"This is definitely the let’s-get-the-fuck-out-of-here section."
January 22, 2018 11:45 AM   Subscribe

Keep Your Hands on the Wheel and Don't Look Down, an Outside Magazine writer rides with the snowplow drivers on Colorado's infamous Highway 550.
posted by jessamyn (51 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Drove that a couple of years ago in summer. Fairly sketchy even then...
posted by Windopaene at 11:49 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

$3000-$4000 a month for X months of the year. Keep in mind, that is their busy season. That is peak pay (oooh an incidental pun!). I wonder what they do during the off months and how close to hand to mouth those guys have to live.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:59 AM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yeah one of the things that struck me is that is not very much money. I mean I know how tiny town budgets work and it's probably a lot for the town to pay but MAN, yeah I wonder.
posted by jessamyn at 12:00 PM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

idk why it never occurred to me that avalanche prevention could include shooting big guns at the snow, how american.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:05 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Blasting and shooting shells to control avalanches is something done in Europe too?
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:10 PM on January 22, 2018 [17 favorites]

idk why it never occurred to me that avalanche prevention could include shooting big guns at the snow, how american.

Or Canadian.

Probably more fun than helicoptering up there and planting the dynamite by hand.
posted by madajb at 12:22 PM on January 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

There's a nice hike up Parker Ridge just off the Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Lake Louise that features this fun warning sign.
posted by figurant at 12:23 PM on January 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

idk why it never occurred to me that avalanche prevention could include shooting big guns at the snow, how american.

Been too many years but I would swear that I saw the same thing (but with mortars) being used by officials/crews in the Swiss Alps too.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:30 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is an hour or so from my house! I've driven it snowstorms, and it's a bit thrilling then. The worst is being on the outside of turns with oncoming traffic - you're completely at the mercy of the nut behind the other wheel.

Ouray is my favorite little town in Colorado. It gets its name from the Ute Chief who was a big part of the history of the area. It is just stunningly scenic and cozy.

C.W. McCall - who wrote Convoy (which became a movie) was mayor for a few years. He wrote a few songs about passes in that area - Wolfcreek Pass, way up on The Great Divide, and Black Bear Road - which runs 18 miles from Ouray to Telluride (its otherwise ~75 miles by pavement). The other way there is is Imogene Pass, which at 13,114 feet elevation is one of the highest passes you can drive over in the United States. He also wrote about the narrow gauge coal train you can ride between Silverton and Durango.

Telluride, and to a lesser extent Ridgway and Ouray are home to multi-million dollar houses and ranches. The bifurcation between the .01% and the rest of humanity couldn't possibly be more apparent. 3k/mo is a really decent salary for the area. It's that tourism that really drives the economy - and that is built on the back of a thousand ski and rafting bums willing to work for literal peanuts. Events like the Hard Rock 100, FJ Cruiser Summit, and Jeep Jamboree bring in tons of people and are fun, if you are into those things.

The remoteness and relative poverty aside - the area is amazingly astoundingly beautiful. I spent two weeks backpacking there - including a stretch of the Colorado Trail from Silverton to Durango (and rode the train back) last summer. I can't wait for next year.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:31 PM on January 22, 2018 [25 favorites]

I only ever saw helicopter stuff in the Alps but really they should be using medieval siege weaponry for maximum entertainment value.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:32 PM on January 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

The pay may not be great, but I'm sure it comes with full medical coverage and a pension. There's also a chance that he will be able to retire "early", as the job might be considered "high risk".
posted by Brocktoon at 12:34 PM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I drive this road as often as I can (for a Missourian). Mostly during warmer months, but this photo starts a series taken up on 550 last May.

Late May, and they were still plowing.
posted by notsnot at 12:38 PM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have a wonderful book about this that I picked up in either Silverton or Ouray. It's called "Living (and dying) in Avalanche Country" and it has a great map of all the named runs.
posted by barchan at 12:50 PM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

What a terrific piece!
Klein dropped 60 feet before the truck’s cab crumpled around his body with a ­sickening metallic crunch, his Mack coming to rest upside down on the road. A lower switchback had caught him, nearly killed him, and saved his life, all at once. Bruised but otherwise uninjured, he tried to kick through the windshield. Ten long minutes later, when a car stopped nearby, he was still kicking. His rescuers were absolutely hammered— knocking back beers, aimlessly touring the storm—but their drunken hearts were in the right place. They bashed the glass, pulled Klein free, and stuffed him in among the dozens of empties in their back seat.
Great post.
posted by languagehat at 12:51 PM on January 22, 2018 [15 favorites]

