Avalanche threat strands travelers

December 31, 2007 4:48:53 PM PST
Wind-whipped snow and avalanche danger closed the main highway through the Colorado mountains for hours on Monday, stranding thousands of travelers as they headed to New Year's Eve celebrations.

A 60-mile stretch of Interstate 70 was shut down in both directions in the high country west of Denver, but westbound lanes reopened Monday afternoon after crews ensured they were safe. Eastbound traffic was expected to resume later in the day.

The long shutdown had some travelers contemplating the prospect of welcoming the new year on a cot in a shelter.

"I've got some in the car, but it's probably frozen by now," said Ken Simons of Grand Junction. He and his wife were trying to get to Denver for New Year's when the closing of the highway forced them and more than 2,000 others to spend Sunday night in shelters.

With no definite word on when they could hit the road again, some faced the prospect of welcoming 2008 on a cot in a school gymnasium.

Liquor stores did a brisk business.

"We've definitely seen a rush," said John Will of Antler's Discount Liquor in Frisco. "People are coming in complaining that they are stuck" or caught in slow-moving traffic.

Leaha Widrowicz was trying to get back to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her boyfriend and his mother after a skiing trip but had to spend the night in Frisco, missing their midnight flight from Denver International Airport.

"We're not even thinking of New Year's right now," Widrowicz said. "We are just trying to get home to family."

High winds piled deep snow into more than two dozen narrow ravines in the mountainsides - known as avalanche chutes - raising the danger of deadly avalanches cascading onto I-70. Blowing snow reduced visibility to nearly zero.

Authorities wanted to clear out that snow before letting traffic through again.

Wind gusts at the Eisenhower Tunnel, where the interstate passes under the Continental Divide at 11,000 feet above sea level, reached 70 mph.

The highway was first shut down on Sunday night. That section carries as many as 39,000 cars on Sundays during this time of year, officials said.

Loveland Ski Area, about 45 miles west of Denver, shut down for the day because the highway closure kept both skiers and workers away.

While many people took advantage of seven Red Cross shelters in schools and recreation centers, others relied on the kindness of strangers.

Brian Jerry of Colorado Springs said people he had never met before let him stay in their Silverthorne home because motels were full. "We called the local Quality Inn, and they basically laughed at us," Jerry said.

I-70 is the main route between Denver and many of the state's major ski resorts. The closing of the road could hurt ski business during the lucrative holiday season.

Blowing snow and low visibility also kept three other mountain passes closed Monday: U.S. 40 over Berthoud Pass, U.S. 6 over Loveland Pass and U.S. 550 over Red Mountain Pass.

Authorities in Utah warned of the danger of avalanches in that state's backcountry, where thousands of people were expected to ski, hike and snowmobile on New Year's Day. Avalanches there have already claimed two lives this season.