With mild weather recently, Colorado Department of Transportation crews will continue to clear the way for an on-target opening of the Thursday prior to Memorial Day—which lands on May 23 this year—at 2 p.m. However, recent forecasts for rain and snow have already set avalanche control work back a few days; much more will be known within the next week.
Each year, CDOT sets a goal to get the 12,095-foot pass open on this day. In 2011, crews opened the pass on time with the help of a powerful snow cat. The snowpack in late May in 2011 represented 452 percent of average on the east side and 361 percent on the west. Last year in 2012, CDOT was able to open the pass early (May 11, nearly two weeks ahead of schedule), since snowpack in May was at the opposite extreme at zero percent of average snowpack levels.
The May 23 opening planned for this year is, of course, completely dependent upon weather conditions. Right now, the 10-day forecast for the Aspen area is showing low visibility, thunderstorms and snow in the high country is possible though at least May 10. Already, this has set CDOT’s plans for avalanche mitigation back a few days.
“We cannot clear snow past Old Town (west of the summit) until avalanche mitigation takes place,” said Don Poole, CDOT maintenance patrol supervisor on the west side.
CDOT crews work with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) to clear up to one dozen slide paths that can impact the road. Not all paths present a threat each spring, however, and this was a relatively mild winter.
According to the most recent CAIC report by area forecaster Rob Hunker, snowpack on the west side of the pass measures about 36 inches on the roadway—that’s 83 percent of average for this time of year. On the east side snowpack is at 21 inches, or 100 percent of average.
Once the avalanche mitigation is done on both sides of the pass, where needed, crews can complete all the necessary work to open the gates as planned. Tasks each year may include:
- Clearing avalanche slide paths (up to 12 total, though not all will need work this year)
- Clearing snow, ice and other debris (from slide paths) from the roadway and shoulders
- Moving concrete barriers before clearing ditches
- Hauling out loads of rock debris from the ditches
- Blading asphalt millings on the shoulders to set barrier back onto
- Resetting barriers and replacing any additional that may have been damaged (much of the damaged barrier is recycled for other public agency use, saving disposal costs)
- Working with special CDOT crews from Grand Junction to drill and blast any large rocks in the ditches so they can be hauled away
- Repairing/replacing signs, guardrail and roadside delineators
- Trimming trees and brush
- Patching pot holes
“The most time-consuming of our spring activities is clearing the roadway of all the hard snow, ice and debris that can be brought down with avalanche mitigation,” said Mark Quintana, who supervises CDOT crews on the east side. “Once we clear the highway and ensure the safety of the slide paths, any repair work can begin.”
Should the pass open on May 23, CDOT crews will continue the business of keeping this and other state highway mountain passes safe and in good condition for the busy summer season ahead.