SOUTH FORK— Snow has finally made it to the San Luis Valley and with that comes an increase in avalanches on high mountain roads such as Wolf Creek Pass. The small amount of snow that has fallen on Wolf Creek over the last several months is old and becomes hard packed the longer it sits on the ground. With new snow, the risk of a slide becomes increased and officials urge people in the backcountry or travelers along the mountain pass, to be aware of surroundings and to keep an eye on potentially dangerous terrain.
According to CDOT representative Lisa Schwantes, “Avalanche control operations are very significant and important for drivers traveling any of our high mountain passes. When we receive large amounts of snow, especially in short lengths of time, the potential for avalanches grows. When snow builds up at known snow slide paths near the road our crews will close the highway, trigger the snow slide on purpose, then use heavy equipment to clear that snow from the road surface and re-open the highway again to traffic. Purposely triggering the slides is safer for the traveling public than allowing the snow to build up, then having it slide naturally at an unknown time with the potential of the snow burying any passing vehicles.
CDOT works very closely with the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) and their forecasters to determine when the most optimal time for mitigation should be conducted.
Our avalanche mitigation crews in SW [southwest] Colorado, including Wolf Creek Pass, use several methods of ‘triggering’ avalanches and snow slides including, Case charges placed near the slide area (typically near the road), Case charges dropped by helicopter on top of the slide area, or Howitzer guns which shoot ammunition directly at the snow slide area. Other areas along the I-70 corridor (in north-central Colorado) use ‘Gazex’ — a-controlled system of piped propane which is remotely triggered to explode, detonate and trigger snow slide areas.”
Though the pass has not seen any avalanche activity so far this year, recent storm systems have dropped a significant amount of snow on the pass, which increases the danger of a slide. In January of last year, a massive avalanche closed Highway 160 near the top of Wolf Creek pass. The slide occurred in mid-morning and ended up covering about 200 feet of highway with depths reaching above six feet in some areas. Due to the nature of the slide, crews were hard pressed to clear the area in order to open the road. Large trees, branches and other debris caused delays in clearing the road. In most cases, a large snow blower can be used when a slide is considered “clean.” This particular slide required heavy equipment and explosives to remove the large debris from the area.
Wolf Creek Ski Area and CDOT officials are regularly working to clear problem areas before a slide can occur. Travelers are urged to check road conditions at www.cotrip.org where road closures and camera views can be seen prior to travel. Be aware of your surroundings and stay safe!