Ten-foot-tall walls of ice, snow, and debris line Colorado Highway 82, which stretches 85 miles from Glenwood Springs to the community of Twin Lakes, just south of Leadville, passing over the Continental Divide en route. Topping out at more than 12,000 feet, it is the highest paved road in North America.
Named for the ghost town of Independence, the pass is closed for the winter. From November to May, it is too snowy to plow consistently, and a season’s worth of precipitation accumulates on the winding mountain road. This year, the snowpack for the area measured in at 183 percent of the average, and for the first time in a decade, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) will not open the pass on Memorial Day weekend. “It’s certainly the biggest snow year any of us can remember,” says CDOT spokesperson Tracy Trulove. “We pride ourselves on getting the job done, but this year’s snow was really something.”
Clearing the alpine pass takes months of work. Surveillance crews start scouting the road in early April, a step that was especially crucial this year as entire sections of it were buried under more than 40 feet of snow carried down the pass by the winter’s historic avalanches. A team of seven heavy-equipment operators and an avalanche forecaster have been working almost every day since to clear the road. The avalanche forecaster helps make sure the team avoids any potential slides that could happen while working on the pass. As a precaution, each worker carries an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe.
Next, a snowcat similar to the kind used to groom ski runs begins to wind its way up the pass, marking the road that has all but disappeared into the snowpack. Chris Young operates the snowcat on the Pitkin County side of the pass. Driving requires years of experience to navigate Independence Pass’s steep cliffs and sharp corners. “I grew up playing with Tonka trucks, so this is pretty much a dream job,” says Young, who has worked on the team for seven years.
There’s an annual unofficial race between the two counties—Pitkin on the west side and Lake on the east—to see who can get a snowcat to the summit the fastest. This year, Young and the Pitkin County crew scraped their way to the top first. The prize? Going over to the Lake County side to clear more snow. “It’s kind of a pride thing,” says Young. “We meet at the top, we high-five, and we help each other.”
A loader follows the snowcat, moving any big or heavy debris carried onto the pass by avalanches. Then a snowblower slowly grinds its way up the road, scraping up snow and ejecting it into the valley below. A little street sweeper brings up the rear, dusting off the pavement and polishing it for cars. Finally, CDOT workers put the finishing touches on the road, repainting any yellow lines that have disappeared into the asphalt, filling potholes that have been gauged out by tumbling boulders, and fixing signs along the pass.
This year, the Lake County side still needs helicopter avalanche mitigation to knock free a few dangerous slides, and with snow in the forecast, it will likley be a couple more weeks before anyone can drive Highway 82. According to CDOT’s Trulove, the road should be ready for travel in early June.