US 550 Mountain Corridor: OPEN

SOUTHWEST/SOUTH-CENTRAL COLORADO TRAVEL UPDATE Avalanche mitigation crews trigger snow slides across the region

A CDOT heavy equipment operator clears the highway with a heavy duty snow blower. This is one of many avalanche paths triggered today on US 550 Red Mountain Pass, south of Ouray.

SOUTHWEST/SOUTH-CENTRAL COLORADO ― The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has opened US Highway 550 Red Mountain Pass after two days of avalanche control work. Mitigation of snow slide paths resumed this morning, Saturday, January 19, after operations were called off yesterday afternoon because of safety concerns due adverse weather conditions. This Saturday morning brought calmer conditions allowing for a successful mission.

“The snow was super-tender and very touchy,” said Vance Kelso, CDOT area maintenance supervisor. “Every slide we triggered came roaring down, plus we encountered some natural slides. Wet, heavy snow on top of a previous light, fluffy base created conditions just right for potential avalanches, a recipe for disaster. We’re confident we made the right decision to close this road.”

Crews initiated more than a dozen avalanche paths on Red Mountain Pass today, many hitting the highway.

“This is what we hope to accomplish while the road is closed to traffic. We can then open the corridor for safe travel,” added Kelso.

Many avalanche paths triggered today on US 550 Red Mountain Pass brought down several feet on snow across the highway.


Heavy snows blanketed much of the state beginning Thursday evening, January 17. CDOT Maintenance equipment operators worked throughout the night clearing roadways. By the early morning hours (4:30 a.m.) on Friday, crews working on the US 550 mountain corridor notified the area superintendent that the storm was causing low visibility and treacherous driving conditions. Additionally, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) issued a high avalanche threat across the state including a warning for the southwest and south-central Colorado regions. At 5:30 a.m. CDOT closed US 550 between Purgatory and Ouray, which included all three passes, Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain. After crews successfully shot down several snow slides along the southern stretch of the corridor, US 550 south of Silverton was opened to traffic just before 4:00 p.m. on Friday.


Also on Friday, just south of Telluride, CDOT conducted avalanche mitigation at several slide paths on CO 145 Lizard Head Pass from Rico to Ophir beginning at 9:00 a.m. Travelers experienced periodic closures of 30 minutes while crews worked their way north on the highway. During the four-hour operation, a natural snow slide occurred near Trout Lake on the north side of Lizard Head summit. CDOT crews were able to quickly respond and clear the highway, as they were already in the area for the mitigation work. CO 145 was completely opened just after 12:30 p.m.


In south-central Colorado near Poncha Springs, CDOT worked in conjunction with Monarch Ski Area to mitigate potential snow slides on US 50. Work began Friday evening at 5:00 p.m. and was expected to be completed within a couple of hours, but massive amounts of snow hampered the planned two-hour operation which lasted for an unexpected six hours.

“This is the most snow we’ve triggered for one operation in about 15 years,” said Tyler Carlson, CDOT maintenance supervisor. “We triggered two major slide areas. Both reached the highway, covering both lanes. Snow was 12 feet deep in some areas, and one slide path covered an entire stretch of highway about three-quarters of a mile long.”

US 50 Monarch Pass was opened just after 11:00 p.m. Friday night.    


Heavy snows also impacted travel on mountain highways in the southern San Luis Valley. CO 17 heads south from Alamosa to New Mexico, and over two mountain passes. At about noon Friday a natural slide hit the highway about 3 miles north of the New Mexico border on Cumbres Pass. No vehicles were involved, but both lanes were covered with several feet of snow. After equipment operators cleared this snow from the highway, the crew moved north to La Manga Pass to conduct avalanche control operations at the “Banks” slide path. US 17 was opened completely at 6:30 p.m.   


Surprisingly, avalanche mitigation was not needed on US 160 Wolf Creek Pass, even after this most recent snow storm dropped some 10 inches of snow. Over the past few weeks CDOT crews already triggered several snow slide paths above the highway which helped prevent the need for control work this weekend.

A CAIC forecaster stated in a report, “Mitigation was not recommended for Friday on the west side of Wolf Creek because significant natural avalanche activity occurred early in the week, with slides stopping well above the highway. Our early season efforts to clean the weak snow structure out of the paths have been successful.”