On the morning of March 5, 1992, a massive avalanche tumbled down a slide path on Red Mountain Pass just south of Ouray, burying two Colorado Department of Transportation employees.
The pair were driving a rotary snowplow, which uses blades that cut through the snow and shoots it off the side of the road, leading a caravan of passenger vehicles, when a chain fell off the plow’s front left tire. The two CDOT employees were out of the truck, fixing the chain, when the avalanche hit.
Dan Bender, a spokesman for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office at the time, said there was a 1 percent chance the pair could have survived, according to The Durango Herald archives.
But Daniel Jaramillo, 36, survived the crash. By eating away at the snow in his face and moving his hands, he cleared the snow away from his body. It took almost 18 hours to get out of 2 feet of snow, but he was able to make it back to the highway around 9 p.m. and call for help.
His co-worker, however, 38-year-old Eddie Imel, who lived in Ouray, was not so lucky. By the time Jaramillo was able to dig Imel out, he had suffocated.
Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for CDOT, said Imel’s death prompted the creation of a more focused program to make sure travel is safe for the public when avalanche danger is present, leading to a partnership with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Ever since the program started in 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 the backcountry, according to CDOT. Imel’s death still marks the last fatality.
“I truly attribute that to the partnership we have now with CAIC,” Schwantes said.
The state of Colorado has a number of high mountain passes CDOT is charged with keeping open over the winter months. Information is updated in real time on the website COTrip.
Southwest Colorado, particularly, poses one of the more challenging situations: U.S. Highway 550 north of Durango, between Coal Bank Pass and Ouray, is considered the most avalanche-prone highway in the contiguous United States.
Between Durango and Ouray, there are nearly 100 avalanche paths that have the potential of hitting the highway.
Ethan Greene, director of CAIC, said the decision to keep highways open or close them for avalanche mitigation starts with forecasters at the center. A number of factors are taken into account, including the history of the season’s snowpack, past avalanche activity and how big the incoming storm is predicted to be.
“It’s really the science of avalanche forecasting at its most fundamental level,” Greene said.
After studying the snow, Greene said forecasters will recommend to CDOT whether to close a road and if they think avalanche mitigation is necessary.
Southwest Colorado is certainly on the center’s radar, Greene said.
“With the number of people traveling the highway and the number of avalanche paths, on top of the San Juan Mountain snowpack, which can be very weak, it’s a really complicated avalanche forecasting problem,” Greene said.
Already this winter, CDOT has spent more than $304,000 on operations on Red Mountain Pass. For the entire stretch from Coal Bank to Red Mountain, CDOT spends about $2 million annually on road work.
Schwantes said there are CDOT maintenance patrols based in Ouray and Silverton, which take care of Red Mountain Pass, and another patrol near Purgatory Resort in charge of Coal Bank and Molas passes. When necessary, crews close the road to trigger avalanches, usually through the use of explosives.
“We do not want a natural slide happening at an unknown time,” Schwantes said.
Between Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain, the highway has been closed for nearly 50 hours this winter for avalanche mitigation.
The type of winter truly reflects how long the road is closed. In the 2013-14 winter season, considered one of the drier years in recent memory, the highway was closed just 12 hours. In the 2004-05 winter season, however, it was closed 355 hours.
Coal Bank and Molas passes always take priority as the first stretch of road to be mitigated to allow the town of Silverton access to the “outer world.”
“We realize it’s a very isolated community,” Schwantes said. “And we at least want to allow that community access to supplies, emergency services, etc.”
[email protected]This article has been updated to be more specific about the type of truck Colorado Department of Transportation employees were driving when an avalanche hit.