Independence Pass will remain closed until at least June 1

Highway 82 over Independence Pass will remain closed until at least June 1, the Colorado Department of Transportation confirmed Tuesday.

CDOT approved a request for the extended closure from Pitkin and Lake counties and other stakeholders that was submitted Tuesday afternoon. The highway over Independence Pass typically opens on the Thursday prior to Memorial Day Weekend, which would have been May 21 this year.

“CDOT understands the COVID-19 pandemic has created a unique situation and we support Pitkin County, Lake County, the Independence Pass Foundation and the Forest Service in keeping the communities safe and in control of visitors to these counties,” CDOT said in a statement. “We will tentatively plan on opening Independence Pass, on Colorado 82, on June 1, but can adjust if these agency partners need us to.”

Pitkin County Public Works Director Brian Pettet said there were multiple reasons for requesting the extended closure. The Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service won’t allow any national forest facilities to open prior to June 1. That means the bathrooms at the Pass summit will remain closed. It wasn’t a good idea to open the road and have travelers as well as people skiing and pursuing other outdoor activities heading up there with the expectation to find open facilities, Pettet said. The result would be a loss for the environment, he said.

In addition, Pitkin and Lake counties are discouraging tourists and second-home owners from visiting during the coronavirus crisis. Lodging in both counties is closed until at least the end of May. Opening the Pass could send a mixed message.

“That road is just another transportation valve,” Pettet said. “It draws a tremendous amount of visitors.”

Keeping that value closed was deemed the best option, he said.

Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, said the extended closure will be a big disappointment to backcountry skiers. On decent snowfall winters, skiers and snowboarders will park at the summit, climb nearby peaks, ski down and hitchhike or use shuttles to return. The summit is about 15 miles from the winter closure gate on the west side of the Pass, so that will drastically reduce the number of spring skiers.

The skiers’ loss will be the cyclists’ gain. Numerous bikers are taking advantage of the closed roadway.

On a ski tour Tuesday, CDOT crews were observed using a fleet of heavy equipment to make quick progress on clearing the road to the summit. They were about a quarter mile past Upper Lost Man at about 1:30 p.m. A snowcat with a blade in front was making a first pass at the roadway, which was buried by roughly 8 feet of snow along the Final Cut — the long straightaway with exposure hundreds of feet below to the valley floor. A front-end loader was scooping out snow and a plow outfitted with an industrial-sized snowblower were following and clearing out the roadway. As of the early afternoon, they had about 1 mile to go to reach the summit. Another CDOT crew was approaching from the east or Twin Lakes side of the Pass.

Snow-removal crews were able to advance to the high country after forecasters from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center examined conditions in the field and devised a plan of action late last week. Brian Lazar, the avalanche center’s assistant director, said explosive charges were dropped by helicopter in dozens of locations on the west and east sides of the Pass.

“We’re up there most days, particularly when they are working under avalanche paths,” Lazar said.

One area that receives particular attention is the Beeler Grade, an exposed stretch of the highway on the east side of the Pass. Multiple charges were used last week to collapse the long cornice overhanging the highway, Lazar said.

CDOT crews didn’t have as big of a challenge as last spring in moving massive amounts of snow from the roadway. Last year, multiple avalanches buried the highway under tons of snow, tree trunks, dirt and rock. In addition, there was fresh snowfall through April — in contrast to the dry and warm conditions this year, particularly last week.

“Every year is different. This year, most striking was how quick and warm it got even in April,” Lazar said. “It pumped a lot of water into the snowpack. In general, the snowpack doesn’t like rapid changes.”

The high temperatures during the last week of April triggered a “fairly significant wet avalanche cycle,” he said.

Signs of those slides abound on the pass, above the Independence ghost town and west of the Upper Lost Man parking area.

The CDOT crews typically start early in the morning when temperatures are cooler and, as a safety precaution, knock off in slide-prone areas by early- or mid-afternoon due to the threat of wet avalanches, according to Lazar.

With the opening of the Pass delayed until at least June 1, crews will have plenty of time to clear the snow to the summit and perform additional duties such as pavement repair and guardrail replacement.

In a statement provided by CDOT spokeswoman Elise Thatcher, the agency said it will continue to consult with partner agencies on the opening date.

“We look forward to continuing to receive feedback so we can continue to support these partners,” the statement said.