Price skyrockets to fix Ute Trail’s rock issue in Aspen

Two rockfall consultants inspect the large, precariously balanced rock recently that was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm three months ago, and will be taken apart and moved at a cost of $124,000, possibly beginning next week.

Pitkin County will have to spend significantly more money and bring in a helicopter to deal with the precariously balanced rock atop Ute Trail that has kept the popular hike closed since September because of safety concerns.

That was the word Wednesday from county engineer G.R. Fielding, who asked Pitkin County commissioners for an extra $89,000 on top of the $35,000 already budgeted to pay a contractor to break up and move the large rock.

“Any silver in that rock?” Board Chairman George Newman asked after Fielding requested the money. “That’s a huge change.”

Fielding, who said he’d been working on the problem daily since the issue surfaced three months ago, told Newman the old $35,000 plan that entailed using explosives to break the rock into pieces and allowing those pieces to tumble down the steep grade was not workable.

The debris from the 8-foot-by-4-foot-by-4-foot hunk of Ute Rock might strike one of the houses below or damage the road or trail, Fielding said. A geologist has said the rock likely will come loose within five to 10 years, which could mean tomorrow in geologic terms, Fielding has said.

The new $124,000 plan envisions bringing in a helicopter from Montrose that will ferry equipment like generators, compressors and a hydraulic lift to the top of Ute Trail, he said. From there, the contractor will break up the rock into approximately 2-foot pieces and transport them farther up the ridge to stable spots where they cannot roll back down the hill, such as depressions from former mine shafts, Fielding said.

The entire process will mean moving tons of rock, he said.

Provided officials can identify a landing zone where the helicopter can pick up the equipment and the contract is signed, work could begin on the project by Dec. 15, he said. It will likely take about two weeks for the work to be completed, Fielding said.

The Ute Trail, a steep climb up Ute Mountain on Aspen Mountain’s east side, has been closed since mid-September when lightning struck the rock and sent large boulders tumbling down onto Ute Avenue below. One of the rocks punched a hole in the street, while another lodged in a tree trunk.

Because the trailhead is on city property, city of Aspen officials closed the trail soon after over concerns that the rest of the rock could come crashing down on hikers or infrastructure. The county has had to figure out a solution to the problem and pay for it because Ute Rock is on a mining claim the county owns on the ridge at the top of the trail. In between is mostly U.S. Forest Service property.

On Wednesday, county commissioners were for dealing with the problem as soon as possible.

“The sooner the better,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper, noting that winter freeze-thaw cycles could trigger all or parts of the rock to fall before spring.

Commissioner Greg Poschman said he thought the original estimate was low and that he didn’t have issues with paying for the new, more expensive solution.

Commissioner Steve Child also was for getting the work done as quickly as possible.

“It’s for public safety,” he said. “And so people can start using the trail again because it’s such a popular trail.”