I wonder what they do during the off months and how close to hand to mouth those guys have to live.

on a completely wild tangent, there's a local artisanal popsicle distributor here in Atlanta that transitions their fleet of popsicle-cart-lugging trucks into Xmas-Tree-lugging trucks in their off-season. found this out via a Tinder date :3
posted by runt at 12:51 PM on January 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

I had a relative who owned a house in Ouray that he let us vacation at so I’ve driven 550 quite a lot. It is certainly interesting when you are on the outside lane (opposite the lane next to the mountain) and you wind around a switchback to see a large truck or RV over the center line passing cyclists. And when you are the mt. side lane, there are plenty of drivers who; like the article states, “favor the mountain” and are spooked that they will plunge off the cliff and are driving down the middle of the road.

So it can be nerve wracking on certain stretches in the Summer. I wouldn’t even try if it were snowy and icy. I remember that they also were plowing certain jeep trails up in the mountains and one of the bulldozers had slipped sideways a bit down the mt. Yikes.

That said, Ouray is one of the most beautiful areas in the west (“the Switzerland of America”) with great views, charming old Victorian buildings and a great hot springs. A nice historical book about Ouray written in the late 1880’s; In the San Juans Sketches by Rev. J. J. Gibbons, recounts how he had to cross over the Red Mt. Pass on horseback to give Mass in Silverton after he had done so in Ouray on Christmas Day.
posted by jabo at 12:57 PM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is this the new self-driving-vehicle-machine-learning-doomsday-capitalism-no-longer-needing-humans thread?
posted by runcifex at 1:02 PM on January 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

idk why it never occurred to me that avalanche prevention could include shooting big guns at the snow, how american.

I once met a mountain guide whose summer job was guiding people up Mt. Rainier and whose winter job was firing Howitzers to set off avalanches in Utah. Dude was dirt poor but I envy him to this day.
posted by bondcliff at 1:02 PM on January 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

The Million Dollar Highway stretch of 550 was always my favorite part of road trips as a kid (i.e. when I wasn't the one driving it and could just enjoy the gorgeous views.)
posted by Navelgazer at 1:05 PM on January 22, 2018

idk why it never occurred to me that avalanche prevention could include shooting big guns at the snow, how american.

How Alaskan: “Juneau Levels Guns at Mount Roberts – Heavy howitzer artillery shells are used to rid city of unexpected slides.”

Here is a Google search for misc. photos of the area including avalanches in progress.
posted by D.C. at 1:23 PM on January 22, 2018

The San Juan Mountains average 349 inches of snow annually, and much of it falls twice: first from the sky, then from the crests and headwalls where it tries, and fails, to cling. Seventy named avalanche paths intersect Highway 550 in the 23 miles between Ouray and Silverton, the town on the south side of the pass that serves as a base for another of CDOT’s 200 patrols across the state. The infamous East Riverside slide can dump 50 feet of concrete-thick debris and has taken the lives of three plowmen—in 1970, 1978, and 1992—as well as a preacher and his two daughters in 1963, and two men and most of their team of mules in 1883. Since 1935, when the first attempts to keep the road open through winter were made, dozens of people have perished trying to get across, though an exact number is impossible to tally.

The threats are numerous: soaring cliffs, towers of brittle ice, 8 percent grades, unexpected doglegs. I spoke with Klein over the phone, and he explained that the lower portion of the road is literally chiseled into the vertical rock of the Uncom­pahgre Gorge—a narrow geologic throat 1,000 feet deep in places. The upper portion, beyond Ironton Park, traverses subalpine slopes largely scoured of trees. We talked for 15 minutes and he used the word respect often enough that I lost count. He also exuded a kind of pure, almost childlike enthusiasm for the elemental power of the range, the clarity of purpose his job engenders, and what he called his “Tonka truck.”
This is a wonderfully crafted essay that provides a wonderfully strong sense of just how dangerous their jobs are. My jaw kept dropping open. 349" of snow! That's 30 FEET. Holy cow.

I watch Ice Road Truckers every once in a while. It's a reality show on the History channel that follows several truck drivers as they navigate "ice roads," which are created on frozen lakes between land masses in the far north for short periods of time during the winter months. The truckers have a brief window in which they can carry supplies to towns and research stations that are otherwise cut off from ground traffic for part of the year. To get there, they drive on lakes that have frozen over.

