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Highway linking Ouray, Silverton reopens - after taking heavy toll on towns

By: Ryan Maye handy Special to The Gazette
June 16, 2014 Updated: June 16, 2014 at 1:37 pm
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Photo by Ryan Handy

SILVERTON - Coloradans have battled the San Juan Mountains for years, but even decades after the roads were paved and the silver mines shuttered, the forces of Mother Nature still can bring life to a standstill.

People who live here are used to sudden summer snow squalls, avalanches blocking roads and the deaths of mountaineers and roadworkers in the backcountry.

But no one remembers anything quite like the Ruby Walls rockslide that shut down U.S. 550, the link between Ouray and Silverton, in late January. When a 30-foot-thick rock face broke off a mountainside along the highway, people were shocked. When the weather repeatedly stymied attempts to clean the road, the economies in the two towns came to a near halt.

Silverton residents can recall when massive avalanches stopped grocery and mail deliveries for days. But in her lifetime in the town of Ouray, Mayor Pam Larson can't remember anything quite like January's rockslide. For two towns heavily dependent on the tourism business, the shutdown of the road was crippling.

"Silverton is so much more isolated than we are. And all we've talked about is how hard this has been and how dead this community has seemed," Larson said Thursday, hours before the pass reopened.

So it was cause for celebration Thursday evening when U.S. 550 between the towns reopened to two lanes for the first time since the rockslide shut it down. Business owners and administrators from both towns met for a ribbon-cutting, jubilant that the road was back to normal.

In January, the effort to clean up the rockslide drew expert mountaineers and rock climbers from both towns as the Colorado Department of Transportation battled to reopen the road. Nancy Shanks, a CDOT spokeswoman, will defy anyone who can name a more complex and risky operation.

The road's reopening is expected to restore much-needed vitality to the mountain corridor, just days before its summer tourism season picks up speed.

Still, recovery from months of closure has taken its toll. On March 4, Gov. John Hickenlooper declared an economic disaster in Ouray.

"You know, some of our businesses were reporting up to 60 percent lost," said Glenn Boyd, an Ouray City Council member. "Wintertime is a really hard time for the businesses in general."


About 7 p.m. Jan. 12, a plow driver was making his rounds on Red Mountain Pass, clearing rocks from the road, when he came upon something he couldn't clear: An 8-foot-high wall of rubble on the highway. The debris came from Ruby Walls, a rock face just above the narrowest part of the highway - a stretch of road that hugs the rock face on one side, with no guardrail and a precipitous drop on the other.

Although the rockslide wiped out a power line and sheared away a portion of the mountain, crews worked through the night to clear the road and open it the next morning.

When CDOT employee Greg Stacy saw photos of the slide Jan. 13, he immediately ordered the road closed. To Stacy, who knows the road like the back of his hand, the mountain looked totally different. It was missing a 150-foot-long chunk.

"I was like, why did they open the road?"

In the San Juans, rockslides are commonplace. To Stacy, and any trained eye, the rock walls that flank U.S. 550 are not entirely solid. The mountains move as they freeze and thaw; when they shift, rockslides happen.

"It looks like it's solid, but there's billions of cracks," Stacy said in January. "The water gets in there and freezes, expands and pushes the rock out."

This January in the San Juans was warm and dry. When the rock broke, it had been weeks since the last snow. During the day, temperatures frequently rise to the mid-40s, and they plummet again as the afternoon shadows grow longer. Mornings near the rock face were frequently subzero.

The freeze-thaw cycle is dangerous in the mountains - it sets up avalanches and triggers rockslides, said Jim Donovan, who teaches at the Silverton Avalanche School.

"Usually rockfall happens a little later in the season, more springtime, but it's been warmer than usual," he said a few days after the slide. "It has been unseasonably warm, so that's what they were kind of figuring caused the rockfall."

The challenge

For weeks, Stacy oversaw an unusual group of a plow driver, roadworkers, expert rock climbers and rockfall specialists on Red Mountain Pass, one of Colorado's most avalanche-prone byways.

They were not the first to do battle with the mountains here - decades ago, miners claimed the area in a silver rush and mined the mountains dry. From their perch on the Ruby Walls rock face, crews can see many of the 110 avalanche paths on U.S. 550, each named for some of the mineworkers who came before them.

Silverton, the only town in Colorado's least-populous San Juan County, and Ouray, the closest town over Red Mountain Pass, are joined by a tenuous thread: a dangerous 23-mile stretch of U.S. 550 that is part of local culture and lore. Avalanches have killed three snowplowers since 1970, and slide paths scar the terrain.

Red Mountain Pass is a place where gravity is strictly enforced.

The rockslide left behind a large field of loose rock - called a talus field - perched at a 40-degree angle that continued to rain rocks on the highway. The goal was to cover the talus field with wire nets to hold the rock in place. But there was a problem - getting the men and the nets up there.

Workers from Yenter, contracted rock wall specialists, were the first flown to the top of the rockslide. A helicopter dropped the crews off near the edge of a 300-foot sheer cliff. After a day of observing, they gave up.

"They just weren't able to find a route they were comfortable with. And Yenter is great with rope work, that's what they do," said Bob Group, a CDOT rockfall specialist who was with them.

