March storm causes mayhem on roads
EAGLE COUNTY — White-out conditions Monday evening and numerous accidents caused a closure of Vail Pass from about 6 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Seventy-seven travelers received shelter in the Vail Town Council chambers and the Vail Chapel on Monday night when Interstate 70 closed, Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said.
“The spring storms are always the worst,” said Sgt. Ryan Parker, of the Colorado State Patrol. “They’re always the wet, heavy stuff that’s harder for (the Colorado Department of Transportation) to get moved off quicker.”
Winds gusting up to 35 mph and up to 8 inches of snow caused the National Weather Service to post a winter weather advisory through 6 a.m. Tuesday.
“What people don’t realize is we can’t predict how hard and fast it comes in,” Parker said. “And when everybody’s trying to get over the mountain at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, we’ve got a huge influx of cars. It literally only takes one car or one semi and it really affects everyone else’s night.”
Two major factors to the delays were the length of the storm and the heavy, wet snow that it dropped.
“People need to realize we’re not out of winter yet,” said Tracy Trulove, communications manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “We got really teased by this wonderful, warm weather.”
On Monday, the eastbound bridge at mile marker 185, which Parker said is notoriously problematic, was clogged up with semis blocking traffic, as well as some passenger vehicles getting stuck. The bridge causes problems because it freezes before other parts of the highway, Parker said.
“Before you know it, you got two semis side-by-side on that bridge and everyone behind them has nowhere to go,” Parker said.
That includes the plows.
“We had plenty of plows on and people on the corridor, but what people don’t realize is when one of these situations starts, our plows are stuck, too,” Trulove said. “Our plows don’t have a magic way to get around multiple cars that have blocked the highway.”
With traffic gridlocked, safety closures were set up to stop cars from adding to the parking lot that was I-70. Officials began stopping cars at locations with access to facilities — food, gas, hotels — and then proceeded to turn cars around and drive them the wrong way on the interstate to get them to safety.
Some of the cars had been sitting for three to four hours, Parker said, and some of them were low on fuel.
With I-70 closed, the roads in Vail started backing up as well, making it difficult for emergency vehicles to do their job. The State Patrol and the transportation department had help from local police departments.
“We had everybody,” Parker said. “Anybody and everybody that was available to work that, we pulled everybody we could.”
‘IT WAS EERIE’
John O’Neill, of Edwards, was trying to make it home Monday night.
“I was on my way back from the airport (in Denver),” he said. “I had just flown in from Florida, so that was quite a change of pace for driving compared to Orlando.”
O’Neill, driving his 2006 Subaru Outback with all-wheel drive and snow tires, was checking the alerts along the way.
“Once I got to the top of Vail Pass, it was eerie,” he said. “There was nobody on the pass.”
O’Neill’s normal two-hour trip took him nearly four hours, and it took everything inside him to not eat his bag of six Great Harvest cookies during the commute, he said.
“Just make sure you have a full tank of gas before you hit Vail Pass because you never know how long you’re going to sit there,” he said.
Officials remind drivers to be prepared for the scenario and to carry water, blankets and some food just in case. Proper tires and chains are also important for safe travels.
Also, stay up to date with road conditions by checking http://www.cotrip.org and other social media accounts.
U.S. Highway 24 was closed in both directions between Minturn and Red Cliff Monday night, as well as U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass. Both reopened early Tuesday morning.
On Tuesday morning, Beaver Creek reported 10 inches in 24 hours (7 inches overnight) and Vail reported 9 inches in 24 hours (6 inches overnight).
The snow that fell at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service site at Vail, not the measuring sticks, measured a 0.8 snow water equivalent in 9 inches of snow.
“That’s pretty wet snow,” said Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the district.
Johnson also said that the Colorado River Basin, which is most important to Eagle County, is still hovering near normal compared to the past 30-year median. Given the long-term drought the river basin has been in, Johnson said “we got kind of lucky” with it not getting too warm up high and staying close to normal.
“We kind of had the perfect spring storm,” Parker said. “It hit hard and fast, like they always do.”
There’s a chance of snow through Friday, according to http://www.opensnow.com.
Reporter Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2915 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.