‘The Whole Car Went Black:’ What It Was Like Being Trapped In The I-70 Glenwood Canyon Mudslide

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1min 57sec
Colorado Department of Transportation
On Aug. 1, transportation officials announced that Glenwood Canyon through I-70 has suffered “extreme damage” from recent mudslides and will remain closed for days, if not weeks. On July 29, more than 100 people were trapped in one such mudslide, spurred by a torrential downpour that brought a deluge of rocks, logs and mud onto the highway.

Some stayed in their cars. Others sought refuge in a highway tunnel. A few maneuvered around the debris to safety.

Autumn Bair left her car and took off running.

The 37-year-old Colorado native was one of more than 100 people caught in a torrential downpour in Glenwood Canyon on July 29, bringing a deluge of rocks, logs and mud onto Interstate 70. The stretch of interstate will remain closed for days, possibly weeks, as crews continue to remove debris from the roadway, state officials said Monday.

No one was reported injured or missing in the mudslides last week, officials said. Speaking from her family ranch just off the interstate, Bair recounted her fateful trip and split-second decision to get back home.

“My instincts just told me to get out,” she said.

Bair was finishing up her Thursday shift as a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital in Glenwood Springs. The hospital was short-staffed, she said, so she worked a little later than usual.

It was dark and rainy by the time she got on the interstate and began her trip back home.

“As I progressed through the canyon, the rain just got harder and harder,” she said. “Once I popped out on the east side of the [Hanging Lake] tunnel, the rain was just wild. My windshield wipers weren’t keeping up, and that was kind of at the point where I knew I was going to be in trouble.”

There was nowhere to go but forward, Bair thought to herself. She and the other drivers around her navigated carefully around the mud. 

Courtesy Autumn Bair
37-year-old Autumn Bair, a nurse in Glenwood Springs, was one of more than 100 people trapped in a mudslide on I-70 through Glenwood Canyon on July 29. This photo was taken after Bair escaped.

She made it a mile out of the tunnel when her car got stuck on the road. As she fumbled with her gears, a wave of mud hit her from the driver’s side.

“The whole car went black,” she said.

Rather than stay trapped in her car, Bair grabbed her keys and cellphone, opened the door and ran home. She used the lightning strikes above her to light the way, at times wading barefoot through waist-high pools of mud.

Bair eventually called her husband and told him she needed help. He drove up from the ranch in an all-terrain vehicle and rescued her near their highway exit, she said.

She was covered in mud, her feet and legs sore from her trek through the interstate. Her Volkswagen sedan was totaled. Things, she said, could’ve ended much worse for her and the other drivers around her.

“I really was fortunate that I got caught in just a lot of mud and not boulders and stuff like that,” she said.

About four inches of rain have fallen in the area in the last five days, nearly twice as much as what usually falls in July, Gov. Jared Polis said Monday. 

Bair said her family has dealt with “little disasters” since the Grizzly Creek Fire forced them to evacuate last year. The fire and rain have not damaged their ranch, but she worried about how the closures would affect their tourism-dependent business and the surrounding towns.

“We’re kind of on an island here, so we're not really going in or out or doing any of that right now,” she said.

An eastbound lane could open soon, she said, allowing her to drive into town, run errands and pick up supplies. She does not know when she will return to the hospital.

The Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar is under a flash flood watch Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.