Help for the Yenter crews came in the form of expert climbers and skiers from either side of Red Mountain Pass.

The San Juans are home to Colorado's only backcountry ski area, Silverton Mountain, and Ouray is known for some of the best ice climbing in the country. CDOT hired Rigging for Rescue, an Ouray-based group of climbers trained in rope rescue, and Aaron Brill, owner of Silverton Mountain, offered his staff of ski guides.

With a full crew assembled, their days began just before 7 a.m. with a safety briefing on a flat stretch of road a couple of miles south of the rockslide. By then, the sun had yet to rise in the canyons of Red Mountain Pass, and on some mornings the crew stood around in minus-12-degree weather.

By the time the shadows returned to the pass about 3:30 p.m., the crew's faces and hands were red and swollen from the cold. A week into the project, almost no one, from the ground crews to the climbers on the mountain, had taken a day off.

The first few days of work went slower than anyone expected - falling rock kept knocking loose equipment and the work they had done. A constant rain of loose rock broke a metal cable designed to hold eight 640-pound nets.

From the ground, CDOT employee Vance Kelso kept a lookout for mountain sheep, whose feet tossed rocks on the crew below.

And when the helicopter made its rounds, the entire crew nervously watched as the blades whirled 20 feet from the cliff each time a wire net was dropped.

The rest of the time, the crews on the mountain struggled to move even a few feet across loose rock while working on the rock face.

"It's like walking on marbles, you know," Stacy said.

But in time, most of the loose rock was sloughed off. The helicopter pilot became more confident.

By the third week, the crew had 24 wire panels on the rock face and had decided to not put up anymore.

The work on the rock face continued in the spring, and by May crews had placed 31,000 square feet of net on the mountainside. The work cost CDOT $1.4 million, most of which it paid for with the help of a federal highway grant.

The town effects

In January, even after just a 2-week-long closure of a portion of the highway, Silverton's restaurants, ski areas and hotels were suffering from the lack of traffic. The gas station had no customers except for highway workers and the locals.

Silverton is "an island in the sky," the only town in the remote San Juan County. There is one way in and one way out, over U.S. 550, surrounded by avalanche-prone mountain passes.

A shutdown on the Million Dollar Highway is devastating to a town heavily reliant on truck traffic, skiers and tourists.

"It's interesting for our fragile economy anyways," said Paul Zimmerman, a 19-year resident who owns The Pickle Barrel restaurant on Greene, Silverton's main drag and one paved road. "You start to lose two, three, four people, 10 customers. It's like, 'Oh, that's tough.'?"

But Silverton residents are no strangers to isolation or hardship. Many, in fact, moved there in search of it. Almost everyone in town - winter population about 300 - remembers a time when one of the three passes was shutdown by avalanches. There were years when snowplow drivers were killed by road avalanches, when food had to be helicoptered in, and days when everyone was trapped in town.

Prosperity comes much easier to Silverton in summertime, when the town nearly triples in population and its businesses thrive.

But this winter, business owners heard rumors of others that went days without making a single dollar. Meanwhile, being cut off from northern towns, Montrose and Ouray, was taking its toll on the residents. Most residents go to Montrose for their medical care, normally an hour and a half away. Now it was a 41/2-hour journey by the alternative route, south on 550. One woman who has cancer moved to Montrose temporarily to do chemotherapy, said Claudia Moe, a Silverton accountant.

Just over the pass in Ouray, life also seemed unusually slow.

"When I'm down on Mountain Street at about 6 a.m. is when I can really tell," Larson said of the time when jeepers and mountain travelers are typically out and about.

The disaster declaration opened up Small Business Administration loans for Ouray businesses such as Ryan Hein's Twin Peaks Lodge, which, sitting at the base of Red Mountain Pass, lost much of its clientele this winter.

In mid-June, Hein was among the residents who trekked up the pass to celebrate its opening.

What's next

Over the summer, Mother Nature will test the wire nets holding the Ruby Walls rock face together. CDOT hopes it is stable, but as the winter freeze-thaw cycle starts again, more work might be needed.

But the mountains along Red Mountain Pass are in constant flux, at the whims of sudden snow squalls and interrupted by sunshine. In late January, even as crews worked to stabilize the Ruby Walls rock face, the rapid change from early morning to afternoon weakened the rock walls throughout the corridor.

On Jan. 26, the day the crews airlifted their first wire nets, the perfect weather was beginning to change. Winds over 25 mph grounded the helicopter; days of clear skies were interrupted by few white clouds that floated rapidly over the mountains. And despite the wind, the sun kept the area warm.

CDOT employees Kelso and Travis Torgerson kept watch on the crews and the weather that Sunday afternoon when they heard a rumble, like thunder, coming from the mountains to the northeast.

It was a rockslide.

"I thought the storm was coming, Vance," Torgerson said to Kelso, laughing. "I'm looking at them blue skies, I hear that thunder and am thinking, 'What the hell was that?'?"

Kelso pulled his scope away from Ruby Walls and swirled it east, looking for dust clouds or some sign of the rockfall they had just heard. But he saw nothing.

"That's a county problem, though," he joked.

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