The show is a little melodramatic and the drivers are characters. But the work is treacherous. Driving a fully loaded 18-wheel truck over a frozen lake is quite dangerous. The trucks need to keep their speeds low so they don't set up a pressure wave in the liquid under the ice, which could then crack the surface. And if their tires go through, they may be forced to leap from their truck or be killed as it goes under.

Ice and snow. Deadly and dangerous.
posted by zarq at 1:32 PM on January 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

"Brute origami comes to mind, as though a trillion postcards of sublime scenery have been folded and refolded into an orogenic Frankenstein."

Now, *that*'s fuckin' poetry!
posted by notsnot at 1:39 PM on January 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Also, Tioga Pass on the east side of Yosemite.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:39 PM on January 22, 2018

I grew up a few hours away and we spent a lot of time in Ouray. A family friend there was a part-time EMT for many years, and every time I drive Red Mountain, I can’t help but remember some of his more -colorful- stories about terrible accidents on that road.
posted by heurtebise at 1:48 PM on January 22, 2018

I've never gotten a clear, simple answer on this. I have never been skiing. People who go to Vail, Telluride, etc., in the winter to ski... do you often miss flights due to weather/road conditions? The whole damn point of going there is that it's gonna snow a lot. And the airport has to be um... not close? to the ski resorts?

It seems like a really risky vacation to schedule. But I guess that's why it's mostly wealthy white folks.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 1:48 PM on January 22, 2018

Jeff-o-matic, I went skiing - once - with college "friends". Flew to Denver, then drove the couple hours up to Vail in a four-wheel drive.
posted by notsnot at 1:53 PM on January 22, 2018

Riding or driving in a car any mountains, I have discovered, is a recipe for sweaty panic attacks. If I'm riding, my husband says "Wow look at that!" and I shriek EYES ON THE ROAD!!!! and if I'm driving and he talks about the scenery I snarl at him for distracting me, because one slip and down the mountain we go. There is no possible way for me to enjoy a drive on mountain roads, in other words.

And 3-4k a month is pitiful for this kind of work, even if you have nerves of steel and like the view.
posted by emjaybee at 2:03 PM on January 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

People who go to Vail, Telluride, etc., in the winter to ski... do you often miss flights due to weather/road conditions?

In Telluride, those who can fly into the airport on a charter or private flight - the town has an airport right there. It is well maintained, which is no surprise given the clientele*. Montrose has a regional airport with service to SLC and DIA, and is an hour or so from Telluride - and except for Dallas Pass (~9500 feet) isn't likely to be impassable.

Vail sees more people from Denver/DIA and both Vail Pass and Eisenhower Tunnel are likely to be parking lots in weather. Often, chain laws are in effect, further slowing things. There is a regional airport in (downhill, to the west) Eagle, and I feel like many use that to connect to flights at DIA instead of fighting through I70.

But road closures due to weather or rockslides are common. CDOT has an app and you should plan accordingly.

* I once, literally, ran into Alec Baldwin in Telluride. Got my drink, turned around, and boom. Didn't recognize him at first (He's shorter in person than you think!) I kinda smiled and apologized and that was that. My dog wasn't impressed when I pointed him out.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:03 PM on January 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

There isn't really a clear simple answer for it.

Most people who plan trips to the mountains in the winter do so far enough in advance that they have no knowledge of the storms for their trip -- e.g. "it's October 15th, whats the weather going to be like on MLK day weekend? who knows" Most mountains, even if it hasn't snowed for some time will have enough snow on them to keep tourists happy.

People who ski more frequently will usually live closer to the mountains and will time their visits with the storms, either heading up before the storm and camping in an RV, or having a car equipped with AWD, snow tires, chains. These people generally expect travel delays, and factor accordingly. Cars and trucks these days with snow tires and AWD or 4WD can tackle some surprising weather without too much issue, especially because it's not usually snow that causes driving issues but rather ice, and if it stays cold (which it tends to do on mountains in the winter) you don't have a lot of the freeze-thaw or freezing rain conditions you need to create ice.

It also varies largely based on the storm and mountain. In the PNW for example, there can be only a 10 mile drive that separates a bare ground from 3m of snow. On top of that, the snow fall can vary in type -- some mountains get dumped on ~one a week with feet of snow while others get a few inches every day.

Finally, in ski towns the ski hill is usually a huge driver for the local economy. This will mean that some ski hills will have almost dedicated plow equipment that is owned and operated by the local govnt (usually with a close relationship to with the ski hill) in addition to whatever plow resources the ski hill themselves have.

