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Avalanche risk detours thousands

A highway near Denver is closed for about 24 hours, forcing holiday travelers into shelters for a long night's wait.

January 01, 2008|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — It was a heck of a drive for a plate of pasta.

Visiting friends in Colorado for the holidays, Mike Watts and his father decided on a whim to take a spin to the mountains for lunch. They made it to a Ruby Tuesday's about 60 miles west of Denver.

Then the winds kicked up.

Twenty-four hours later, they were still stranded. And Watts, 20, was staring at the prospect of ringing in the New Year bunked next to a potted plant in an emergency shelter -- or stuck in traffic trying to get back to his buddies in Denver.

"It's a mess," he groaned, speaking by phone from a shelter in the town of Silverthorne, Colo.

Nearly 3,000 travelers were trapped in the high country from early Sunday evening through late Monday, after gusting winds -- and the threat of avalanches -- forced authorities to close a 70-mile stretch of Interstate 70.

From about 10 miles west of Denver to the ski resort of Vail, the highway was shut down starting at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, said Mindy Crane, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Stretches of the road began to reopen Monday afternoon, and the full interstate was clear by Monday night.

"We'll see phased openings," Crane said, "so we don't have a massive traffic jam."

Another massive jam, she might have said.

Before I-70 was shut down, drivers reported crawling along in whiteout conditions, barely able to see the taillights ahead of them.

It took emergency crews eight hours to clear everyone from the treacherous highway and settle them in schools, churches and the recreation center in Silverthorne, a small town near Vail and Breckenridge.

The American Red Cross brought in blankets and cots. Local businesses donated crates of fruit and sandwiches. Medics circulated with oxygen for travelers afflicted by altitude sickness.

At the recreation center, front-desk clerk Gail Hunt spent the night directing 980 people -- and a surprising number of pets -- to bunk in the gym, in the yoga room, on the jogging track, even in the lobby. The staff brought in board games ("But not enough," Hunt said) and tried to keep the bathrooms stocked with toilet paper.

All in all, Hunt said, it was going pretty smoothly.

"The mood hasn't been too negative," agreed Dave King, 19, who was heading to Denver International Airport to catch a flight to his uncle's wedding when the interstate closed. "People understand the situation. They know they can't do anything about it."

More than two dozen mountain ravines -- known as avalanche chutes -- had filled with snow by Sunday, and with a powerful wind racing through the area, authorities determined that the risk of avalanches was high.

State road crews typically try to manage the danger by setting off explosives that knock the snow out of the ravines. But Monday's sustained winds of 50 mph -- and gusts up to 70 mph -- made such work impossible.

"We have to get a little bit of cooperation from Mother Nature," Crane said.

Traffic through the ski villages was still possible -- if you didn't mind gray skies, frigid temperatures and blowing snow -- allowing some of the stranded travelers to venture out to restaurants and shops.

Many others, however, were reluctant to risk it. Hunkering down in the shelters, they shared stories and sympathy, and watched the TV news with glazed eyes.

Taylor Leary, 22, tried to pass the time by lifting weights -- he was, after all, camped out in the Silverthorne Recreation Center -- and by pondering lessons learned. The main one, he decided, had nothing to do with winter driving or Colorado weather.

Leary had been traveling from his home in Steamboat Springs to a Denver Nuggets basketball game with his cousin and her three children when the interstate was shut down.

They spent four and a half hours in traffic as the 15-month-old twins wailed and the 3-year-old threw tantrums. When they finally reached the shelter, Leary had to share a cot with a squirming twin through the long, sleepless night.

"I talked to my mother this morning," he said, "and she was like, 'I bet you're going to hold off on having kids for a while after this.' "

He laughed.

"I told her, 'Absolutely.' "

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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