OURAY COUNTY – The Colorado Department of Transportation continues to cope with the aftermath of a massive rockfall that occurred two miles south of Ouray at mile marker 90 on US 550 earlier this week.
CDOT geologists and crew members from Yenter Companies, CDOT’s rock fall contractor, mobilized to the scene via helicopter on Thursday and Friday this week to assess the rockfall site, about 900 feet above the highway, and to begin to stabilize it.
“It was a pretty good sized slide,” said CDOT rockfall specialist Ty Ortiz. “A large mass of the rock, through years of weathering, released from the slope, breaking into smaller pieces from six feet to cobble sized rocks.”
The material came down during a rockfall incident that began on Sunday evening, Jan. 12 and continued the next day, burying a 200-foot segment of the highway in rubble up to eight feet deep.
While the immediate rockfall incident appears to have ended, there is still a great deal of slide rubble, or talus rock, that has stayed on the slope and is still unstable, Ortiz said. “We are trying to figure out what we can do with that,” Ortiz explained. “It is a really large mass of rock, and it will come to its own equilibrium over time, but it is immediately over highway. That is the big concern, coupled with the challenge of getting there. It is not the easiest place to work; it is one of the more extreme spots we have had to access.”
Yenter crews on Thursday and Friday set up a system of ropes and anchors in the targeted rockfall mitigation area, and then began the process of bringing rocks down by hand with the use of five-foot long pry bars, said CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks.
“It was determined that there is more material to be removed than previously identified by surveys from the helicopter earlier this week,” Shanks said. “The slope is extremely steep and crews will work their way down to a rock debris field to begin cleaning all of the loose material from this area.”
Rock scaling will continue daily until the highway is deemed safe for travel.
Red Mountain Pass has been closed in both directions between Silverton and Ouray since Monday afternoon, necessitating a roughly 200 mile detour over Dallas Divide and Lizard Head Pass for those who must travel between the two communities. According to CDOT officials, Red Mountain Pass will remain closed at least through the weekend.
The actual closure points are at mile marker 92 just south of Ouray, and at mile marker 87 at Ironton Park, about 17 miles north of Silverton.
Silverton Postmaster Becky Rhoades said that the mail is still getting delivered to town via the alternate route. “It’s just getting here late,” she said, adding that local Silvertonians are coping well with the road closure. “When you live in a place like this, you’d better be prepared for things like this to happen,” she said.
In addition to burying the highway, the rockfall took out a power line belonging to San Miguel Power Association, that provides a backup power supply to the Ouray and Ridgway region.
SMPA crews spent Wednesday removing the damaged infrastructure. SMPA Operations Superintendent Paul Enstrom reported that two large structures were damaged by the slide. One structure lost its crossarm and another was completely wiped out.
According to SMPA spokeswoman Becky Mashburn, repairs will not be made to the line until spring. “It will involve helicopter work,” she said. “We can’t just pull up a bucket truck to the site. It involves scrambling and hiking on sheer cliffs.”
Until repairs are conducted, Ouray and Ridgway will continue to be supplied with power via the main power line, with no backup supply.
This could leave the area vulnerable to longer power outages if something happens to the main line.
“We are now in a holding pattern discussing our options,” Mashburn said.
CDOT will continue to send daily updates on progress and any estimates of a highway reopening as soon as that is known.
ALTERNATE ROUTE: From Ouray to Durango (a distance of 70 miles using US 550) motorists will instead use SH 62 from Ridgway over Dallas Divide, SH 145 over Lizard Head Pass, then US 160, for a trip of about 154 miles.
For information on other CDOT projects, the public may call 511 or log onto CDOT’s traveler information web site atwww.cotrip.org. Better yet, sign up to receive email and/or text messages by going to CDOT’s web site atwww.coloradodot.info and choosing the green phone icon in the upper right corner.