Hundreds of cars turned away at Independence Pass in Aspen

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
A truck turns around near the closed Independence Pass gate on the Aspen side of the pass. With the closure of Glenwood Canyon due to a rockfall, many cars and trucks followed GPS alternate route directions toward the pass, which is always closed throughout winter months. A Google Maps search suggested drivers head up Frying Pan Road toward Meredith and then up toward Eagle, another impassable winter route, while yet another iPhone maps search suggested Cottonwood Pass, between the Catherine Store and Gypsum, also impassable during winter months.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Hundreds of cars and several semitractor-trailers lined up at the Independence Pass closure gate Tuesday morning as drivers mistakenly took the pass as an alternative route to Interstate 70’s Glenwood Canyon.

The canyon closed Monday night due to a rockslide and isn’t expected to reopen until at least Thursday (see related story on page A3).

Tow truck operator Dave Cook, who was at the scene Tuesday morning, said it was especially difficult for the semi drivers, some of whom got stuck on the pass as early as 6 a.m. and were there for about seven hours.

Cook said some of the semis disconnected their trailers to help maneuver their vehicles, which made what should have been a 30- to 45-minute process turn into a three-hour ordeal.

Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Marcin Debski, who directed traffic at Independence Pass from about 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, said he’s “never seen anything like it.”

Both Google Maps and iPhone maps rerouted people toward Ruedi Reservoir and Meredith and then over to Eagle, which also is impassable during winter months. Another route shows Cottonwood Pass — also impassable — as an option.

Word of mouth didn’t help the situation, either. Shaun’s Towing & Recovery manager Cody Messer, who also was at the scene at Independence Pass, said he spoke with a couple from Iowa heading east who said they stopped at a gas station in Glenwood where someone told them the fastest way around the closure was via Independence Pass.

Debski said he knows there are signs on the way from Glenwood to Aspen indicating that Highway 82 is closed, but that didn’t stop many drivers from proceeding.

He said some drivers were understanding, while others “were upset that they needed to drive all the way to Aspen to learn the highway is closed.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the Pitkin County Sheriff Twitter account, @PitkinSheriff, tweeted: “Headed to Denver or points east? Hwy 82 over Indy Pass is closed and NOT an option. Visit for preferred detours.”

The popular shuttle service Colorado Mountain Express, which runs from Denver International Airport west to the mountains, is taking customers via a detour that adds about four hours of travel time — roughly doubling the trip, a Colorado Mountain Express dispatcher said Tuesday afternoon.

The detour route runs I-70 west to Wolcott, north to Steamboat, west to Craig, south to Rifle, then east on I-70 to Glenwood before reaching Highway 82 toward Aspen.

Luckily for local tourism officials and hopeful visitors, Tuesday night marked the lowest occupancy all week both in Aspen and Snowmass, meaning few guests have been impacted by the road closure so far, said Stay Aspen Snowmass President Bill Tomcich.

Being on the tail end of the Presidents Day holiday weekend, Tomcich said it is more likely guests will have to extend their stays because they are unable to get out rather than cancelling their arrivals because they are unable to get in.

But “the impacts could quickly get a lot more severe” depending how long the closure lasts, Tomcich said.

The last time a rockslide of similar magnitude caused a prolonged road closure was in March 2010, when the canyon closed for nearly four days.

Tomcich recalls the last prolonged road closure being “a major hassle” for many people.

One of the biggest issues caused by the 2010 closure was a food shortage at restaurants and grocery stores in town, as delivery trucks were unable to make the journey.

Local restaurants such as Grey Lady, Jimmy’s Bodega and Maru say they lucked out yesterday with their regular Monday food deliveries, which they received with some delays. The restaurants typically do not have food delivered Tuesdays.

The Grey Lady has its food delivered every day of the week except Tuesdays and Sundays, sous chef Kyle Raymond said.

“Otherwise we’d really be in the hole,” Raymond said, adding that the Grey Lady cannot access fish — the restaurant’s “primary protein” — anywhere locally.

All three restaurants anticipate running into trouble if the I-70 closure lasts beyond Tuesday, which officials confirmed would happen.

Raymond said the Grey Lady’s purveyors called the restaurant Monday when the road first closed to let them know deliveries would be delayed and to provide them updated ETAs.

“The joys of the mountains,” Raymond said, with a laugh. “It’s definitely one of the down sides to being so remote out here.”

Tomcich joked that “it really is a shorter drive to Salt Lake than it is to Denver right now.”