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Preparing Independence Pass For Summer Travel

Zoë Rom

Highway 82 over Independence Pass opens Friday after a winter of historic avalanches and above-average snowpack. It’s the highest paved highway in North America, known for its steep grades and hairpin turns, and is an important mountain conduit and a tourist destination in and of itself. It took months of work to open the road for summer travel this year.

Wind sweeps over the snow on the steepest part of Highway 82, called the Bueller Grade. It’s on the Lake County side, and a mile-long cornice currently hangs over it, which has Ethan Greene worried.


“It’s not like the fluffy stuff you find in your driveway. It’s really hard, dense snow. And it’s hanging out over the cliff, about 800 feet above the road,” said Greene.


He's the Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), and prevents avalanches by causing them.


“We’re trying to trigger avalanches when there’s nobody around, nobody in the way,” he said.


Greene's team partners with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) each year, to remove any snow threatening the roadway.


CAIC technicians toss charges out of a CDOT helicopter. They plant the small explosives along the edge of the cornice, check to make sure no stray skiers or deer are in the way, then hover in the helicopter and detonate the explosives remotely.


Credit Zoë Rom
CDOT Helicopter plants charges to dislodge an overhanging cornice

The explosion causes a section of snow as big as a school bus to break loose and cascade down the pass over Highway 82.

That’s not the only slide that will have to be cleared from Independence Pass. Brand new avalanche paths have buried sections in 40 feet of snow. That’s where CDOT comes in.


Tracy Trulove explores the Green Mountain slide path


“The snow was so deep, the guys couldn’t find the road,” said CDOT's Tracy Trulove.


She said two teams of just seven CDOT workers are responsible for clearing the entire pass.


First, a team of surveyors uses coordinates to plant long poles where the road should be. Then, a snowcat breaks trail up the pass, using a plow to push aside the first layer of snow.


Chris Young is a CDOT snowcat operator and guides the cat’s treads just inches from the edge of the road. The plow dangles above the snowy abyss.


He loves being the first person to glimpse the pass' summit in the spring.


“Pioneering this road is a lot of fun, it’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush,” said Young. “We get to get out here in the snow, in God’s country, away from the traffic, and just keep after it every day.”


Credit Zoë Rom
Chris Young and his Snowcat

The cat is followed by a loader. It looks like a snowplow-bulldozer hybrid driven straight out of "Mad Max." Whirring blades can chop up ice chunks and rogue tree limbs.

Truelove says the loader has seen a lot of action this season.

“This winter has been particularly challenging with all the natural avalanche paths,” said Trulove.

Once the loader has carried away avalanche debris, a snowblower, as large as a tractor, scrapes the road.


Credit Zoë Rom
A loader, followed by a snowblower, make their way up the pass

Finally, a street sweeper dusts away the remaining snow.

According to Trulove, even CDOT veterans were impressed by the amount of snow this year.


“Some of these guys have been working up here 14 years, and they’ve never seen this much snow,” said Trulove.

She said CDOT will work to clean up the pass well into summer, trimming overhanging limbs and fixing potholes. She urges drivers to stay cautious, even as they enjoy a trip over the pass.



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