Clearing the peak

By R. SCOTT RAPPOLD THE GAZETTE Updated: December 30, 2004 at 12:00 am • Published: December 30, 2004
The grader slid across the snow-covered road, fishtailing to within inches of the edge. To the right, a steep, rocky, jagged slope plunged hundreds of feet. “The four-wheel-drive is out,” operator Curt Scrivner explained, answering a nervous inquiry about the swerving. He was asked whether maybe it was dangerous to push the snow so close to the precipice without four-wheeldrive. “The front wheels will run off the edge — but you don’t want your back wheels going off,” he said. It was Dec. 1, still three weeks before the official start of winter, but Scrivner and his co-workers had been fighting the snow for weeks. They’re some of the hardest-working snow removers around, an iron-nerved crew that keeps the Pikes Peak Highway, the highest toll road in the world, open all year. Well, most of the year. Some days, Mother Nature wins. “It’s just a never-ending battle up here. Even if you don’t get any snow, the wind still messes you up,” said Bob Gibson, who has been plowing the highway for 37 years. Snow is a possibility 11 months of the year on Pikes Peak, with a yearly average of 80 inches, almost twice that of Colorado Springs. Because of snow-removal costs, Spencer Penrose, who built the highway, never made a profit. Subsequent owners kept it closed from mid-November to late April. To attract more visitors, the highway — now city operated — began operating year-round in 1994. Just 12,000 people came from November to February the first winter, said Jack Glavan, capital projects manager for the highway. The number doubled the next winter and has remained steady at 20,000 to 25,000. Those who brave the winter chill — it can be 20 degrees colder than in Colorado Springs — usually can get up to 11,500 feet — the tree line. The crews have a tougher time opening the road to the summit, and a visit to the peak Dec. 1 showed why. Eight inches of snow fell Nov. 28, but three days later, crews still were struggling to punch through to the summit. On the unpaved alpine road with little cover, blowing snow can undo a day’s work overnight. “You come up and work your butt off all day, and you come up the next day and it doesn’t even look like you’ve been there,” Gibson said. By Dec. 1, they had given up on opening the road to the summit before the weekend when more snow was expected. “It would take us until Sunday to get it open to the top, so we just try to use our best judgment and take it from there,” said Dave Jordan, road maintenance supervisor. And it hasn’t been open to the summit at all in December because of maintenance work being done on the road. Admission is cut in half on days the summit can’t be reached. The workers admit the constant struggle against the elements can be frustrating, but there are worse hazards than frustration up there. There are white-outs so severe and sudden that the operators can’t see anything. “It’ll blind you, and you’ll have to just stop and wait a few seconds so you can see,” Scrivner said. There are “false edges,” where plowed snow sticks and forms an unstable extension of the road. “It eventually falls off and you scare the hell out of yourself,” Gibson said. Still, the past few years of drought and below-average snowfall have made the job easier. Last winter, the road was open to the summit 44 days, to lower points 102 days and closed seven days. A more grueling winter is expected this year. The road to the summit was not open at all in November. In November 2003, it was open 11 days. December weather has been milder, and the road was open to Glen Cove every day, but that won’t last. On Dec. 15, Colorado Springs received less than an inch of snow; Pikes Peak got a foot. “This year, we’ve been getting a lot of snow and early, too,” Glavan said. “At this moment, it looks like the drought is over up here.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 476-1605 or srappold@gazette.com NEW YEAR’S HIKE Thirty members and guests of the Pikes Peak AdAmAn Club begin their annual trek up the mountain about 8:30 a.m. today. The group will stop at Barr Camp for the night, then continue to the summit Friday so members can shoot off fireworks to bring in the new year at midnight.
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