High avalanche risk and snow-slide debris is slowing down considerably the cleanup efforts on Red Mountain Pass, which will likely be closed for another two weeks.
U.S. 550 between Ouray and Silverton has been closed since March 3, and the recent snowfall and increase avalanche danger has prevented crews from working on the pass, according to Lisa Schwantes, Colorado Department of Transportation communications manager for southwest Colorado.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center last week issued a high avalanche warning along the pass.
"That means it's not safe for our crews to work on the highway below those potential slide paths, so we called them off the mountain," Schwantes said.
Over the weekend, a CDOT helicopter mitigation crew intentionally triggered more than 20 slides that were poised to collapse on U.S. 550, allowing for crews to work safely on the highway.
“We have never encountered avalanche slides to this magnitude. We’re pleased with the outcome of the avalanche control operations. Crews can now work without risk of potential slides,” said CDOT area maintenance supervisor, Vance Kelso.
Another significant setback for the cleanup of the pass is the type of avalanches that CDOT is seeing.
"What our crews are describing them as is 'dirty avalanches.' The snow is coming down with rocks, limbs, trees, entire trees are coming down with these avalanches and that makes it much more difficult for the cleanup operation," Schwantes said.
The epic avalanche activity around the state includes these debris-filled slides, which are a challenge for CDOT equipment to plow through, she said.
She says that members of maintenance crews — some who have worked for CDOT for 30 years — are surprised by this season's slides.
"None of them can recall a winter in which we’ve experienced the avalanche activity that we’re experiencing this year," Schwantes said.
Crews are now working 12-hour shifts around the clock to reopen Red Mountain Pass.
“We are remaining optimistic that with cooperative weather and decreasing avalanche danger, we can get this pass opened within the next two weeks,” Kelso said.