Snowstorm wreaks havoc on Vail Pass
At the start of the typically busy Memorial Day weekend, Vail Pass was shut down for about two hours between East Vail and Copper Mountain. In fact, Interstate 70 was such a mess that police cruisers, ambulances and tow trucks had trouble reaching some crashes, said Capt. Scott Friend, of the Colorado State Patrol.
“There were five-car accidents, four-car accidents and jack-knifed semis, and that closed everything down,” Friend said. “I can’t even tell you how many accidents there were.”
Several people were taken to Vail Valley Medical Center, but there were no reports of serious or life-threatening injuries.
May snowstorms are not unusual, but the complete closure of Vail Pass, at 10,666 feet above sea level, is rare – even during the winter’s heaviest blizzards.
At one point Friday morning, the highway was so badly blocked that an ambulance from Summit County had to respond to a crash because the accident couldn’t be reached from the Eagle County side of the pass.
Sgt. Steven Wright, who directed Vail police in shutting down stretches of the interstate, said the crashes may have been worse because many people were expecting more summery driving conditions at the beginning of the holiday weekend.
“People were driving by us wearing shorts and tank-tops,” Wright said. “They were obviously in vacation mode.”
At other times during the morning, police cruisers and other emergency vehicles had to drive in the opposite lanes of the interstate to reach crashes higher up Vail Pass.
And the road was so icy early Friday morning, an emergency worker heard over a police radio said that even 5 mph seemed too dangerous a speed to be driving down the pass.
Motorists began stacking up at the East Vail I-70 exit as accidents higher up began blocking the pass, which was shutdown about 10:30 a.m. as emergency vehicles attempted to clear up all the accidents.
Of the backups at the bottom of the hill in East Vail, Dan Recht, an attorney who travels frequently over Vail Pass, said the congestion was awful.
“It’s terrible,” Recht said. “I’ve never seen it like this. It’s at a standstill.”
Eight inches of snow buried Vail Pass and quickly created slick roads, Friend said.
“The snow hit pretty hard and it was coming down pretty heavy,” he said. “It was slushy and we had people used to going too fast who weren’t slowing down and they were losing control in the slush, which caused several multi-car accidents.”
Cars also reportedly slid off the road near Camp Hale in southeastern Eagle County.
“Pick up a piece of blank copier paper and stare at it. That’s pretty much what it looked like for awhile,” Wright said.
But there were no accidents reported in Vail.
“The road conditions in town were pretty good, just wet,” Wright said. “When you got up higher, it got treacherous.”
All lanes of Vail Pass were reopened, though still congested, by about 1 p.m., after Colorado Department of Transportation crews cleared snow and slush from the interstate.
The heavy Memorial Day traffic didn’t make things any easier, Friend said.
“It took awhile to get the right equipment up there and get to cars that needed to be towed and investigate the accidents,” Friend said. “Then we had to get CDOT in there to clean it up so we didn’t have the same problems when we reopened.”