Independence Pass could be open by end of month |

Independence Pass could be open by end of month

A state transportation crew was about a mile from clearing Highway 82 to the summit of Independence Pass on Thursday, raising hopes the road could be open by the end of the month.

“Seeing how much they’ve done today, it might (open) by the end of the month,” said Tracy Trulove, Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman. “On the conservative side, I’d say the first week of June.”

A crew of three heavy machinery operators were working on the final stretch of the road Thursday and making solid progress thanks to higher temperatures. A snowcat driver took the lead, using a plow to clear away the top layer of heavy snow. Two front-end loaders fitted with giant snow blowers on the front followed, removing the rest of the snow down to the asphalt.

Chris Young, the snowcat driver, agreed with Trulove on his colleagues’ progress, saying at least one good-sized lane could be cleared to the summit by the end of the day Thursday. Still, he said the road will still need quite a bit more maintenance, including guardrail and possibly road repair, before it is opened to traffic.

In addition, there’s the Twin Lakes side, which might have more snow than the Aspen side, and also must be cleared before the road can open. On Thursday, crews on that side were not yet visible from the Pass summit, though Young said he’s heard them working.

The road will undergo another week of maintenance and clearing before CDOT undertakes helicopter-based avalanche mitigation operations May 22 from the Twin Lakes side, Trulove said. Large cornices on the high peaks leading up to the summit, which are visible from Highway 82, will likely be bombed during those operations, she said.

Trulove took members of the local Aspen media on a tour up Independence Pass on Thursday — the road remains closed from the winter closure gate — to show the crew’s progress.

The tour also provided visual evidence of several avalanche slides along the road this winter, which brought heavy snow. The largest appeared to be the Green Mountain West slide a few miles up the road, which tore down a steep avalanche chute on the south side of the road and came back up and across the road to knock down trees on the other side.

In the middle of that slide debris and on the side of the road is a large boulder that appears to be held in place by ice and snow. Trulove said specialty CDOT crews will have to come up and blast it into pieces with explosives to remove it before it topples into the road.

The rock illustrates a problem CDOT is likely to have to deal with for the next couple of months, Trulove said. Avalanche debris and rocks are likely to continue to fall into the road as temperatures rise and snow melts, perhaps even in the form of actual avalanches.

That means CDOT will have to patrol the road far more closely than usual, as well as communicate any Independence Pass issues to the public, she said.

Variable message boards will be posted along the road, and CDOT will frequently update conditions at as well as issue news releases to local media, Trulove said.

On Thursday morning, the Pass summit was still covered in several feet of snow. The tops of the bathrooms were visible, but they were far from accessible.

The snowcat rose and fell as if on an ocean as Young piloted the machine to and from the summit, riding the edge of the road and pushing huge, rolling piles of snow, like slow-motion waves, off the side.

“If anyone tells you they’re not scared doing this, they’re lying,” Young said. “A healthy degree of fear is a good thing when you’re doing this.”