For the plow drivers on Red Mountain Pass, avalanches are normal. So, too, are whiteout conditions so blinding that the only markers keeping them from tumbling off the state’s most treacherous mountain pass are the flickers of the reflector posts.
But on the night of March 3, in the midst of a historic avalanche season in Colorado, nothing was ordinary for Phil Maeir.
Maeir, a driver for the Colorado Department of Transportation, was clearing a sinuous section of U.S. 550 just outside Ouray, and, around every bend, was a new avalanche bigger than the last. Near the turnoff to Engineer Pass at County Road 18, a stretch of asphalt he had never seen touched by a slide was inundated with snow.
“I got it open in a couple tries, but then I went around another turn and another big one (avalanche) run right up on top of the truck and stuck it,” Maeir said. “I couldn’t go nowhere.”
Under the dark night sky, everything went white, he said. Snow as heavy as cement caked the windshield, the side windows, even over the hood. He wanted to hop out to orient himself, but he feared he might step off the edge of the Million Dollar Highway and into the Uncompahgre River roaring hundreds of feet below. He pleaded over the radio for a patrolman to rescue him and for the region’s avalanche forecaster to stay with him as he watched himself get buried.
“Ann (the forecaster) was yelling back, ‘Hang on! Hang on! We’re coming for you. We’ll find you,’ ” he said. “I reversed back and forth, back and forth, and finally punched through.”
He stepped on the gas and gunned it back to the safety of CDOT’s shop near the Ouray Ice Park. For the next two hours, until nearly 1 a.m., his hands could not stop trembling.
“That night was what I imagine hell is like,” he said.
The conditions that Maeir survived were enough for CDOT to close the 11,018-foot pass that sits under nearly 100 named avalanche paths. The next day, a slide entombed a 180-foot-long concrete snow shed designed to protect drivers with 60 feet of powder, trees, rocks and other debris. Out of fear of another avalanche pummeling the site, CDOT locked the gates between Ouray and Silverton indefinitely.
This winter has blasted Colorado with its third largest snowpack to date since the National Resource Conservation Service started collecting data in 1987. The southwest corner of the state set a record with 159 percent of median.
The nearly constant dumps slumped on top of an unsteady base and sent more than 500 torrents of snow down slopes that killed three people and fully buried two others in March, according to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The center only reported 54 slides in 2018 and 140 in 2017.
Highways across the state have faced lengthy closures as a result of the spate of avalanches, including a handful in Summit County that sent Denver metro skiers on a 150-mile-plus detour home from the mountains.
Yet none can compare with U.S. 550 over Red Mountain Pass, which has lived up to its reputation as one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
Traversing tremendously steep cliffs and rocky faces, travelers have always put their lives on the line trekking between Ouray and Silverton.
The route was first established by Ute Indians, followed by white settlers who flocked to the area to strip the hillsides of gold, silver and other lucrative minerals in the 1800s. By midcentury, the surrounding counties needed to replace the rogue trail with a permanent structure, yet none of the companies they contracted could conquer the beast of the San Juans.
Then came Otto Mears. Orphaned by his Russian-Jewish mother and British father at a young age, “The Pathfinder of the San Juans” sailed to San Francisco to live with relatives in 1851 at age 11. He landed in the Southwest in 1864, when, out of a need to transport goods to and from his Saguache general store, he set off on erecting 450 miles of toll roads across southwest Colorado.
“We have a whole room at the Ouray County Museum dedicated to him because he was a pivotal figure for the second half of the 19th century,” said Don Paulson, the museum’s curator.
In 1883, Mears completed the road over Red Mountain Pass. It was a 20 percent grade — more than two times what it is today — just wide enough to fit a buggy and cost $5 per wagon. He “controlled transportation” between Ouray and Silverton until the counties bought him out six years later, Paulson said.
Even with boards on the ground, survival was not a guarantee. Wagons spun off slick planks, thigh-high boulder fields and deluges of rocks trapped horses, and snow and ice barreled over anything in their path.
The Rev. J.J. Gibbons, the only Catholic priest in the area in the late 19th century, muscled through harrowing snowstorms and past deteriorating skeletons to visit parishes in Ouray, Silverton, Rico and Telluride.
