What happened: CDOT closes Berthoud Pass twice this week for avalanche mitigation work
It has been a wild week in the Colorado high country as an extended storm cycle sent the state’s avalanche danger spiking, causing numerous slides up and down the Interstate 70 corridor and leading to multiple closures of Berthoud Pass.
Intense snowfall on Berthoud Pass over the past week has significantly increased the depth of snowpack on the pass, which is one of the state’s most popular backcountry skiing areas. On Feb. 28, remote data collection sensors on Berthoud Pass recorded a total snow depth of 51 inches. As of Thursday, an additional two feet of snow had accumulated on the pass, bringing Berthoud’s total snow depth up to 75 inches.
The significant snowfall prompted officials from the Colorado Department of Transportation, or CDOT, to undertake multiple rounds of avalanche mitigation along U.S. Highway 40 on Berthoud Pass. CDOT conducted avalanche mitigation work in the Berthoud Pass area four times over the past week, including on March 2, 4, 5 and 7, according to the nonprofit organization Friends of Berthoud Pass.
Saturday’s avalanche mitigation work was conducted on two separate slide paths along Berthoud Pass. Those two slide paths, the massive Stanley slide path on Stanley Mountain and the significantly smaller 80’s slide path near Current Creek, both feature previously installed remote avalanche control systems called Gazex, on Stanley, and O’Bellx, on 80’s.
Workers from CDOT continued to conduct avalanche mitigation work around Berthoud Pass over the week, including the initiation of a large avalanche on the Disney Chute slide path Tuesday — which led to the pass’s closure for about three hours that morning — that lies south of U.S. Highway 40 and several miles east of Berthoud Falls in Clear Creek County.
On Thursday morning, officials from CODT again halted traffic for further mitigation efforts.
The resulting avalanche Tuesday careened down Engelmann Peak from a starting elevation of roughly 11,800 feet. The slide covered over one mile in distance before crossing Highway 40, at an elevation of roughly 9,400 feet. While the avalanche on the Disney Chute slide path was intentionally triggered by CDOT, the state agency does not have remote trigger avalanche mitigation equipment, such as Gazex or O’Bellx, on the Disney Chute so alternate trigger mechanisms were used.
The Disney Chute’s unique name is derived from a tragic incident that occurred there in 1957. At the time, the Disney avalanche path was called the Dam slide, in reference to a water diversion dam that was previously built in the avalanche path’s runout zone.
According to Clear Creek County, Disney Studios hired a freelance film crew to film a documentary on avalanches. On April 8, 1957 that film crew set up cameras along the side of the slide path and on Highway 40, directly below the slide path. When officials triggered an avalanche on the slide path, which had received 79 inches of snowfall over the previous week, the resulting slide was significantly larger than anticipated. The air blast that moved ahead of the avalanche snapped trees. The powder cloud created by the avalanche was estimated at several hundred feet and there were reports of trees being thrown as high as 200 feet into the air.
Cameraman John Hermann and highway department supervisor Wayne Whitlock were filming the ensuing avalanche from Highway 40 when the slide enveloped the two men, burying them under several hundred tons of snow, killing both. The slide path was subsequently renamed the Disney slide path, or Disney Chute.
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