ASPEN - Freezing rain preceded the snow that fell Monday in Aspen and the surrounding area, turning Red Mountain Road near town into an ice rink and keeping law enforcement personnel hopping.
"When it started snowing, it put a coat of snow over a sheet of ice, basically," said Deputy Jason Kasper, of the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office.
The rash of accidents was mostly of the one-vehicle variety as cars slid off roads or into barriers; no injuries were reported, Kasper said.
Within the city of Aspen, police had responded to a dozen accidents by about 2:15 p.m., including three on lower Maroon Creek Road, but again, no injuries were reported.
"We've just had a lot of cars sliding around," said Blair Weyer, community relations specialist for the Aspen Police Department.
Aspen was under a winter storm warning until 5 a.m. Tuesday, and snow fell off and on throughout the day Monday, sometimes heavily. The National Weather Service predicted 8 to 16 inches from the storm, which was to continue into the night, while the local weather bloggers at AspenWeather.net were calling for 7 to 12 inches on the slopes by Tuesday morning. By midafternoon Monday, Aspen Skiing Co. was reporting 2 to 5 inches of new snow at local ski areas.
The snow began in time for the morning commute, and the county issued an alert to warn motorists of winter driving conditions at 6:30 a.m. Shortly before 7 a.m., a chain law was put into effect in Snowmass Village, and after a one-car mishap on Highway 82 in Snowmass Canyon, the Sheriff's Office employed pace cars to lead upvalley traffic through the canyon at safe speeds. It's an approach authorities have begun using to prevent or reduce traffic accidents when conditions are dicey.
Even police vehicles had trouble navigating lower Red Mountain Road, though. Slick conditions combined with the steepness of the road, located on the edge of Aspen, forced authorities to close the road entirely for about 30 minutes, starting around 9:45 a.m. Several county trucks were summoned to dump loads of gravel on a glaze that sent multiple vehicles careening off the road.
"It was like an ice rink," said Officer Brian Stevens, whose Aspen police vehicle couldn't make the climb. "Cars would stop, and they'd start sliding backward."
Officer Chance Williams said he drove partway up the steep pitch above Willoughby Way and then pulled to the side as an intrepid motorist began inching and then sliding downward, nearly clipping Williams' vehicle.
"He looked terrified. Maybe he didn't really realize," Williams said.
Officers said five or six vehicles slid off the road, while others skated through the maze of stuck motorists until the road was closed.
One driver said his vehicle slid sideways down the hill when he was forced to stop behind a truck that also had come to a stop.
Treacherous winter conditions on the road are not uncommon, and one individual at the scene suggested magnesium chloride, a deicer, could be put to good use on Red Mountain Road.
"That's a problem area," conceded Brian Pettet, director of Public Works for Pitkin County.
Both the city of Aspen and Pitkin County have, however, shunned use of magnesium chloride for environmental reasons, though the county uses it for dust control on some gravel roads during the summer.
The use of magnesium chloride for snow and ice control has been discussed with county commissioners previously, but they have opted to stick with gravel (washed to remove dust) with 9 percent salt content, according to Pettet.
When Red Mountain Road was last resurfaced, the installation of permanent magnesium chloride dispensers on the steep stretches was explored, but it was a pricey addition that was not included in the project, Pettet said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation uses magnesium chloride on state highways, including Highway 82, but halts its application at the city of Aspen boundary, where city plows take over.