In his book published in 1898, Gibbons describes his Christmas journey amid day three of snow as “no holiday pastime.”
“But as Silverton was in my jurisdiction, I resolved to brave the danger, say the midnight Mass there on Christmas night, and on horseback return to Ouray, where I intended to say two Masses on Christmas day,” he wrote.
Paulson said, “They are horrendous stories, and I don’t know how they survived. They were tougher then, I guess.”
For many who’ve driven over Red Mountain Pass, once is enough. For Dack Klein, a 15-year veteran plow driver on the pass, it can be bliss.
Klein often is the first person to traverse the untracked expanses of snow underneath endless ridgelines of staggering peaks more than 13,000 feet tall. The flash of his truck lights and squawk of his sirens fade into the darkness, and his eyes focus on the swell of powder cascading off the highway into nothingness.
“You’re just driving through it, moving through the snow, the first one to see it,” he said. “I guess it’s like what all the backcountry skiers say: ‘You’re out there making the first run, and it’s untouched.’”
Even when tunnel vision mutes the cacophony of his surroundings, Klein needs to stay attuned to every angry rumble in the snow, each patch of ice too close to the edge and any drift too thick to masticate. His truck has “no fancy sensors” to tell him where he is, so during his eight-, and sometimes 12- or 16-hour shifts, he’s constantly reading the road.
If he doesn’t, it could cost him his life.
CDOT has a record of six people killed in avalanches on U.S. 550, though Paulson and other records suggest more. Three of the six were state-employed plowmen: Robert Miller in 1970, Terry Kishbaugh in 1978 and Eddie Imel in 1992.
Although none were easy for the community to swallow, Imel’s death was the last straw. After he suffocated under a surge of snow, CDOT partnered with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to maximize the data it had before sending crews out and opening the highway to the public.
“Why not work with snow readers to read what the slide paths are doing on the highway?” said Vance Kelso, CDOT’s area maintenance supervisor, adding that since Imel’s death there has been a culture shift among the plowmen from adrenaline-fueled machismo toward safety and precaution.
Kelso and his crews on the ground are in constant communication with local Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters. Ann Mellick, who oversees the northern half of Red Mountain Pass, talked Maeir via radio down the pass the night of March 3 and is critical in every mitigation, closure and tactical decision the Ouray team makes during the winter.
Conditions in the San Juans have been particularly testy this season because of the amount of snow and the rapidity with which it accumulated, said the avalanche’s center’s Deputy Director Brian Lazar. The recent cycle of storms also was warm, boosting the chance for loose and wet avalanches that can be more destructive. This type of snow also is more dense and is more likely to cause the lower layers in the snowpack to collapse.
“Whenever you have snowpack go through rapid change — rapid warming, heavy snowfall load in a short period — the snowpack is going to react,” Lazar said. “We haven’t had a break in storms, so snow is just piling up and sending down additional debris through natural and triggered avalanches.”
And in the stretch of highway with the most avalanche paths in the state, the threat is constant.
“That highway was put through some real rugged country,” Lazar said.
Slides above U.S. 550 don’t always reach the road, Kelso said. But about three weeks ago, when the size of the snowstorms and the threat of releases skyrocketed, Kelso and Mellick knew the risk was high and they’d have to step in.
They have dropped 27-pound bombs from helicopters and launched World War II howitzer bombs on slopes across the path. Some ran larger than Kelso had seen, carrying with them whole white firs over jagged cliffs. One bomb on the West Riverside slide path was what buried the snow shed March 5.
But the East Riverside slide path, just opposite West Riverside on the highway starting 3,250 feet above the highway, required more than a week of bombing before it slid. It wasn’t until Saturday that crews finally started clearing the road to the south of shed.
The stubbornness of the path was reminiscent of the conditions that killed Imel in 1992: West Riverside had run and trapped drivers coming from Silverton. Imel and his plow partner went to rescue the travelers when a chain on the front tire snapped. While they were fixing it, snow came hurtling down East Riverside and killed Imel.
CDOT vowed to learn from its mistakes after 1992, and Kelso won’t reverse the trend to expedite the opening of the highway.
“It’ll open Monday,” said Kelso. “I don’t know which Monday, but I think it’ll be a Monday.”