I-70 reopens after closure strands thousands | AspenTimes.com

I-70 reopens after closure strands thousands

George Merritt
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

Traffic sits at a standstill Monday morning, Dec 31, 2007 on eastbound Interstate 70 near the Silverthorne, Colo., exit after the highway was closed due to snow and high winds Sunday evening. Whiteout conditions on icy, snow packed roads slowed heavy traffic to a crawl on Interstate 70 near the Eisenhower Tunnel, before officials closed the highway in both directions Sunday from Vail to Georgetown. (AP Photo/Summit Daily News, Mark Fox)

DENVER ” Wind-whipped snow and avalanche danger closed the main highway through the Colorado mountains for hours on Monday, stranding thousands of travelers as they headed to New Year’s Eve celebrations.

A 60-mile stretch of Interstate 70 had been shut down in both directions in the high country west of Denver, but all lanes reopened Monday afternoon after the potential ava­lanches were cleared away.

The long shutdown had some travelers comtemplating the prospect of welcoming the new year on a cot in a shel­ter. The Red Cross began closing the shelters in the after­noon.

“I’ve got some [champagne] in the car, but it’s probably frozen by now,” said Ken Simons of Grand Junction. He and his wife were trying to get to Denver for New Year’s when the road closure forced them and more than 2,000 others to spend Sunday night in shelters.

Liquor stores along the closed section of highway did a brisk business, and some of their customers were strand­ed travelers.

“We’ve definitely seen a rush,” said John Will of Antler’s Discount Liquor in Frisco. “People are coming in com­plaining that they are stuck here, or that it takes two hours to get to [Breckenridge] when it normally takes five min­utes.”

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Leaha Widrow­icz was trying to get back to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her boy­friend and his mother after a skiing trip but had to spend the night in Frisco, missing their midnight flight from Denver International Airport.

“We’re not even thinking of New Year’s right now,” Widrowicz said. “We are just trying to get home to family.”

High winds piled deep snow into more than two dozen narrow ravines in the mountainsides ” known as ava­lanche chutes ” raising the danger of potentially deadly snow slides cascading onto I-70. The wind-blown snow reduced visibility to nearly zero at times.

Authorities wanted to clear out that snow before letting traffic through again.

Wind gusts at the Eisenhower Tunnel, where the inter­state passes under the Continental Divide at 11,000 feet above sea level, reached 70 mph.

The highway was first shut down on Sunday night. That section carries as many as 39,000 cars on Sundays during this time of year, officials said.

Loveland Ski Area, about 45 miles west of Denver, shut down for the day because the highway closure kept both skiers and workers away.

While many people took advantage of seven Red Cross shelters in schools and recreation centers, others relied on the kindness of strangers.

Brian Jerry of Colorado Springs said people he’d never met before let him stay in their Silverthorne home because motels were full.

“We called the local Quality Inn, and they basically laughed at us,” Jerry said Monday.

Jerry, who had been snowboarding at Keystone Resort Sunday when high winds began, said he and his friends found a place to stay through conversations at a restaurant. “The good will and the bonding together has been out­standing,” he said.

I-70 is the main route between Denver and many of the state’s major ski resorts, but it wasn’t clear if the closures would hurt ski business during the lucrative holiday season.

“It’s going to be resort-by-resort,” said Jennifer Rudolph, a spokeswoman for the industry group Colorado Ski Coun­try USA.

Blowing snow and low visibility kept U.S. 6 over Loveland Pass closed. Both U.S. 550 over Red Mountain Pass in south­western Colorado U.S. 40 over Berthoud Pass in the central part of the state had been closed but reopened Monday.