Strong snowstorm ties up commute, pushes avalanche warning to ‘extreme’ level
As avalanche bombs rang out, Aspenites woke up Thursday to a winter wonderland of more than a foot of wet, heavy snow on the ground.
The snowstorm that amped up overnight Wednesday brought heavy, wet snowfall to the Aspen area with roads becoming treacherous and raised the avalanche danger to its highest level.
While powder hounds and local students – schools announced they’d be closed for the third time this year– lined up for a taste of the freshies, those who had to commute or travel endured a test of patience.
“The slush is like driving through sand,” said Alex Burchetta, chief deputy of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. “It just starts pulling your car everywhere.”
A Pitkin Alert went out in the morning warning drivers of poor road conditions in the Aspen area.
Road conditions downvalley of Snowmass Canyon were not nearly as bad because higher temperatures produced rain instead of snow, officials said.
The Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley areas remain in a winter storm warning through 6 p.m. Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center cranked the rating up to extreme on Thursday for the Aspen, Gunnison, Sawatch Range, Vail and Summit County zones. Extreme is as high as it gets.
The center also issued an avalanche warning for most of the mountainous
areas of the state. It cited “exceptional avalanche conditions.”
“The avalanche danger is extreme,” said Spencer Logan, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “Today is a good day to avoid any and all avalanche terrain. They’re running further than you would expect.”
The center said even areas that usually seem safe from avalanches should be avoided.
“Every inch of avalanche terrain is extremely dangerous today,” the center posted on its website Thursday morning. “Avalanches are running to valley floors and some are exceeding historic run outs.”
“Typical trails and routes may not account for the potential size and consequence of avalanches today,” the center said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation closed McClure Pass south of Carbondale on Highway 133 late Wednesday night because of avalanche danger.
Colorado Department of Transportation is advising travelers to avoid traveling over the mountains on Interstate 70 Thursday, due to a natural avalanche and continued avalanche mitigation work.
The cleanup efforts for the avalanches near Vail and Copper Mountain, and avalanche mitigation near Eisenhower and Johnson tunnels will likely take much of the day.
“We’re going to have a pretty challenging day again on I-70,” CDOT spokesperson Tracy Trulove said Thursday morning.
Despite the thick conditions, traffic accidents in Aspen and Pitkin County were few, according to Burchetta and Aspen police Sgt. Terry Leitch.
Pitkin County’s first accident – which did not involve injuries – didn’t occur until nearly 9:40 a.m. downvalley a bit on River Road, Burchetta said. Before that, deputies dealt with five cars that slid off the road, he said.
While Aspen city streets were relatively messy all morning, police did not report any accidents as of 10:30 a.m.
“There’s a lot of traffic … backed up past Buttermilk,” Leitch said. “But it’s been surprisingly calm.”
Leitch described the driving conditions in the Aspen area similarly to Burchetta.
“It’s heavy,” he said. “It’s like wet cement.”
Beyond that, schools were closed, some residents near Aspen and up the Fryingpan Valley had no power and most morning flights from the airport were canceled.
Holy Cross Energy reported that 247 people were without power as of 10:30 a.m. Most of those were east of town and in the Fryingpan Valley, according to an online map.
Crews were dealing with multiple small outages rather than one big power outage, said Jenna Weatherred, Holy Cross spokeswoman.
“It’s the heavy, wet snow in the upper elevations,” she said. “It causes everything from wires to snap to fuses to blow.”
Most Holy Cross customers had power restored within about two hours, Weatherred said.
Aspen Skiing Co. reported 24-hour totals from 13 inches at Aspen Mountain to 22 inches at Aspen Highlands and 14 inches at Snowmass, and the snow continued to fall Thursday morning. The line for the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain stretched down the plaza and around the corner for first chair.
This is a developing story that will be updated.
Reporter Scott Condon contributed to this report.
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