Photo courtesy of CDOT/Dan Bender
This photo from CDOT shows the rock slide area on U.S. 550 about
two miles north of Ouray at the Ruby Walls area.
The longest closure of Red Mountain Pass in decades has put Silverton at the end of a long dead-end road for more than a week, with no end in sight as crews continue to try to stabilize a large rockslide on U.S. 550 two miles south of Ouray.
The closure is putting a huge dent in Silverton’s winter economy, with local merchants reporting that business has ground to a near standstill. But highway officials still have no estimated date for reopening the road.
A contractor for the Colorado Department of Transportation is preparing to anchor 40,000 square feet of wire-cable netting, with help from the Silverton Mountain Ski Area helicopter crew. That work could be under way today.
Some 47 12-foot by 72-foot mesh panels are to be placed on the site, where a football-field sized chunk of rock 25-feet thick disintegrated and collapsed onto the highway and into the Uncompahgre Canyon early last week.
The highway has been closed since the afternoon of Jan. 13.
CDOT officials say the next step will be to look at areas outside the net, particularly on a talus slope to determine a way to safely scale rocks from the precarious heights.
The closure of U.S. 550 between mile marker 90 at Ouray and mile marker 87 in Ironton Park has made the usual 23-mile drive from Silverton to Ouray into a 201-mile trek through Dolores, over Lizard Head Pass and the Dallas Divide.
One of the people most affected by the closure is mail contractor Marv Voehringer, whose normal 121.6-mile route from Montrose to Silverton and back has become a 440-mile haul each day.
“They (highway crews) are doing everything they can and we’re doing everything we can to get it through,” he said Wednesday just before departing Silverton for Montrose.
Voehringer recalled when Silverton was cut off for a couple of weeks in the 1990s by snowslides.
“CDOT flew me in with the mail, bread and cigarettes,” Veohringer said. “That’s what they brought.”
With Silverton’s access to the north cut off, nonlocal U.S. 550 traffic has come to a screeching halt.
Pete Samson, at San Juan Services, the convenience store and gas station on U.S. 550 at the wye, said business is down at least 50 percent.
“Most of our business is drive-through,” Samson said. And that traffic has gone from an average of 2,200 vehicles per day to zero.
Claudia Moe, business manager at San Juan Services, said restaurants, motels and other businesses in town are all suffering.
“It’s really hard on all the businesses,” she said.
Bill MacDougall, owner of the Triangle Auto Repair and the Triangle Motel, also said business is down by about half.
Cindy MacDougall noted that much of their business is from business travelers on their regular routes.
“None of that business is happening now,” she said.
Darlene Watson, who operates the Silverton Grocery with her husband Mark, said the highway closure “really hurts. Especially this last weekend, it was supposed to be a good holiday but it was quiet.”
She was grateful that at least none of the store’s deliveries are affected since those already come up from Durango.
Melissa Gillon at the Lookout Shop on Blair Street said business has been “worse than awful.”
Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce Director Rose Raab said the agency is trying to get the word out that Silverton is still open and informing visitors how to get here.
Silverton old-timer Gerald Swanson recalled when Red Mountain Pass was closed for eight or nine days in the early 1950s, when all the snowslides ran.
Swanson said he only remembers minor rock and mudslides over the years. Never anything like this one in his time.
Jen Brill, co-owner of Silverton Mountain Ski Area, the town’s largest winter employer, said the highway closure “is obviously affecting the community and economy of Silverton.”
Brill said Silverton Mountain approached CDOT last Friday to offer our assistance to help expedite the re-opening.
“On Monday, Jan. 20, we were enlisted by CDOT to rappel off 300-foot cliffs to get to the rockslide worksite this week,” Brill said. “The Silverton Mountain helicopter will fly in rock netting and place them on a 40-degree slope above the highway at the toe of the 300-foot cliff.”
Brill said the location is exposed above a second cliff face another 600 feet feet above the highway.
Silverton Mountain will also be assisting in explosives work on the cliffs.
“The daunting location has proven to be a challenge so far,” Brill said, “and since Silverton Mountain’s staff is uniquely experienced in severe mountain terrain and alongside helicopters they were asked to assist. Silverton Mountain has several of their guides working on the unstable slope to help drill and place the rock nets.
“The Silverton Mountain team is accustomed to these types of exposures so we are hoping this familiarity will assist CDOT in getting the road open as quickly as possible at this stage.”