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Stranded in Vail?

Matt Zalaznick
Truck driver Mike Snider of Fort Collins, Colo., readies his truck to be towed from a snowbank along Interstate 70 eastbound Tuesday, March 18, 2003, during a winter storm in the Denver area. In Colorado, drifts up to 12 feet high were reported in the foothills southwest of Denver near Conifer, the weather service said. Snider owns the truck and said he had pulled off the side of the highway Monday evening because the snow was coming down too hard and was plowed in over the night. Snider was able to betowed out of the bank and was hoping he could make it home to Fort Collins. In the background are the buffalo that graze close tothe Genesse exit off the interstate. (AP Photo/Rocky Mountain News, Marc Piscotty)
AP | DENVER ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

Instead, barely noticeable flurries fell Wednesday on squeaky-clean roads in Vail while a powerful snowstorm socked Denver and its suburbs, stranding motorists and shutting down Interstate 70.

In fact, a 55-mile stretch of freeway, in some places clogged with 3 feet of heavy, wet, hard-to-plow snow, was actually closed between Morrison and Silverthorne, a stretch of about 55 miles.

Travelers stuck on this side of the weather were a little happier than those stranded on the Front Range.

“It could be worse, we could’ve gotten stranded on the highway,” said Melissa Dougherty, a Front Ranger who came to Vail Monday to ski with friends.

Wednesday morning, there was 3 feet of snow at her home in Lafayette, she said. She and her boyfriend – who spent Wednesday skiing instead of struggling back to Denver – were hoping to leave West Vail with their 3-month old daughter by Wednesday evening, she said.

“We’re going to try to go back today,” she said. “It’s scary because we have a baby.”

Skiers and snowboarders said the slopes were pretty quiet Wednesday. Whether that was because it was the middle of the week or the storm preventing skiers and snowboarders from getting to Vail is unclear.

Vail Transportation Service had a van full of mountain-bound passengers stranded at a Holiday Inn on the Front Range, says Marnie Pistole, the company’s owner.

“All of the road condition lines are busy – you can’t get through – but the information is not current anyway,” Pistole said. “It’s a very frustrating situation.”

The Colorado Highway Patrol even asked the company if its vans could pick up motorists stranded in their cars on the freeway. The company’s drivers were scrambling to get information on alternate routes, such as U.S. 285 through Fairplay, Pistole said.

“I will not send another vehicle down until I get report from the two drivers when they make it back,” Pistole said. “It’s unfortunate the police don’t have some way to get more information. There’s the road and weather channel, but that’s not what we need.”

With snow continuing to fall at noon, the Colorado Department of Transportation was telling motorists and anxious shuttle companies I-70 was closed indefinitely. Colorado Mountain Express, based in Edwards, was taking some travelers to airports in Steamboat Springs, Montrose and Grand Junction, said Tom Ball, executive vice president of East-West Resort Transportation, which owns the shuttle service.

CME halted all shuttles to Denver International Airport Tuesday evening, Ball said.

“We’ve experienced the storm first-hand, and Mother Nature certainly lets us know who’s boss,” Ball said.

None of the company’s vans were stuck on I-70, but not everybody had reached their final destination Wednesday. Some drivers had their passengers in Front Range hotels, Ball said.

“But we certainly don’t have everybody where they want to be,” Ball said.

Most flights out of Eagle County airport Wednesday were full, some with passengers who couldn’t get to Denver to make connecting flights. Other travelers trying to fly out of were on waiting lists.

Bill Horan, the general manager for American Airlines in Eagle, said the airport was busy but calm.

“Fortunately, there a lot of informed passengers,” Horan said. “We have the accommodations in the Vail Valley to keep people comfortable. They haven’t needed to pitch tents in the terminal.”

Travelers who couldn’t fly out of the airport in Aspen arrived in Eagle County looking for seats. Horan also said he sent a group of American Airlines passengers to the airport in Hayden, near Steamboat Springs, where a departing flight had space. Hampering efforts to get passengers out of Eagle are weight restrictions imposed on flights leaving the airport because of the altitude and length of the runways. But most passengers were not exactly angry about being stuck in Vail, Horan said.

“One woman asked us for a letter saying we couldn’t get her out so she could miss two days of work and stay and ski,” Horan said. “She’s not going fly home until Saturday.”

——–

I-70 might open this morning, CDOT says

SUMMIT COUNTY – Interstate 70 could open early this morning, Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Jordon said Wednesday.

Shut down in both directions from Silverthorne to Morrison at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, I-70 remained closed all day Wednesday as highway crews blasted mountainsides to deter avalanches and make travel safe.

Late Wednesday, Jordon said his best guess was for re-opening was 4 or 5 a.m. today.

“But if they called to open it right now, I wouldn’t be shocked, and if they didn’t open it until noon, I wouldn’t be shocked,” he said.

Loveland and Berthoud passes were also closed Wednesday. Interstate 25 north of Fort Collins to Wyoming was shut down before I-70 and remained closed late Wednesday. Those closures were triggered by a chain reaction of events.

“Cars and trucks just were getting stuck,” he said. Banks of snow on the sides of the interstate occasionally gave way, blocking lanes of traffic. All told, Jordon said, there were too many reasons to close and not enough to keep the highway open. “We were trying to avoid something a lot worse.”

The I-70 closure brought 148 stranded and weary travelers to the Silverthorne Recreation Center Tuesday night, and an equal number were expected Wednesday evening. The center is a designated American Red Cross emergency shelter.

There, they slept on cots and gymnastics mats in the lobby and community room. Wednesday, some of the stranded killed time by shoveling the center’s sidewalks and washing windows.

As word about the emergency shelter hit radio and television air waves, locals reacted.

“We’ve had so many businesses donate food and individuals walk in with bags from the grocery store and just donate them,” said recreation center director Tammy Jamieson. “(The travelers) have warm meals tonight, and we’ve got food already for breakfast.

“We’ve had some people come in (Wednesday) that were in their cars (Tuesday) night, and they are very happy to be here.”

Others were happy to find some roads open.

– Jane Reuter

——

Weather and road conditions:

– Conditions and alternate routes – 1-877-315-7623

– Colorado road conditions – http://www.dot.state.co.us or http://www.cotrip.org

– Local road conditions – 479-2226

– Denver Metro road conditions – 1-303-639-1111

– I-70 Channel 19 on the Vail cable TV system shows live video from cameras positioned along Interstate 70 accompanied by current weather and road updates.

Airport information:

– Denver International Airport – 1-303-342-2000 or http://www.flydenver.com/home/index.asp.

– Eagle County Regional Airport – 524-9490 or http://www.eagle-county.com/airport.cfm

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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