CDOT’s challenge: Opening Independence Pass on time | VailDaily.com

CDOT’s challenge: Opening Independence Pass on time

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times

The massive March storm cycle that dropped 6 feet of snow in the Aspen area unleashed an avalanche near the top of Independence Pass that took out a large section of guardrail, sources said Thursday.

Repairing the damage coupled with clearing a huge amount of avalanche debris and snow from Highway 82 on both the Pitkin County and Lake County sides of the Pass means the Colorado Department of Transportation has some serious work to do before the estimated May 23 opening, said Tracy Trulove, CDOT spokesperson.

“Last year wasn’t much of a winter, so we didn’t have any problems,” Trulove said. “This year’s gonna be a different story.”

She said it’s too early to say whether CDOT maintenance crews will hit the May 23 target, though she said making the opening date is a point of pride with the crews.

“The challenge we’re having is there’s a lot of debris,” Trulove said. “We need Mother Nature to loosen it up and help out.”

So far, crews are just past the Green Mountain avalanche slide path, which is about 8 miles from the Pass summit, she said. Once they make some more progress, they will have a better idea of the guardrail damage near the top of the road, Trulove said.

CDOT officials have only seen the upper part of the road where the guardrail was damaged from a distance, she said. It appears to affect a 300-foot section of guardrail, which will have to be repaired or replaced, Trulove said. The section will be repaired one way or another because the drop over the side at that point is hundreds of feet, she said.

Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said a CAIC forecaster has been to that avalanche path and estimated that about 100 feet of guardrail was dislodged.

The avalanche occurred on the final straightaway before the road makes the hard left turn for the final climb to the Pass summit.

“Some paths we call the Waterholes ran probably during the March storm cycle,” he said. “It took a good stretch (of guardrail) out.

“It peeled away from its moorings.”

CDOT crews also will have to deal with 20-to-30-foot piles of avalanche debris near the Grottos and just past the Lincoln Creek turnoff, Lazar said.

And that’s not even counting the Lake County side.

Trulove said there’s more snow on the Lake County side of the Pass than the Pitkin County side, and that CDOT cannot yet even access its normal helicopter landing zone used for avalanche mitigation.

Lazar said avalanches on the other side were frequent this winter, as well.

“A lot of paths ran on the Lake County side,” he said. “We created new avalanche paths on that side.”

Trulove said a large avalanche occurred between Twin Lakes and the winter closure gate on that side.

Finally, the cornice at the summit still appears to be loaded with a lot of snow, she said. Lazar said dealing with the cornice is part of avalanche mitigation this spring and that it appears to be high this year but not majorly overhanging.

Spring backcountry skiers should remain vigilant, however. Avalanches could continue through the spring as previously frozen snow layers are saturated with melt water and spring storms pass through the area, he said.

“Avalanche season is not over,” Lazar said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com