ASPEN - Independence Pass will open a week from today, nearly two weeks ahead of schedule, the Colorado Department of Transportation said Thursday.
Typically, the 12,095-foot pass opens the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, which falls on May 24 this year. Thanks to the below-average snowpack this year, which high daytime temperatures had melted by Tuesday, CDOT plans to open the pass by 11 a.m. on May 11.
CDOT maintenance patrol supervisor Don Poole said there was a huge difference between clearing the road this year and last year, when his crews worked feverishly through late May to open the road on the afternoon of May 26, just in time for the traditional Memorial Day weekend start.
"The difference between the two years was amazing," Poole said. "It's clear on both sides all the way to the top. We're just taking advantage of the good weather and time we have to get some other maintenance done up there, mainly cleaning the ditches, fixing signs, repairing the potholes, getting some other stuff done."
Last year, in the week before the opening, CDOT workers dealt with a giant 35-foot-tall wall of snow and ice that lined the Aspen, or west, side of the pass, just a mile or two below the top. With less than 48 hours to go, a fresh snowstorm blew 3 or 4 inches into the area around mile marker 59, where crews were using special equipment to clear the highway.
"About the deepest we got into this year was 12 feet," Poole said. He said the weather atop the pass has been good but breezy in recent days.
According to CDOT, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in the winter of 2010-11 recorded the snowpack on the Twin Lakes, or east, side of the pass at 452 percent of average in late May. The west side was logged at 361 percent of average.
"This has been an extraordinarily wild swing in snowpack amounts compared to last year," center forecaster Rob Hunker said in a CDOT news release. "We've had two extreme years in a row. Last year, the snowpack melted around June 23; this year it happened by May 1."
Since the snow was cleared, Poole's CDOT crew based in El Jebel has moved 256 concrete barriers, work that is necessary to clear ditches; hauled 390 loads of rock debris from the ditches; and reset or replaced the 256 barriers, some of which damaged. In addition, a special CDOT crew from Grand Junction assisted with drilling and blasting six very large rocks in ditches so that they could be hauled away.
The remaining work next week will involve fixing guardrails and clearing more ditches so that the spring runoff can flow unobstructed.
"It's important to note there still is a chance of wet avalanche events in May in the backcountry - however, there is no avalanche hazard to (Highway 82) travel," Hunker said.
Following the May 11 opening, CDOT crews will continue the business of keeping the pass in good condition for the busy summer travel season, spokeswoman Nancy Shanks said.
For more information or to check road conditions, visit www.cotrip.org or call 511.