‘Unusual’ spring storm hits Vail, bringing wet, heavy snow and road closures
May 18, 2017
EAGLE COUNTY — Snowstorms in May aren't rare in Colorado, but the current system is unusual, packing feet of wet, heavy snow.
The storm that started Wednesday evening in the Vail Valley left the town of Vail on accident alert through mid-afternoon Thursday. Lots of hard-to-plow snow also closed Vail Pass for most of Thursday morning.
Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said plow crews were operating at full strength along the Interstate 70 mountain corridor, but several factors combined to make travel difficult.
One of the biggest is under-tired vehicles. Many local residents have had their snow tires taken off in the past couple of weeks. A number of those summer-tired vehicles spun out or otherwise were stopped on the pass and the approaches to the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels.
Stuck cars are hard for plows to maneuver around, Trulove said.
Front Range to Bear Brunt
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In a Thursday afternoon press call, Tamara Rollison of CDOT said a number of truck drivers didn't put on their tire chains navigating the high-elevation portions of the highway, further complicating travel.
While the storm was expected to move out of most of the Western Slope by today — or at least turn from snow to rain at lower elevations — the Front Range is bracing for snow well into this evening.
During the Thursday update, Bob Wilson of CDOT urged people not to travel, even encouraging commuters to leave work early. Forecasts called for wet roads to turn icy in the early evening and stay frozen into Friday.
Wilson said the department would implement safety closures as needed at both higher elevations and on Monument Hill on Interstate 25 south of Denver.
While plenty of snow hit this part of the mountains, the Front Range was on track to get the bulk of the snow from this storm.
Brian Lazar of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said forecast models for mountains east of the Continental Divide were still on track for as much as 3 feet of snow. With a foot or more of snow on the ground at mid-day, Lazar said some areas could see another 10 inches to 15 inches.
But plenty of snow fell on the high country, too. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported snow totals of 8 inches to 10 inches at Aspen, and from 12 inches to 19 inches in the higher elevations between Vail and Silverthorne.
Unlike most spring snowstorms, snow was starting to stick to the roads in mountainous areas west of Denver. As of about 2 p.m. Thursday, U.S. Highway 36 between Lyons and Estes Park was closed due to icy and snowpacked roads.
While state and local road crews went back to mid-winter operations, avalanche danger in the backcountry, while elevated, could have been worse.
In mid-winter, a large deposit of snow atop existing snowpack can create large, unstable areas.
Lazar said there weren't many lingering weak areas of snowpack before this storm hit. That means slopes weren't being overloaded, which will limit avalanche activity to the snow from the current storm.
Still, there's enough slide potential "to ruin your day," Lazar said. As much as 3 feet of new snow, combined with high winds, can create some serious slides, he said.
While the storm arrived early in most of the state, Rollison said it's not expected to move out earlier than when first forecast. That means we can expect snow and nasty roads into this evening — especially at higher elevations and along the Front Range.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com and @scottnmiller.