Forest Service says some Aspen-area trails will open late, if they open at all

Some of the Aspen area’s most popular backcountry trails might not open until well into the summer, if at all, due to a heavy snowpack and avalanche debris that is piled several yards high, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The biggest questions exist for the Conundrum Trail and parking lot southwest of Aspen, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer said Tuesday. The area was buried by a massive slide off Highlands Ridge during an intense storm cycle the first week of March.

The Conundrum Trailhead is buried under about 40 feet of snow, according to an estimate by Pitkin County Road and Bridge workers, Schroyer said. The first mile or so of the trail is covered with that depth of snow as well as trees, rocks and dirt torn up by the slide.

“It’s so dense,” Schroyer said. “It’s like a glacier up there.”

A decision about Conundrum Trail’s status for the summer could be made as soon as this week, she said.

The challenges aren’t limited to Conundrum Creek Valley.

“We’re definitely going to be asking for people’s patience on this,” Schroyer said. “We don’t know when we’re going to get Maroon Creek open, either.”

The Forest Service depends on the county to plow roads in the late spring and early summer. Schroyer met Tuesday with Brian Pettet, the county’s director of public works, to assess the situation. The Forest Service conveyed that the county should take as long as needed to get routes open, according to Schroyer.

Pettet said there was a joint decision not to rush work when the snowpack remains so high because it would require a lot of resources and risk environmental damage.

“The Forest Service and the county are on the same page to let these (areas) melt out as much as possible,” Pettet said.

Conundrum Valley Avalanche

There is three-tenths of a probability annually that an avalanche the size of the slide that dropped in the Conundrum Creek Valley would happen, an avalanche expert said. Art Mearts, who helped build the wall that saved the house in the avalanche's path from total destruction, ventured over from Gunnison to survey the massive natural event Tuesday.

Posted by The Aspen Times on Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The county typically aims to have Maroon Creek Road, which leads to the popular Maroon Bells area, cleared and opened by May 15 each year. That doesn’t seem possible this year, Pettet said.

Chris Mandrick, a law enforcement officer with the White River National Forest, ventured into lower Maroon Creek Valley last weekend via snowmobile and found “two avalanches that definitely impacted the road.”

The biggest snow and debris pile was at mile marker 7, about 3 miles beyond the summer pay station, he said. Even where there isn’t snow from a slide, the road is buried under several feet of snow. Mandrick said he used a probe pole to estimate depth above the pay station and found it to be 2 to 2.5 meters deep, or 6 to 8 feet.

He observed numerous avalanche chutes that haven’t run, so he advised people to avoid Maroon Creek Road for the foreseeable future. Anyone who ventures there needs to “make good decisions” and bring safety equipment, he said.

The big unknown for the spring and summer is how quickly the snowpack will melt out. That will affect the accessibility of numerous routes, ranging from the paved Maroon Creek Road to tougher backcountry routes like Express Creek and Lincoln Creek roads, Pettet said.

“Virtually all those roads in narrow valleys have been impacted by avalanches,” Pettet said.

Like Schroyer, he said the message from the agencies is for people to temper their expectations. They likely won’t be accessing their favorite backcountry areas as quickly as they are used to.

The snowpack at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen was at 138 percent of average Monday. It’s even higher elsewhere in the watershed. The snowpack at Schofield Pass at the headwaters of the Crystal River is 154 percent of normal. Nast Lake in the Upper Fryingpan Valley is at 200 percent of normal.

Pettet said road and bridge crews have to factor in the potential for additional slides when assessing what work they can undertake. Additional challenges will be removing tree trunks and rocks in avalanche debris.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is uncertain how its facilities in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area have fared this winter. At the least, informational signs were probably damaged by slides or snow loading at the facilities near Maroon Lake, Schroyer said. The main bathroom, bus shelter and education area were built out of concrete to survive slides. The hope is there was so much snow that any slides rolled right over them, she said.

Trails throughout the district are susceptible to wash outs as the heavy snowpack melts out, she noted.

The Colorado Department of Transportation handles maintenance of Highway 82 over Independence Pass. The road, which is closed for the winter, has been topped by slides, but it’s unknown at this time if CDOT anticipates tougher challenges getting the road open in May. The target is typically the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend.