Drifts won’t deter pass opening | AspenTimes.com

Drifts won’t deter pass opening

There may be 30-foot snowdrifts piled high along the side of the road, but Highway 82 up to Independence Pass has been cleared for the summer.

The road Aspenites use to escape to the east opens officially next Friday, May 23, at 4 p.m., after several weeks of full-time work by the Colorado Department of Transportation. CDOT plows reached the summit of the 12,095-foot pass Wednesday.

According to officials, this is the most snow they’ve seen on top of the pass in five years, and five or six times as much snow as last winter.

“It wasn’t like this last year,” said Independence Pass Foundation director Mark Fuller, holding his hand waist-high to illustrate depth of the roadside drifts last year. He added that last year there were only a few piles of snow piled periodically along the roadside.

“Last year they could have let the snow just melt naturally,” Fuller said. “The biggest drift was 10 feet tall.”

The consistency of this year’s snowpack made the clearing tricky: The “corn snow” wasn’t a compact mass of snow, meaning that snowblowers traveling on top of the snow on the road occasionally fell right through some weak layers.

Crews use snowblowers that shoot snow 100 feet into the air over the cliffs at the steepest part of the road. CDOT transportation maintenance supervisor Larry Dungan said the snowblowers aim over the trees in the area, so as not to strip them of branches with the falling snow.

Loaders then push the remaining snow to the edge of the road, and bulldozers clear the tops of taller drifts. Dungan’s crew is responsible for clearing to the top of the pass, where they are met by a CDOT crew from Lake County working up from the Twin Lakes area.

The loose and layered snow might make for some strange backcountry skiing conditions, Fuller said. The pass opens on Memorial Day weekend for travelers and skiers, but this year’s skiers should expect to find “funky” snow.

“It’s something for people who come up here to ski to remember,” he said.

Fuller and Dungan placed orange cones around damaged part of the road, preparing for Saturday’s Ride for The Pass, a 10-mile ride from the closure gates up to the ghost town of Independence, sans traffic. Entrance fees for the ride are $30 per person if purchased in advance at the Ute Mountaineer or Aspen Velo.

The ride begins at 9 a.m., and the entry fee on the morning of the ride is $35. All proceeds go to the Independence Pass Foundation, which is working to stabilize and revegetate the highest part of the pass on the Aspen side, known as the Top Cut.

Dungan said the foundation’s stabilization work has saved CDOT money, because workers charge the state three hours of overtime pay whenever they have to go up to clear a large rock off the road.

“All of the work they do has saved the state money and helps out the environment in restoring that area,” he said.

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com]

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