So yeah, people definitely endure delays to ski, but there are a lot of resources invested into minimizing and managing this.
posted by yeahwhatever at 2:06 PM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I wonder what they do during the off months and how close to hand to mouth those guys have to live.

As it says in the article, they do road maintenance. Those operators are full-time CDOT employees, so they make enough to live a solid, middle-class existence. Which is the way it should be.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 2:07 PM on January 22, 2018 [9 favorites]

the poorly named "Highway Through Hell" which streams on Netflix is a must-watch for heavy-equipment-in-snow fans. Big-rig tow trucks in the mountains just west of Vancouver. Canadian-tastic!
posted by genmonster at 2:23 PM on January 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Make sure you spell it THRU or you will never find it. Added it to my list, thank you!
posted by jessamyn at 2:37 PM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I guess I'm jaded because I didn't think highway 550 is that bad? Sure it's steep and windy and gets closed by avalanches but isn't that what roads are like in the mountains? I'd say driving in Boston is way more scary.

Not at all trying to be dismissive, just thinking out loud about my mental classification of roads.
posted by medusa at 3:04 PM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Filmed in British Columbia. Not available on Canadian Netflix. Surprise. Surprise. Surprise.
posted by kaymac at 3:05 PM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

I rode my bicycle over this pass to Silverton in 1986, right after Labor Day. I really wanted to complete that leg of the trip, but about 8-10 miles from the summit it started to rain, then thunder, then hail. At 3/4 mile from the summit two guys in a pickup offered me a ride into Silverton. I was never more grateful for shelter from a storm, as the lightening was a little too close for me.
The next day I did ride Molas and Coal Bank passes (mentioned in TFA) on in to Durango.
On my way from Durango to Dolores, just after stopping for lunch in Mancos, I was in the nastiest, biggest thunderstorm I've personally seen. I rode for over two hours in driving rain/wind, with ditches filling up next to me, dips in the road where the water was past the bottom bracket of the bike, and no where for shelter.
Spent two days in a motel warming up/drying out my clothes (mostly wool, in those days) before tackling Lizard Head - the day after a snowstorm. Cold, but it was clear!
posted by dbmcd at 3:41 PM on January 22, 2018 [13 favorites]

As it says in the article, they do road maintenance. Those operators are full-time CDOT employees, so they make enough to live a solid, middle-class existence. Which is the way it should be.

They are also getting overtime for all those extra hours in the winter, which would bring up the base pay nicely.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:50 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wish I were brave enough to do something like this. Alas I nearly pissed myself on some of the roads in Colorado. Granted, they were dirt and only half as wide as a highway, but still. No guardrails, sheer drop offs, etc. I was so, so grateful to get where I was going before dark.
posted by AFABulous at 5:58 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

"I wonder what they do during the off months and how close to hand to mouth those guys have to live."

Around here, a lot of guys drive plows in the winter and work HVAC in the summer. HVAC lays off guys in the winter because the bulk of furnace work occurs in fall when people first turn their furnaces on, before the snow flies, so there's not enough work for a whole team over the winter. Summer has higher demand because a) there's a lot more installs and b) A/Cs break much more often. Both of the jobs pay pretty well for blue collar work, and a lot of the guys own their house and a second hunting property out in the country.

Other guys hire on with landscapers for the summer, or with IDOT road crews, or construction (which slows down in the winter). Others work public works (or for IDOT) year round and so in the summer are hauling mulch for parks or patching potholes or paving highways or whatever.

And yeah -- since plowing is unpredictable and often overnight and sometimes overtime, there's pretty good extra pay.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:24 PM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I guess I'm jaded because I didn't think highway 550 is that bad? Sure it's steep and windy and gets closed by avalanches but isn't that what roads are like in the mountains?

I'm with you on this one. Drops don't bother me as long as conditions are such you can see where the road is and the road is at least as wide as the car. Sure, you gotta pay attention, but I try to always do that when driving anyway.

I still wouldn't want to be a plow operator in whiteout conditions, mind you, but as a normal driver in reasonable conditions (not in the middle of a severe snowstorm) it's just nicer scenery to me.
posted by wierdo at 6:36 PM on January 22, 2018

Oooh I have a 550 story.

