Those hoping to see Independence Pass open before Memorial Day got their wish Thursday.
Despite a heavy snowpack still present on the pass, the Colorado Department of Transportation had the roads fully cleared and the pass gates open by noon.
“The roads are dry and in good shape,” said Jeff Lewis, the CDOT employee who unlocked the pass gate on the Aspen side. “There’s still a lot of snow above Lost Man Campground, but that’s good for preventing forest fires.”
At 12,095 feet above sea level, Independence Pass is the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide in the U.S.
The snowpack, as of Thursday, was 239 percent of the average at Grizzly Reservoir along the pass, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service of Colorado.
Maks Gorham was the first person to go through the pass gate at noon. Gorham, originally from Stowe, Vermont, now lives in Snowmass Village and is a ski coach for the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. He also skis professionally for Team K2. Gorham obviously was excited to go backcountry skiing.
“Indy Pass is pretty accessible, and the skiing is awesome,” he said. “There’s still a lot of snow here, and this area has access to a lot of different terrain for this time of the year. Being able to drive right up to where I want to ski is pretty cool. Today isn’t about being an instructor or racing; this is me going on my own adventure with my own rules in some amazing backcountry conditions.”
Before noon Thursday, dozens of bikers and hikers with dogs could be seen heading up and coming down the pass near the winter-closure gate, taking advantage of one last trip without the worry of sharing the road with vehicular traffic.
Damien and Cathy Koch rode their bikes over the pass Thursday from Leadville. They made it to Aspen in about three hours and beat the opening of the highway by about 15 minutes.
“This is the fifth year in a row we’ve made this trip,” Damien Koch said. “We love Aspen and will spend the night before heading back tomorrow. We wouldn’t make this trip if the pass was already open because of the traffic. It’s such an amazing ride when you can enjoy the scenery and not worry about cars or trucks.”
The area between Difficult and Weller campgrounds is currently lush with fresh, green leaf and needle growth on the Aspen trees, lodgepole pines, subalpine firs and Englemann spruce trees.
The terrain changes quickly to a dirty snowpack above Weller, streaked with brown dirt from the dust storms that blew through the area in April. The snow depths jump up significantly above Lost Man campground where the terrain still is completely snow-covered.
More than a dozen backcountry skiers were at the top of the pass by 12:30 p.m. All agreed that conditions looked fantastic for skiing. By 1 p.m., a light snow began falling on the pass that changed to rain below the ghost town of Independence.
“We didn’t realize the pass was even closed,” said Allen Bradley, of Portland, Oregon, who was traveling through Colorado with his wife and showed up at the Aspen gate closure about 10 minutes before the pass opened. “Looks like we got lucky today.”