Snowmass Canyon icy, dicey in winter
November 15, 2006
It’s not exactly the Bermuda Triangle, but the downvalley-bound entrance to Snowmass Canyon on Highway 82 produces an ungodly share of horror stories.The first curve in the narrow, dark canyon is notorious for turning into a skating rink on winter afternoons – even when the sky is cloudless and blue. Unsuspecting motorists roll into the canyon, sometimes lose control on the ice, and careen into the cement barrier or into one another.”That’s a problematic area,” Basalt fire chief Scott Thompson said. His district sent ambulances to roughly nine accidents at mile marker 30 last winter. He said there are probably more calls to that spot than any other in Snowmass Canyon. “We’ve had no serious injuries – yet,” he said.This is a different year, but the same story is unfolding. Wednesday resembled a demolition derby at that same spot. Six vehicles collided in two separate crashes. Fortunately there were no injuries and no ambulances were called to the scene. Downvalley traffic, however, was snarled.The Colorado Department of Transportation is investigating the problems at that particular spot, but there are no quick fixes, said CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks.”The bottom line is when it’s cold and temperature drops there are going to be some problem areas,” Shanks said.CDOT looked at all the contributing factors to the icing in that first curve. Physical constraints prevent snow from getting plowed off the road. Sometimes it is stacked against the guardrails. The snow melts during warm, sunny afternoons and water cascades down the banked curve, across the driving lanes. When the canyon falls into shade the water freezes, creating a recipe for disaster.
Excess speed is often a contributing factor, according to authorities. The posted speed limit entering the canyon is 50 mph. Thompson said it’s typical for vehicles to exceed that by at least 5 mph, based on his observations.
“Speed has always been an issue [heading] downvalley,” said Capt. Rich Duran of the Colorado State Patrol’s regional office in Glenwood Springs. And, like Thompson, Duran identified the downvalley entrance to Snowmass Canyon as an area of particular concern last winter.
Troopers will do what they can to enforce speed limits in that area, but it’s not practical or possible to post a patrol car there all the time, he said. The agency often posts a radar sign there showing drivers what speed they are going to try to build awareness and slow traffic.Shanks said CDOT plans to eventually install a system with real-time sensors in the road to determine precisely when it ices up. That information will be transmitted to information signs that would warn drivers approaching the canyon.
But this winter, drivers will have to deal with the icy curves with common sense. The agency will continue to use a flashing light with an warning sign that says icy conditions may exist. It also places a portable billboard-type sign with an additional warning about the icy conditions, Shanks said.Permanent signs during the winter that warn of possible icy conditions might be crying wolf and losing effectiveness with drivers. Sometimes they provide false warnings when the roads are dry. Drivers ignore them, then get caught off guard when ice is present on a different day.”I didn’t see that [the signs] had a dramatic difference in the speeds going into the canyon,” Thompson said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.