A Tennessee truck driver — apparently unaware that Independence Pass was closed for the winter — needed assistance with turning his big rig around Thursday morning near Difficult Campground, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
The driver works for Memphis, Tenn.-based Empire Express Inc. He was on his way back to the South when he was forced to detour from Interstate 70 at Glenwood Springs because of a weather-related temporary closure in the eastbound lane Thursday morning.
The trucker’s GPS system suggested that he try Highway 82 as an eastbound passage to the Front Range, said David Cook, the employee of Shaun’s Towing and Recovery who assisted him. The winter gate for Independence Pass has been closed since Nov. 4.
Pitkin County sheriff’s Deputy Monique Merritt was on the scene. She said she didn’t issue a citation because there was no violation: The tractor-trailer was not past the locked winter gate.
“He made it just past Difficult (Campground) directly across from the emergency call box,” she said. “He got stuck. Even though he was a truck driver, he didn’t know how to put chains on his tires.”
Merritt said she did not know the driver’s name.
“We called Shaun’s and they have a (special vehicle) just for semis, and they were slowly able to inch him around, luckily since he was in that spot — the pull-off for the call box,” she said.
The trucker said he had not seen the signs on Highway 82 that warn motorists of the pass closure, Merritt said.
“The first thing that he told me was, ‘Nobody told me the road was closed. I thought I could go over this way,’” she said. “We hear that story a lot.”
Merritt said she worked two incidents last summer in which truckers attempted to use the pass, which is off-limits to commercial vehicles longer than 35 feet.
One was driving westbound from Lake County but managed to inch through the narrow Pitkin County sections before being stopped and cited. The other was driving eastbound from Aspen, and he stopped near the first “narrows” where the road shrinks to less than two lanes, unwilling to risk going farther.
“Somehow he was able to turn around,” Merritt said.
On Jan. 23, a state House committee voted 10-3 in support of a bill to raise fines for truck drivers attempting to use Independence Pass. Many truck drivers do it in the summer to save time and gas.
The fine currently is $500; the bill seeks to raise it to $1,000. The fine would increase to $1,500 if the violation results in a tractor-trailer getting stuck on the narrow highway, causing a lane closure. The bill, co-sponsored by state Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, is now headed to the Appropriations Committee.
Cook said he was called to assist the trucker at about 11:20 a.m. Thursday. He said he did not take any photographs.
“I try to get my work done quickly, and I don’t have time to stop and take pictures,” he said. “He told me he was headed back to Memphis. I-70 was closed, and so he got on his GPS, which didn’t know the pass was closed. That’s what he blamed it on.”