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Canyon gauntlet

Paul Andersen

My in-laws from Denver called from Wolcott on Thanksgiving Day and said their arrival would be slightly delayed.The phone was cradled in my shoulder while I basted the turkey, and the potatoes were about to go into the oven. The kitchen had that holiday fragrance. “How much of a delay?” I asked.”Oh, about five hours. There’s a rock slide in Glenwood Canyon.”The turkey sat in the oven twice as long as the recommended cooking time, and my in-laws sat in the car for twice as long as the recommended driving time. Both were fully baked when dinner was finally served.The turkey was a little like jerky, but we fared better than road crews in the canyon that missed Thanksgiving dinner while trying to figure out how to patch huge craters where the highway once was.My in-laws had their impromptu 250-mile tour of Western Colorado via Steamboat Springs, Craig, Meeker, and Rifle because of what geologists term “mass wasting.” That’s what happens when the freeze-thaw cycle tips the delicate balance and sends part of a mountain crashing down into a valley.Mass wasting is a perpetual nightmare for Glenwood Canyon. Engineers can devise the most ingenious highways in human history, but nothing will save that canyon from the crushing power of gravity and erosion.About 10 years ago, Aspen resident Kathy Daily and her two sons were killed in Glenwood Canyon when an errant boulder launched off a ledge and landed on their vehicle. Her husband, Art, was driving, and he walked away without injury, at least of the physical kind.My wife recalls a memorable trip through Glenwood Canyon when it was still a two-lane road. A boulder the size of a beach ball came bounding down the canyon wall, but she and the driver were fortunate enough to see what was coming.The driver skillfully judged the boulder’s deadly trajectory and dodged it. The 300-pound cannonball swooshed across the road, passing closely between them and an oncoming vehicle. The rock landed with a big splash in the river.In last week’s column, I described the potential hazard of crossing the 117-year-old Maroon Creek Bridge. Glenwood Canyon is far more dangerous. I doubt any geologist would stake his reputation or the lives of travelers by guaranteeing the canyon is safe.Highway avalanche forecasters face the same uncertainty. The complexities of avalanches are far more devious than predictions based on temperature gradients and snow metamorphosis.At least avalanches can be controlled by detonation. Rock falls, especially in the vast gorge of Glenwood Canyon, are always a risk, whether from the careless footfall of a bighorn sheep or the innocuous displacement of a single grain of sand.Nature holds sway in the mountains, especially when enormous mass is piled up on steep slopes, taunting gravity and threatening incredible violence. People drive through Glenwood Canyon and marvel at its surreal beauty, mostly unaware of what highway engineers have known for decades that the canyon is a time bomb.Billions of dollars are spent on a major national thoroughfare, but when the tenuous asphalt ribbon is reduced to rubble by a natural act of vandalism, we look at the damage and wonder. Mankind is insignificant when measured against mountains, especially while driving on blind faith through a four-lane gauntlet.Paul Andersen will think twice on his next trip past No Name. His column appears on Mondays.


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