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Slide Patrol

Slide Patrol

Mountain Life
By Peter Shelton
posted: 12/15/2001

Avalanche forecaster Jerry Roberts and I are riding in his orange Colorado Department of Transportation pickup. We're on our way to check storm boards for recent snow accumulation totals. It's the middle of the night. The road to Red Mountain Pass is white. Our tires leave tracks several inches deep. Snowflakes in the air stop, eerily, strobe-like, in each sweep of the yellow flashing light on the roof. We're driving directly underneath the Brooklyns, a series of slide paths that regularly hit the highway. Roberts chants an impromptu haiku: "Traveling under Brooklyns paths/fear/is my companion."

Some hours earlier, Jerry had phoned. "I've been looking at the 'confuser.' Roberts likes to play with words. We've got a hundred-mile-an-hour jet stream over us. The dynamics look good. I don't want to over-forecast, but we could see a foot and a half, two feet. Come on over. We could be rockin' and rollin'."

I grabbed my gear and headed south on Highway 550, up the Uncompahgre River Canyon and over Red Mountain Pass to Silverton on the other side. The last time Jerry had called to invite me to ride with him, they'd closed the pass before I could get across. I didn't want to miss this one.Silverton, elevation 9,323 feet, is one of four forecast centers, run jointly by CDOT and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and charged with managing the state's slide-prone highways. Between 1963 and 1992, six people-three snowplow drivers and a minister and his daughters-were swept to their deaths on Red Mountain Pass. Since the forecasting program was initiated in 1992-93, no one has died in a snowslide on the highway. When Roberts or his cohorts deem conditions dicey enough, they close the road and try to shoot down avalanches before they grow into monsters.

"Three-Mary-Fourteen, this is Three-Mary-Fifty-one. Come in Doug." Safely past the Brooklyns, Roberts calls a snowplow driver working the north side of the pass.

"Yeah, Jerry, this is Three-Mary-Fourteen. I'm over in Ironton Park on my way up. It's snowing pretty hard. Visibility is pretty poor. See you on the pass."

"I've got a lot of respect for the plow drivers," Jerry says, working the defroster to keep the wipers from icing up completely. "Man, that's a lonely, hateful job. Ninety percent boredom and 10 percent terror."

We can see no more than 70 feet ahead, and the snow in the headlights has that onrushing Star Wars effect. Jerry estimates the snowfall rate at S-plus, forecaster-speak for somewhere around 2 inches an hour. It turns out that the rate the snow falls is an important factor in predicting instability, along with new snow amounts and densities. Wind speed and direction. Temperatures. Weaknesses in the old snow. The pieces of the puzzle come together haltingly, like scraps of a note tossed to you on the wind.

We speed up again underneath Silver Ledge, even though there's a cliff on our right and no guardrail. "Andy lead forecaster Andy Gleason and I have a list of 50 to 60 slides that we worry about...you know what's hanging above you. Which ones could push you off the road and into the canyon."

Roberts, who is 53, has been skiing the San Juans and driving this road for 30 years. "The living highway," he calls it with a thin smile. "This is where we lose NPR. At the Muleshoe turn another slidepath. From here to the top all I can get is this religious station. Then on the north side I can usually pick up an oldies station out of Grand Junction." From the driver's seat out of the dark comes another verse, palliative, better than a sermon: "Jesus talk-radio/late night/forecast ride."

Five-fifty a.m. Still pitch dark. At the top, at 11,018 feet, we can't make out the road edges for the drifted snow. "Wind slab layers/ thick as..."

"...Van Gogh/brush stokes," I contribute to the form.

Jerry pulls over, puts his flashlight between his teeth, flips up his parka hood and sets out for the snow stake in the meadow. While he is gone Doug Follman comes by in the plow, all hissing hydraulics and flashing lights. I climb up the door and we chat for a few minutes over the diesel rumble.

Turns out his uncle lived in the little fruit-growing town where I live now. Passed away just recently. I notice he's wearing his avalanche transceiver over his flannel shirt, something Jerry says the drivers resisted until a few years ago.

Jerry comes back with his waterproof notebook and density tube. "Five inches new at point six inches of water. Add that to the point four we had at midnight, and we've got about an inch of water. I was thinking we'd need an inch and a half to reach critical." Then, "What with the wind and the new snow, I think we oughta pop Blue Point."

To close or not to close the road? There's a natural tension between CDOT, the plow drivers and the forecasters. CDOT needs to keep the road open; 550 is a major north-south corridor. The plow drivers want the work, but they also don't want to die. The snow geeks want to shoot as often as they can to keep the risk down into the future.

"That's every 12-year-old boy's dream," says Jerry, grinning, rolling again. "Working with high explosives and stopping traffic. Standing around telling people what they can't do."

Seven fifty-three a.m. Just light enough to see the Blue Point, which isn't very imposing as slidepaths go. It's only a couple hundred feet high. But it drops unimpeded to the road from multiple start zones, and it's pitch exceeds snow's normal angle of repose. The plow drivers have a saying about Blue Point: "A cloud rolls overhead, and the Blue Point runs." It ran three times in one night during the last storm.

Andy and Jerry confer with the avalauncher crew, which puts six shots into Blue Point and Blue Willow. Three small avalanches pour snow to the centerline. "Kind of disappointing we didn't get a tiger by the tail," Jerry says, his pickup sideways across the road. "That's the Buddhist road patrol. It's kind of like I imagine Vietnam was-no sleep, firefights, an enemy who doesn't always cooperate."

Bud, the cat driver who pushes the debris off the road and over the edge, shouts as we go by: "It'll keep the plank rats happy." Indeed. Jerry's got one more haiku, for the skiers who will follow the plows to the top: "Aaaaah, the turn/I can smell it/in the air."

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