In 2002, a prisoner in Utah who had been reared in an unhappy succession of foster homes wrote a letter to The Durango Herald hoping to find his birth-sister. They’d been separated after his parents died in an automobile accident on Red Mountain Pass when he was 3.
This month, USA Today named the Million Dollar Highway one of the “Top Ten Bucket List Road Trips” – a compliment to the beauty of Red Mountain Pass and an underhanded homage to its deadly track record.
Last year, USA Today pronounced the Million Dollar Highway from Durango to Ouray one of the “World’s 12 Most Dangerous Roads,” a distinction Red Mountain Pass shares with the “Highway of Death” in Iraq and the “Death Road” in Bolivia.
In an editorial, MSN Autos, an online car site, calls it a “highway to hell.”
“It’s scary,” said Nancy Shanks, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s spokeswoman for Region 5.
Red Mountain Pass, per mile, has the highest avalanche hazard on the North American Continent. The narrow two-lane road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.
“People stop in and ask, ‘Why are there no guardrails?’ We explain there’s no room because plows have to push the snow off the edge in winter,” said Heidi Pankow, public relations manager for the Ouray Chamber Resort Association.
Like Mount Everest, Red Mountain Pass’ lethal glamor enthralls tourists.
“It’s definitely a topic that comes up a lot,” Pankow said.
Although the speed limit is 15 mph for much of Red Mountain Pass, Shanks said more than 300 accidents took place there between 1995 and 2010. The majority occurred in dry conditions and involved only one vehicle. Eight accidents killed nine people, including five highway workers.
Shanks said while other Colorado roads have more fatal accidents, it is not a reflection of Red Mountain Pass’ lesser danger so much as people’s healthy terror when traversing it.
“It’s so scary, it forces people to focus and drive slow,” she said.
Fending off death
Colorado’s highway engineers have struggled to make Red Mountain Pass safer for decades; recently, they’ve had more success. Shanks said no avalanches have killed humans on Red Mountain Pass since CDOT started working with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in 1992.
Before then, it was a different story.
Retired Fort Lewis College professor and historian Duane Smith said in the early 19th century, wagons, cargo, horses and humans tumbled over the pass and into the ravine.
“In the 19th century, they were getting swept off in snowslides, rockslides, falling rock, with some surviving but most getting killed,” he said.
Into the late 20th century, anti-avalanche strategies involved highway workers bombarding the snowpack above Red Mountain Pass with bullets, rockets and bombs. Though such attacks may sound like highway workers waging a futile, “Braveheart”-style rebellion against the cruel if indifferent tyranny of snow, the idea was to prompt avalanches in controlled circumstances so no people would be hurt.
The same tactical credit cannot be extended to civilians, whose existential anger at Red Mountain Pass apparently led some to wage open war on its road signs. In 1979, highway authorities complained to the Herald that for locals, “it is a favorite pastime to shoot up road signs,” forcing the cash-strapped agency to replace bullet-riddled roadside warnings.
The lore of Red Mountain Pass is full of mortal tragedy, flecked with divine comedy.
The Herald reported in 1956 that the Rev. J.H. Halloran, a Catholic priest, and the Rev. Martin Hudson, a Protestant minister, “used their chance meeting atop 11,018 foot Red Mountain Pass to further the work of the Lord. Approaching from opposite directions, (they) found their paths blocked by an avalanche. They swapped cars to solve the difficulty. Later, their visits to members of their congregation over, they met and retraded their respective autos.”
Seven years later, a snowslide at Red Mountain Pass swept Hudson and his two daughters, Amelia, 17, and Pauline, 11, into the ravine, killing them.
Through the years, many things have mysteriously disappeared atop Red Mountain Pass, according to Herald “lost and found” classifieds, including a pair of snowshoes (2005), a black Labrador called “Skipper” (1973) and a lieutenant governor (1989) who later re-emerged alive in Denver. Nonetheless, a Herald article reported that Silverton was forced to cancel its winter celebration after guest-of-honor Lt. Gov. Mike Callihan “was reportedly following a snowplow over Red Mountain Pass on U.S. 550 but still couldn’t reach the town.”
The pass also has revealed that angels drive among us. In 1964, The Silverton Standard opined on the increased “number of Negroes passing through as tourists since the passage of the Civil Rights Bill.”
The editor recalled his “car trouble on Red Mountain Pass last Sunday. After being passed by motorists from all through the hospitable West and South, it was a gentle-voiced Negro lady who finally stopped and asked if she could be any help ... faith in humanity was again restored.”
The highway to hell also is responsible for a lot of “miracles,” according to the Herald.
In 1985, an avalanche swept two people down a 400-foot embankment. “Miraculously,” the couple survived, though the husband told the Herald that their ensuing hospitalization somewhat marred their vacation.
In 1999, an avalanche buried four people – three highway workers and one motorist – alive beneath 40 feet of snow; they survived through the night, and rescuers retrieved them the next day.
In 1993, Fort Lewis College’s assistant basketball coach George LeSaltz skid off Red Mountain Pass. His Chevrolet pickup full of FLC players tumbled 100 feet down the cliff at a 45-degree angle until a freak snowbank “miraculously” interrupted its fall – sparing the players certain death and the Raiders (the mascot at the time) another setback in what was an already “difficult” season, according to the Herald.
In 2005, a minivan carrying six people careened over Red Mountain Pass, plummeting hundreds of feet down a 60-degree slope. Somehow, everyone survived, and “the miracle” was featured on NBC’s “Today” show. (CDOT’s Shanks said the family later starred in a seat-belt commercial.)
In 2011, Eric Petranek, a Bayfield resident, drove off Red Mountain Pass, escaping his 330-foot plunge and flaming car with only second-degree burns.
But on Red Mountain Pass, miracles aren’t for everyone.
In 1978, Lloyd Barry, a snowplow driver and father of three, retired, saying, “This is my fifth winter. Five winters on Red Mountain Pass are all I’m willing to risk. The way I figure it, after five, the odds of surviving get too short.”
Earlier that year, a snowslide killed Barry’s colleague, Terry Kishbaugh, 28, a husband and father of three.
“It took three months to recover his body. His truck was smashed like a toy,” Barry told the Herald.
Indeed, for decades, the heroism demonstrated by snowplow drivers and highway workers – Red Mountain Pass’ primary casualties – has awed and confused locals. In 1978, Caroni Adams McCallum praised the bravery of the men who maintain Red Mountain Pass in a letter to the Herald: “I am always surprised that the state highway department can even find people to apply for the job of clearing Red Mountain Pass. They take huge personal risk just so we can pass safely.”