The Push up the Pass |

The Push up the Pass

John Colson
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

Despite the occasional, unexpected snow shower, the snow is melting quickly in Aspen and lower sections of the Roaring Fork Valley.

But high up on Independence Pass, things haven’t been quite so straightforward ” so much so that, as of May 9, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) was not sure it could make the traditional Memorial Day weekend opening of the pass.

As might be expected for springtime on the Continental Divide, in the biggest snow year in decades, the snow depth recorded on the west side of the pass on April 28 was 168 percent of normal. Just a few days earlier, it was only 145 percent of normal, said Les Stanton, supervisor of the CDOT highway crews in the valley.

Last year on April 30, the snow depth was a mere 67 percent of normal on the east side of the pass, according to avalanche expert Rob Hunker. This year, it was at 166 percent. And more than week later, on May 9, the snow depth was still at 155 percent of average in the wake of a cold, spring storm, Hunkler said.

“Because of all the cool weather, it’s not really melting,” he said of the high-elevation snowpack, noting, “it should be going down.”

Current avalanche mitigation plans called for explosive avalanche control work on May 14 on the Twin Lakes side of the pass (work scheduled to be done on May 8 had to be delayed due to the storm).

The crew that handles CDOT’s avalanche work will use a leased helicopter to bomb the cornices that loom high above the road, at a spot known as Beeler Grade. Whenever that flight takes place, the pilot will likely swing over to the west side of the pass to take care of any avalanche control work needed on the Aspen side of the Continental Divide, Hunker said.

Stanton’s crews have been working 13-hour days, four or five days a week as needed, to punch their way upward to the annual rendezvous with crews from the eastern side of the divide.

Stanton said on May 6 that they planned to have the road cleared and navigable as far as the ghost town of Independence by the May 17, which is the date of the Independence Pass Foundation’s “Ride For The Pass” event.

The annual, 10-mile grunt up the west side of the pass is a week earlier than in 2007, and so is the traditional Memorial Day weekend opening of the road, which lends added urgency to the road-clearing work.

So, Stanton said, crews started clearing the pass a week earlier than normal and “we should be at the top by the 22nd. “Usually, we get up here in the first week of May,” he said; this year, work began on April 25.

But with nighttime temperatures hovering in the high 20s, the work has been slower than usual.

“It’s been so cold up here this winter, it really hasn’t softened up much,” Stanton said of the snow, which was still piled anywhere from 4-feet to 8-feet deep on the road, perhaps up to 12 feet along the top cut above Independence, which the CDOT crews call “Old Town.”

Although crews normally start work around 7 a.m., some parts of the snowpack are still too frozen to deal with and are avoided until later in the morning, after the sun has gone to work on them.

The daily routine, according to Stanton, is for a crew member to crank up the grader and fasten on the “V-plow,” a wedge of steel that pushes the snow to either side as the huge machine moves up the road.

Next comes the “bull-plow” single blade, to push the windrows further toward the side of the road, and perhaps the front-loading snowblower purchased in 2007 by the city of Aspen. Finally, a front-end loader will scoop the snow up in its bucket and drop it far off to the side of the road.

The work has been moving along at about a mile a day this year; work reportedly has moved at up to four miles day in snow years. And, what started out as a three-man crew has grown to five or six men, depending on whether a loader is working down below clearing away fallen rocks and boulders.

As of the morning of May 6, the crews were at mile marker 54, about halfway up the 14-mile stretch between the closure gate (mile marker 47) and the summit of the pass (mile marker 61). Steve Hanson, a CDOT heavy equipment operator from Montrose, Colo., had the grader a couple of miles further up, and fellow worker Floyd Strater had gone up with the front-end loader to hook up the V-plow and push eastward from there.

Stanton said the crews “have [cleared the road] up to Independence in three days” in the past, but this year there were a couple of miles yet to go after seven days. Once the crews reach the horseshoe turn onto the top cut, at the upper Lost Man Loop trailhead, Stanton predicted it will take four days or so to get up to the top of the pass (it has been taking only two days in recent years).

“Yeah, we run into at least 15-foot drifts up there at Lost Man,” Stanton mused as he contemplated the job ahead. “We’re probably looking at 20 feet or more this year.”

But the crew enjoys the work, spending a couple of weeks on the pass with no traffic and no worries beyond the threat of avalanches.

“He loves to do this stuff,” Stanton said of Strater. “He gets in his equipment, you probably won’t see him the rest of the day.”

And so it goes as the climbing ribbon of asphalt is slowly revealed by a combination of sweat and diesel, rubber and steel, with fir and aspens marching off in all directions and the cobalt blue, Colorado sky hanging over it all. Until the next snowstorm blows through.