WORDS: Ryan Cophenhagen
On the night of January 12th, freezing water caused a piece of rock the size of a football field to fracture and rip out above the Million Dollar Highway in Southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Like a cornice giving way and triggering an avalanche, the gigantic piece of rock shattered into rubble as it crashed down 1,700 feet on a 40-degree slab until the pieces piled up on the road into a concrete-like mass 200-feet wide and 8-feet deep.
No one was hurt, but the rockslide was the biggest natural event in recent history on Highway 550's Red Mountain Pass. Immediately following the rockslide, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) cleared the rock on the highway and fixed the holes in the road that night. But their work was far from finished. Loose rubble was strewn across the steep slope above the road and unseasonably warm temperatures caused continuous rockfall, forcing CDOT to close the highway indefinitely, a move that isolated the towns of Silverton and Ouray from the outside world. To get to Silverton, drivers now had to take a 100-mile detour through the mountains over Lizard Head Pass.
The rockslide couldn't have come at a worse time. In the middle of January, when Silverton should be busy with visiting skiers, the town instead felt eerily quiet. Bars closed early and local hotels saw a fifty percent decline in reservations. The road usually sees an average of 2,200 cars a day, but now the only drivers were a handful of skiers who could still access part of Highway 550 to make some turns. Parking areas along the open stretch of highway where backcountry skiers leave their cars were empty. Skintracks sat unused. Sitting at the car to drink a beer after a day of touring, only one vehicle passed by. It belonged to CDOT.
To clean up and stabilize the rock above the road, CDOT brought in crews from several different companies to work side-by-side for the first time, drilling and blasting into the rock and fixing 32 nets to cover hundreds of square yards of rubble. Rigging For Rescue from Ouray fixed 1,700 feet of rope up 15 pitches so workers could safely access the hazardous worksite. Silverton Mountain brought in a helicopter and eight elite staff members, including guides, the mountain manager, and a pilot, to pitch in with the work.
"They needed a crew of people familiar with high intensity work environments and that's how we got the call," says Aaron Brill, owner of Silverton Mountain Ski Area. "We volunteered for the hardest work as we knew it needed to be done."
Brill said that the 100-mile detour halted tourist traffic and dramatically affected skier visits, putting a lot of the ski area's staff out of work, motivating Silverton staff to do whatever they could to get the road open as soon as possible. With extensive helicopter experience, mountaineering knowledge, and developed concentration, situational awareness, and communication, the guides were instrumental in getting tasks done on the Ruby Walls. The day's work varied from moving rocks with pry-bars to catching metal nets that were dangling from the helicopter. They guided the helicopter pilot into precise position so the nets could be installed properly. Crews worked together to drill three feet into the rock to anchor the nets. All these jobs were done while harnessed into ropes.
"The teamwork and the collaboration was amazing so the overall experience was great," says Michael Barton, Silverton Mountain snow team director. "But the best part of the job was when thirteen one-pound burgers were delivered from Maggie's Café in Ouray, via helicopter long line. Best burger I ever had."
Meanwhile, rockfall remained a concern on the unstable slope. Spotters with air horns were put in position to warn workers of rocks falling above them. "If ice had formed in the night and caused erosion, then the moment the sun hit the rock face and started melting the ice, rocks would begin releasing," says Barton, who worked as a spotter. Air horns were fired around ten times a day. "When you heard that air horn it was like real life dodge ball," says Silverton guide Skylar Holgate.
On January 30th when the announcement came that the road would open the following day, skiers, guides, and local business owners breathed a sigh of relief. But nobody was more eager than the mountain guides to get back on snow after 10 days working on rock. The following day, skiers were able to drive over the pass during limited road openings in the morning and afternoon while CDOT continued to finish the project. Guides were back to work just in time to throw bombs and ski cut the freshly stacked slopes so they could get some turns on 24 inches of new snow with stoked, powder-starved clients.
The road remains open to single lane alternating traffic from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and again from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. for more information on Colorado road conditions see: CoTrip.org