EAGLE COUNTY — You have to be tough to live in Red Cliff. At the very least, you have to be ready to be cut off from time to time.
Diana Cisneros is the postmaster in Red Cliff and a life-long resident of Eagle County’s first town, so she knows as well as anyone that May showers bring June flowers. April, however, is usually reserved for rockslides, the result of thawing and re-freezing that can crack rocks and send them tumbling down the steep sides of Battle Mountain.
A big slide hit U.S. Highway 24 between Minturn and Red Cliff about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, sending an estimated 150 tons of rocks crashing into the roadway just above the hairpin curves at the base of Battle Mountain. Some of those rocks punched some good-sized holes in the roadway.
One of those holes swallowed up a Chrysler PT Cruiser. The driver, a 20-year-old woman wasn’t badly injured in the accident, but she was charged with driving under the influence and not having proof of insurance. She was taken to Vail Valley Medical Center and released to a “responsible person” after being cited.
DETOURS FOR RED CLIFF RESIDENTS
The slide closed the road in both directions for much of the day Tuesday, reopening around 7:30 p.m. It forced Red Cliff residents and Leadville commuters to take the only other route open this time of year — State Highway 91 over Fremont Pass from Leadville to Interstate 70, then to Vail. That detour meant that the mail truck from Grand Junction didn’t arrive in Red Cliff until nearly noon, Cisneros said. Red Cliff Mayor Scott Burgess works in Avon and said it took him at least an hour longer than usual to get to work on Tuesday.
Red Cliff residents weren’t the only ones forced to detour over Fremont Pass. The county’s ECO Transit bus service runs between Leadville and Vail. This time of year, ECO Transit carries about 30 people each way. The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates that more than 2,000 vehicles per day use that stretch of highway.
As mayor, Burgess went to the scene of the slide early Tuesday morning. A town resident since 2005, Burgess knows rockslides will sometimes close the road. But this slide was something special, he said.
“There were just huge holes in the road,” Burgess said.
Department of Transportation crews worked through the overnight hours and into Tuesday evening to clear the roadway, blasting the larger rocks with dynamite to create pieces small enough to put into a truck and haul off.
After the clearing comes the patching. Department spokeswoman Tracy Truelove said patching is a fairly quick process, but that the big holes could take more time.
CHECKING THE HILLSIDE’S STABILITY
The bigger concern is about the rocks remaining up on the hillside. Given the thaw-and-freeze cycle, Truelove said questions remain about the stability of the hillside above the road. That’s especially true since Tuesday’s slide brought down many, if not most, of the trees in the slide zone.
Department geologists Tuesday viewed the hillside from the road and from a helicopter equipped with sensors designed to evaluate the hillside’s stability.
While people in Red Cliff expect to face detours and delays from time to time, whenever the road from Minturn is closed emergency services — already some time away — are even further delayed in the case of emergencies.
The town usually gets its fire, police and ambulance service from Vail Valley-based agencies. When Highway 24 is closed between Red Cliff and Minturn, that service comes from Leadville. Burgess said that can add 10 minutes or more to the time needed for help to arrive. The need is particularly pressing when it comes to ambulance services, he said.
And the delay in service doesn’t just apply to Red Cliff, Burgess said. “There are 300 people in town, and I’ll bet there are that many more between here and Leadville,” he said.
Cisneros is aware of all this. For her, living in Red Cliff is worth the extra trouble.
It is “up to God” when slides occur, she said. When they do happen, you simply have to be ready.
“I just hope (the road) is fixed soon,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “Until then, you do what you have to do.”