While spring is in full swing in most of Southwest Colorado, impacts of heavy snowfall and unprecedented avalanche activity this winter are expected to be felt for months.
“It’s more than just lingering issues,” said Pete Maisel, a former Silverton town trustee. “It’s part of our life now.”
The snowpack was epic.
When Southwest Colorado’s snowpack peaked April 5, it became the third-biggest snow year since 1986, falling just behind 1993 and 2005.
And with the heavy snow, an untold number of avalanches came down across Colorado. In the southwest corner alone, Colorado Avalanche Information Center data show nearly 230 slides were recorded since Nov. 1 – and that’s just avalanches reported to the center.
Now comes the aftermath, and the cleanup, of all that snowfall and avalanche activity.
Willy Tookey, San Juan County administrator, said there’s still a lot of snow in the high country. As of Wednesday, snowpack in Southwest Colorado was at nearly 225% of normal, historic averages.
Every day, Tookey said road crews are staging a heroic effort to clear the more than 120 miles of county roads, most of them in remote, mountainous terrain around Silverton.
Tookey said that last year, when the region was in a critical drought, Cinnamon Pass, a high-mountain four-wheel-drive road that connects Silverton to Lake City, was open. This year, however, crews haven’t even punched through to Animas Forks, a popular ghost town closer to Silverton.
“If you have an avalanche bring down a lot of trees and debris, it’s a whole lot more difficult than just plowing snow,” he said.
One avalanche that covered County Road 2, the route to Eureka, buried the road in up to 40 feet of snow. Farther past Eureka toward Animas Forks, it was discovered this week that another avalanche dumped up to 120 feet of snow on the road. As a result, it’s likely Animas Forks won’t be accessible until July.
The county enlisted the help of resident Rusty Melcher to take drone footage to get a bird’s-eye view of the avalanches.
“People have gotten used to early dates for getting the backcountry open,” Tookey said. “It’ll be a little longer this year, and that can impact the town’s economy.”
Indeed, DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the closed four-wheel-drive roads might delay ATV riders and other recreationists in getting up to the small mountain town north of Durango.
“The roads are our biggest question right now,” she said. “And we don’t know how to answer that.”
Watching what comes downMark Lambert with the U.S. Forest Service said there was likely a good deal of damage to trails in the San Juans. The Forest Service hires crews to be on the ready to repair routes, knowing the winter months bring downed trees, erosion and other debris.
But it might be hard to access the areas for a few weeks and open popular hiking trails and camping areas.
“It’s one of those things we deal with every winter, but this year, it’s more daunting,” Lambert said. “We may have some real challenges out there. Some of those piles may be very high and very thick, and it may take time to clear.”
Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said road crews are patrolling Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain passes for downed trees and rockfall on U.S. Highway 550. Erosion, too, poses a challenge for keeping the highway safe.
“We’re continuing to watch what comes down with all that snowmelt,” she said.
Ethan Greene, director of CAIC, said as the snow melts, local and state officials are able to get a better idea of the damage in the backcountry.
Outside Silverton, for instance, a cabin was obliterated by an avalanche in March. More recently, it was discovered an equipment shed at the Eureka Lodge north of Silverton was knocked down by a slide.
Greene said that although it’s mid-May, the risk for avalanches is not over.
“We’re still forecasting for avalanches and having people caught in avalanches,” he said.
From summer to early fall, the CAIC evaluates the past avalanche season, tweaking how it forecasts for public safety. All told, 16 people reportedly were buried in avalanches in the backcountry, and eight people died across the state.
The CAIC sends out avalanche risk reports every day. Since 1992, no one has died in an avalanche while driving a Colorado road, even as the state’s population has increased and more people use and travel in the backcountry, after a partnership started between CDOT and the CAIC.
“I’m not saying wholesale changes,” he said. “But it helps us make better decisions in the future.”