure out a way to be dropped off and picked up from the area around the Castle Creek Road and Conundrum Creek Road intersection on either end of a trip.

Several other areas across the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District have experienced impacts due to avalanche slides. The Forest Service is aware that major slides have occurred across the district from Highway 82 below Independence Pass to Maroon Creek Road and Marble.

“Likely there are areas that have slid that we don’t yet know about,” said Shelly Grail, district recreation manager. “As the snow melts we will assess the damage. We expect that downed trees and debris will be a challenge on our trails and roads across the district. We will prioritize our work based on the areas of highest use, extent of damage, and employee capacity.”

As the snow begins to melt in the coming months, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is asking for local help in reporting trail conditions so staff can track damage and debris and prioritize work.

Please submit information to the Sopris Ranger Station by calling 970-963-2266 or submit an email to Grail at sgrail@fs.fed.us.

Rite of passage

Indy Pass

Clearing snow in advance of the opening of Independence Pass in spring 2017. The road has opened by its targeted date — the Thursday before Memorial Day, in late May — in each of the last five years, according to a CDOT spokesperson. The road is believed to have opened a week late in 2008, when the snowpack reached historic levels well above this year’s.

The annual process of clearing Independence Pass over the Continental Divide is expected to be more challenging this year thanks to a “snow-water equivalent” reading of 20.6 inches that is 133 percent of the average for this date. Other weather data sites in the watershed show even higher readings, such as 151 percent at Schofield Pass, where the snowpack contains the equivalent of 44.3 inches of water

The road over Independence Pass, managed by the Colorado Department of Transportation, has opened by its targeted date — the Thursday before Memorial Day, in late May — in each of the last five years, according to a CDOT spokesperson. The road is believed to have opened a week late in 2008, when the snowpack reached historic levels well above this year’s, according to the director of the Independence Pass Foundation, Karin Teague.

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Snow removal operations from the top cut of the roadway approaching Independence Pass in spring 2017.

Teague skinned up the pass, about 8 miles past the winter closure gate to just above Lincoln Creek Road, where a large avalanche had come off Green Mountain and buried the road underneath a layer of snow nearly 15 feet deep.

Teague said she did not see evidence of a high amount of timber in the slide debris, which would be good news for road clearing crews.

There are likely more slides as the road approaches the summit.

Teague also said she observed numerous slides coming off mountains in the Lincoln Creek drainage.

The May 18 Ride for the Pass, an annual fundraiser for the Independence Pass Foundation, should be unaffected, because the finish line is at the ghost town, well before the big slide zones on the top cut or east side of the pass, Teague said. Also, CDOT needs to clear the road to that point in order to work on the upper sections.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.