Popular Pearl Pass Road between Aspen and Crested Butte won’t open this year because of massive avalanche debris
ASPEN — There will be no Food & Wine festivities for the mayor of Pearl Pass this year.
Instead, Carl Buckingham will be spending this weekend — and probably most days this summer — trying to dig out Pearl Pass Road from under tons and tons of avalanche debris that came down during this big-snow winter.
Asked if he thinks the extremely popular four-wheel-drive road will open this summer, Buckingham’s answer was immediate and unequivocal.
“No,” he said Friday afternoon standing along the road. “There’s too much volume here.”
The main problem lies a little more than a mile up the road from the Pine Creek Cookhouse at the back of the Castle Creek Valley. At that point, two avalanche slides — one from each side of the road — that meet on the road in the middle and continue down the valley., stop four-wheel-drives, bikers and hikers dead in their tracks.
The slide on the valley’s east side is an avalanche path through aspen trees that slides most years, though it was wider this year, Buckingham said. The slide on the west side just below Greg Mace Peak, however, has never been known as an avalanche area.
“This is old-growth spruce,” he said of that avalanche path. “It’s never, ever slid before.”
The massive swath punched a huge hole in the forest below the peak, taking down 100-foot-high spruce trees that may be 200 years old, and depositing them at the bottom of the slope where the road is located, said Buckingham and Pitkin County public works director Brian Pettet.
Buckingham has spent the past four weeks trying to clear the road of tree trunks, some of which measure 36 inches in diameter, as well as hard-packed snow, ice and other debris.
Asked how much progress he’s made in those four weeks, Buckingham said with a laugh: “About 200 feet.”
Above that swath of spruce and aspen trees on Pearl Pass Road are three more avalanche slides, though those brought down mainly snow, Buckingham said. He said he’s been asking hikers coming down from the pass if they’ve seen a bridge a few miles up the road. None have reported seeing it, he said.
Pearl Pass Road is a popular summer route for serious four-wheel-drive aficionados. Buckingham said he’s been helping clear the road for 29 years for other four-wheel-drive fans like him.
“People come from all over the country (to drive the road),” he said. “It’s one of the classic, hardcore Colorado four-wheel-drive trails. It’s well-used.”
While it’s technically a Pitkin County road, county road officials are taking a hands-off approach at this point, Pettet said. It’s unlikely the county will put much, if any, effort toward opening the road this summer because it needs to put resources elsewhere, he said.
Pitkin County commissioners have signed off on leaving the road as it is for the time being to allow snow and ice to melt, Pettet said.
Meanwhile, Buckingham said Friday he will likely keep at it until the snow flies again. But don’t expect miracles, he said.
“This year, it’s not happening,” Buckingham said of opening the road. “Maybe it’s possible — but no.”