I grew up a few hundred miles from Durango. As a member of the high school speech & debate team, once or twice a year we'd go to Durango (via 550) for a big debate meet. One year the meet ran late, so by the time we were leaving it was already dark and snow was starting to fall. Knowing how hazardous Red Mountain Pass gets, my coach and the bus driver dithered for a bit about whether to try to make it home that night -- but we didn't have money for hotel rooms for another night for 30+ high school kids, we all wanted to get home to our families -- especially my coach -- and the bus driver was very experienced and steady and said he could do it. So we set off.

At first it was pretty normal for a nighttime debate team bus ride: we all chatted and snoozed and did stupid teenager things. But by the time it was midnight or so, the snow was falling heavily and the bus was just inching up the pass. We were all pretty experienced with these roads and it was pretty obvious to all of us that if the driver could have turned around he would have: it was super icy, visibility was very low, and the open space next to us was just an open chasm of freezing blackness. But there was no way to go back, so the only way out was through. The bus was dead silent, but it wasn't the silence of sleeping, happy kids -- it was an alert, on-edge silence, as we all sat stiffly, unable to sleep and hardly daring to make a peep lest we disturb the drivers' concentration. And so we climbed.

Then at about 1am, we turned a curve and there it was: a large semi jackknifed across the road right in front of us. I was sitting towards the front of the bus so I saw the whole thing. The driver reacted turned the wheel but hit a patch of black ice, so the back of the bus began to slide towards the edge. It felt like it took forever and I had some Cranberries song in my head and I remember thinking "I'm going to die with this stupid song in my head" -- and then the driver managed to regain control and turned the bus so we slid into the mountain instead.

We all let out our breaths in a giant collective whoosh, and the driver just sat there for like a minute with his hands clenched on the wheel, not looking at us. Then low-level chatter: "Wow, did you see that?!" "I swear I felt the back wheel go over the edge!" "That was sooo cool!" and we realised we were still in a predicament. The bus was well stuck, edged in behind this semi and slammed into the side of the mountain, and we were on Red Mountain Pass in the middle of a blinding snowstorm at 1am.

My coach got us all to gather our important belongings and all our warm clothes (which we had a lot: again, we were pretty experienced with this weather) and we began to trudge down the mountain. At 1am under these conditions it was pretty deserted and we barely saw any cars, and when we did, we'd all scurry to hug the mountain. After about an hour maybe(?) we found a house (or restaurant or something, I don't quite remember) and sat there nursing warm beverages until the school district sent a new bus the next morning and we got home.

As a teenager, except for those 30 near-death seconds I thought the whole thing was an exciting adventure. I remember returning home bubbling with excitement about the awesome story I had to tell, and the blithe assurance I had throughout most of it that it was all of course going to be okay. Now, twenty years later and as a parent myself, I can't help but marvel. That bus driver and my coach must have died a thousand deaths on that trip. And what must it have been like for my parents, sitting there that night as it reached 4am.. 5am... knowing we were traveling Red Mountain and supposed to be home hours ago, with no way (pre-cell-phone) of finding out what had happened.

Wow. They were made of pretty stern stuff, as are the people who still do that daily.
posted by forza at 6:38 PM on January 22, 2018 [34 favorites]

That's one thing I really hate about high mountain passes. The weather can turn very quickly on a good day and even faster on a bad one.
posted by wierdo at 7:19 PM on January 22, 2018

*clenching intensifies*
posted by lalochezia at 8:06 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Million Dollar Highway isn't the area's most knuckle whitening drive. Here's a video of a jeep ride on Black Bear Road which starts at Red Mt. Pass, goes over the higher Black Bear Pass and down to Telluride.
posted by jabo at 9:08 PM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

As it says in the article, they do road maintenance. Those operators are full-time CDOT employees, so they make enough to live a solid, middle-class existence. Which is the way it should be.

up to $4k/month + 10% bonus = around $50,000 / year starting, so yeah not horrible if living expenses in the area are reasonable.

Not that I would do it for that price or at literally any price. I wouldn't have gone of the ride along either. I don't like driving along ridges in perfect weather, doing this voluntarily seems insane.
posted by mark k at 10:07 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is there a map of all these crazy mountain routes that people who afraid of heights should never ever drive? I just realized I need that list. I do not want to be near these roads ever accidently. (i’m actually planning a couple long road trips and this is a legit fear.) Speaking of BC roads above, i distinctly remember crying and freaking out as a kid when my dad first drove the newly-opened Coquihalla. As an adult I can drive that now in the summer (you couldn’t pay me to do it in the winter), but that’s the limits of my tolerances.
posted by cgg at 10:10 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Alas I nearly pissed myself on some of the roads in Colorado.

