At mile 53 up Highway 82 toward Independence pass lies the Green Mountain West slide area.
Currently, the road is surrounded on both sides by 10-foot-tall walls of ice and avalanche debris. The air smells thickly of pine from the trees that had been caught up in the slides and whole aspen trees are sticking out of the walls, roots first. The road is littered with scrapes and small holes from rocks and one massive boulder stuck higher into the air than the snow. Despite this, the road wouldn’t even be passable if it weren’t for the hard work of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
“We started working when we usually do,” said Tracy Trulove, the public information officer for CDOT. “It’s just slower going because we had so much winter this year.”
Trulove and the CDOT crews are using snowcats and massive snow blowers to clear the road from both sides of the pass to the top. They started work in April and have had to fight through not only large quantities of wet snow but also multiple avalanche slide areas including two near the summit where the snow and debris ripped a guardrail clean off the road.
Because of all this, the opening of the pass has been delayed for the first time since 2008, when it opened June 5 due to a similarly snowy winter. Since 2009, Independence Pass has opened by the Thursday before Memorial Day. Trulove said that they can’t estimate an opening date just yet, but the teams will have a better idea after next week when they do explosive avalanche mitigation on the mountains around the pass.
Assisting CDOT is the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which provides assistance with mitigation efforts and helps deal with the slide areas. The CDOT team, which varies from four to seven people depending on the day, also carries avalanche beacons in case anything goes wrong while they work.
On May 22, helicopters will be flying out of the Twin Lakes area to drop 40 to 60 explosive charges on the cornices hanging off mountains to clear them, as well as to preemptively trigger any avalanches that might happen in the next few weeks on their own. Trulove said that they’ve used 1,569 charges already this season and there have been natural slides as well over the highway.
As of Thursday morning, crews were able to drive snowcats to the summit and the road had been cleared all the way to the top of the top cut. Chris Young, an equipment operator for CDOT, said that they might finish the Aspen side of the road to the summit by the end of Thursday.
“Pioneering this road is a lot of fun,” said Young, who has been clearing the pass for the last seven years and was driving the snowcat on Thursday. “It’s my favorite two months of the year.”
Young said that clearing the pass is a huge team effort and they like to have all members of the team working with the different equipment. Snow on top of the pass was about 7 feet deep, said Young, although warm weather will obviously begin to melt that. He also joked about a friendly rivalry with the team working on the Twin Lakes side of the pass, to see who would summit first.
The Twin Lakes side is dealing with multiple rock slide areas, said Trulove, which is slowing their progress because they can’t just cut through the rocks like they can snow. This, along with the necessary replacement of the two missing guardrails near the summit, are two of the reasons that the opening will be delayed.
Once the road is opened, likely in early June, CDOT’s job will be far from over. Trulove pointed out all of the debris that will be washed onto the road as the snow begins to melt, and said that crews will likely be working into the summer to keep this from impacting travelers over the pass. She also said that there is a possibility of late spring/early summer avalanches still and she encouraged people to take advantage of the cotrip.org website to be aware of the status of the pass. CDOT also works closely with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to help people who get stuck on the switchbacks of the highway and to monitor road conditions.
More information about the opening of Independence Pass will be available after avalanche mitigation early next week and after crews examine what needs to be done. Weather will also make an impact on the timeline, especially with the possibility of snow moving in this weekend.