Avalanche Memories Give Mountain Dweller Pause

A front-end loader clears snow from an avalanche off of I-70 near Silverthorne, Colo., on Jan. 7. i i

A front-end loader clears snow from an avalanche off of I-70 near Silverthorne, Colo., on Jan. 7. Colorado Department of Transportation/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Colorado Department of Transportation/AP
A front-end loader clears snow from an avalanche off of I-70 near Silverthorne, Colo., on Jan. 7.

A front-end loader clears snow from an avalanche off of I-70 near Silverthorne, Colo., on Jan. 7.

Colorado Department of Transportation/AP

It's only January, and it's already been one of the deadliest years for avalanches on record. Commentator Craig Childs lives in Colorado's West Elk Mountains, and this time of year, he doesn't leave home without calculating the avalanche risk.

In the summer, the Red Mountain Pass is a breathtaking drive. There are no guardrails, hardly a foot of shoulder. Cliffs and canyons soar below.

In the winter, this is the most avalanche-prone highway in the lower 48 states. One hundred-sixty slide paths breach a 20-mile stretch of pavement. I've driven it many times in snowstorms and blizzards, powder snow on the highway, strong crosswind building drifts.

One night, more than 60 avalanches crossed a 5-mile stretch of this highway. The town of Ouray was buried in a sudden 4 feet of snow. That night a snowplow driver, Eddie Imel, was killed by the infamous East Riverside Slide. He was the third snowplow driver to perish on that same 100 feet of highway.

The next day it kept snowing. There was no hope of launching a rescue. But miraculously, Eddie's partner, Danny Jaramillo, survived. For 18 hours Danny dug straight up, using a flashlight as a shovel ... 20 feet through packed snow until he hit daylight.

When the storm ended, I came up with crews trying to reach Eddie's body. About a mile from the buried snowplow, two avalanches exploded at once, right above us. Snow boiled out of the mountain.

People started backing away. Then they ran. But it was no use. We couldn't outrun a pair of avalanches. I just stayed put, my gaze fixed as if staring into the eyes of a snake.

The two avalanches met and roared into the canyon below. They didn't have enough force to climb the opposite side. If they had, we would have been buried. Instead, they sent up a burst of wind, coating us with snow. When the cloud settled, everyone was safe. Some laughed, while others staggered around breathless.

I still think about this now when I cross the 100-foot-wide path of the East Riverside Slide. I can feel the mountain's gravity. Next to me, a thousand tons of snow hang by a thread. For a moment, looking up through my snow-glazed windshield, I am aware of nothing but the mountain. When I pass safely from under the slide, my gaze returns to the highway, and I breathe again.

Commentator Craig Childs' most recent book is The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild.

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