Powder keeps pounding Aspen, delighting skiers, stressing travelers
Skiers and students were ecstatic as the snowstorm headed into its third day Monday. Snowplow drivers and deputy sheriffs were working nonstop to keep roads clear and stranded motorists safe. Motorists were stressed. Airline passengers were out of luck.
The slopes of all four ski areas in the upper Roaring Fork Valley were pounded by close to 2 feet of snow in 48 hours as of early Monday, then picked up several more inches throughout the day, according to Aspen Skiing Co. The 30-plus inches of snow by Tuesday put an exclamation point on the first half of the season.
Factoring in the early opening, Tuesday marks the midpoint of the season. Tuesday was day 74 of the 149-day season, which started Nov. 21.
“The snow definitely brings out more pass holders,” said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle.
Aspen School District assessed the forecast for Monday and decided to call off school Sunday night, allowing students to make skiing plans. Roaring Fork School District also called off classes for Monday.
The line for the Silver Queen Gondola stretched down the gondola plaza and toward Durant Avenue at 8:45 a.m., but it moved quickly.
“The Face of Bell and Zaugg were bottomless,” reported one skier exiting Aspen Mountain.
Another skier reported encountering waist-deep snow at Boomerang Woods at Aspen Highlands at 2:30 p.m.
One Highlands loyalist said the crowd on Sunday was the biggest he has seen there. Skiing was better Monday because there were a lot fewer people.
Hanle said Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan “gave us a hall pass” to ski, so Skico offices were mostly abandoned Monday morning.
Only the ski resorts in southwest Colorado had it better than Aspen-Snowmass over the 48 hours ending Monday morning. Wolf Creek reported 35 inches, Purgatory 32 inches and Telluride 26 inches over the 48-hour period.
Big change from last year
What a difference a year and El Niño makes on the slopes and in the mood of locals. Last year, Snowmass managed to wring just 10 inches of snow out of Mother Nature for the entire month. This year, 49 inches fell at Snowmass and 43 inches at Aspen Mountain for the month, according to Skico’s records.
For the season-to-date through Jan. 31, Snowmass has 146 inches of snow compared to 107 inches last year.
And February is off to a promising start.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center was imploring adventurers to stay inbounds and not take chances in the backcountry. The avalanche rating is high and expected to remain there for the foreseeable future.
Blase Reardon, the avalanche center’s forecaster for the Aspen zone, didn’t mince words in his report Monday. “Even less need for subtlety and details in this morning’s discussion,” he wrote. “Sustained snowfall, powerful winds and more of both on the way. Conditions are approaching the ‘Hide under the bed’ threshold.
He urged people to stay off the slopes on the fringe of the ski areas, as well. Those areas, labeled sidecountry by some, are where 11 of 20 avalanche deaths in the Aspen zone have occurred since 1998.
Numerous canceled flights
Of course, the weather conditions that made skiing such a delight make travel on Highway 82 and the county roads a mess, and air travel a nightmare.
John Kinney, director of aviation at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, said Groundhog Day came one day early for the operations staff. Drivers of snowplows, graders and snow blowers were forced to start over again as soon as they finished their rounds clearing the runway, taxiway and other parts of the airport because of the fast rate of snowfall.
“For the staff, it’s all hands on deck,” Kinney said.
He said 25 inches of snow had fallen at the airport since the start of the storm on Saturday through mid-morning Monday. The crews were clearing the runway one to three times per hour.
Despite their best efforts to keep the airport safe, nearly every flight in and out was canceled on Monday due to low visibility and periods of heavy snow. There were about 30 canceled commercial flight arrivals, according to a website that tracks flight statistics.
The problems started Sunday. Many of the aircraft scheduled to fly into Aspen and remain overnight for flights out early Monday didn’t make it in. That had a ripple effect because the aircraft were diverted to other routes, Kinney said, and they weren’t available throughout the day. Many Colorado airports experienced the same situation, he said.
Sunday was a busier than usual day with spectators, athletes and support staff from the Winter X Games trying to fly out. Many flights were delayed but were able to depart during a lull in the weather. That lull disappeared later in the evening and flights were canceled. Some arriving flights were also diverted to Grand Junction.
At least passengers who faced delays flying out had more comfort than before. The airport terminal reconfiguration was completed Saturday. The bar, café and three additional bathrooms were available for ticketed passengers in the screened waiting area.
Numerous vehicles off roads
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office was busy throughout the day helping motorists stuck on Highway 82 and county roads. Sheriff Joe DiSalvo was helping patrol the snowpack and icy roads.
Patrol Supervisor Jesse Steindler said in mid-afternoon that snow was falling so fast at times that the roads were getting covered shortly after plows made a pass. The falling snow was obscuring the lines on the edge of the highway. That combined with low visibility led to some motorists driving into the median or off the shoulder. “Luckily there’s been nothing major,” Steindler said.
Deputy sheriffs were “pacing” westbound, or downvalley-bound traffic on Highway 82 starting at about 3:30 p.m. Monday from Brush Creek Road to Basalt. The idea was to keep traffic at a steady speed to try to avoid accidents.
The two biggest crashes of the storm occurred on Saturday night and Sunday evening. Saturday night, a westbound vehicle lost control on slick Highway 82 near Truscott Place. The vehicle slid in front of a fully loaded Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus and was “tapped” by the bus, according to a report. The car spun onto the shoulder. Slowing traffic caused a chain reaction that involved an accident with multiple vehicles, including a Pitkin County plow truck. No one on the bus was injured and many passengers were unaware there was an accident, according to RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship.
The Colorado State Patrol report on the Saturday accident wasn’t available Monday. The accident occurred at about 8:25 p.m. and forced the closure of Highway 82.
On Sunday, there was a head-on collision on Highway 82 by Lazy Glen subdivision shortly before 6 p.m. One driver was charged with driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Long stretch for plow drivers
Snowplow drivers for the state, county and city of Aspen were looking at a long night Monday as snow was expected to continue falling. The county had nine plows out on the roads, according to Public Works Director Brian Pettet. Snow was falling fast enough that the plows were focusing on the more heavily traveled county roads, he said. The more remote parts of the county might not see a plow until after the storm is over, he said.
City plows were working 24/7 to keep the main roads, downtown alleys and RFTA routes open, according to Jerry Nye, streets superintendent. They will work on city streets at night when the traffic dies down.
“It will take a few days to get to the residential areas and now we’re focusing on the core,” Nye said. “Our priority now is making sure emergency vehicles and RFTA buses can get where they need to go.”
The Marolt Open Space was opened for additional snow storage on Monday, as the other snow dumps fill up.
Pettet said it eased the pressure not to have school on Monday. County plow drivers didn’t have to time their trips to accommodate buses in the afternoon, he noted.
Aspen Superintendent John Malloy said the district’s snow removal crews were having trouble keeping up with the snowfall on Sunday. He checked in with them a final time at 8 p.m., when another 10 inches of snow was forecast. County and city plow crews were facing similar challenges.
Malloy said it seemed to be in everyone’s best interests to announce the cancelation of school Monday on Sunday night so parents and staff could make plans.
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Highway 82 over Independence Pass is closed Tuesday morning for safety reasons after an overnight snowstorm, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.