My wife used to be pretty scared to drive some roads, but with time and practice she's gotten a lot more confident. She even downshifts like a pro on the long downhills and climbs now.

Come back out! We'll take my truck to Moab for fun and skidplate gouges!
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:13 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Durango, when it had three hardware stores (Federal, Boker, and... ah, Red Barn?), one supermarket and a combination trophy/jewelry/ski/tennis shop (as all small towns of a certain size should). We used to see who could get to Ouray the fastest, but were still passed by locals and sometimes City Market trucks that did the daily from Grand Junction. Once in a while, on Red Mountain, you would come around a curve to a motorhome paralyzed in the middle of the road, and just have to kind of... edge around it. Give a smile and a wave, maybe ask if they needed help. I would ride my little truck up Coal Bank pass at midnight and watch the snow come down, or lay in the back watching the Milky Way until the silence overwhelmed me and I had to retreat.

Thanks for the article, it's good to remember.
posted by cowcowgrasstree at 6:10 AM on January 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

That was a great read.

On the topic of explosives, the idea is to trigger avalanches in a controlled fashioned i.e. at a time and place of your choosing rather than waiting for mother nature. The control people take care to close the road in the snow's slide path and then do their work. As other mentioned, europeans also use canons to fire shells but in the case of Alta Ski Resort in Utah, not everyone is happy with having howitzers shooting off near people. Of course shooting from below is easier since that is where the people are. To deliver charges without a canon, you either need to drop them from a helicopter (which is expensive) or you need to get people up to the top of the mountain. This is ok in the cases where there are ski lifts that can get people up there but there are lots more slide paths than there are ski lifts. You also have the downside that many back country enthusiasts want to limit the number of ski lifts. Once at the top, the patrollers either throw hand charges (essentially hand grenades) or use systems of wires and pulleys to position explosives over the slide path for detonation. The downside to this approach is you have people in the wilderness handling dangerous explosives. In recent years there has been a move to install Gazex installations on the mountain. These things are remotely triggered and deliver a giant blast of compressed air that triggers the avalanche. The downside of these is that they are a not insignificant capital expense.

As for snow travel delays, I've been flying west once or twice a year in the winter for the last ~15 years and have only been significantly delayed once and that was because an East Coast major snow storm totally shutdown everything. The major airports such as Denver and Salt Lake City are huge and located in flat plains. Sure they close temporarily when they get too much snow but they have dedicated plows to get the runways and roads clear. For the ski resorts in Colorado that are in the Interstate 70 corridor, there can be delays in passage due to avalanche control work but likewise there is a ton of resources dedicated to keep that road open. Without I-70 open, there is a tremendous chunk of Western Colorado and Eastern Utah that is cut off the Eastern side of the continental divide. Of course there are I-80 and I-40 but that would require detours of hundreds of miles and they too are subject to avalanches and snow.

For some resorts there is essentially no major elevation change between the airport and the base of skiing operations. This is especially true of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Aspen where the mountain base and the airport are located in essentially the same valley floor. The major resorts in Salt Lake City are accessible by major highways or relatively short trips up into a canyon that are plowed and controlled religiously. In the cases where the resort is a little further a field, it can be a problem. Steamboat Springs in Colorado is only accessible by the majority of visitors via Rabbit Ears Pass. At night it is remote, dark and intimidating. I was last on it 3 years ago and I remember not having much radio or cell coverage. It wasn't for the faint of heart.

You can see delays at smaller airports that may not have capacity to keep up with the snow fall. The end result is usually get diverted to an airport near by and then bussed to your final destination. Knock on wood that has never happened.
posted by mmascolino at 9:15 AM on January 23, 2018

So, if they’re just shoving the snow off the side of the cliff, do they end up plowing the same snow multiple times as they go down the switchbacks?

(Not for all the money in the world. That’s a hard Nope for me.)
posted by Weeping_angel at 12:07 PM on January 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

My wasbund, who grew up in Colorado (but doesn't ski, go figure) used to regale me with stories of how he and his pals would get drunk and drive from Denver to Aspen over Independence Pass at night, and hang out at the Little Nell, a dive bar that has been replaced by the Little Nell five-star hotel. Naturally, this wasn't in winter, when the pass is closed, but that pass is scary enough in the daylight. Where the road narrows, the center yellow line is painted about half the normal width. When you live here, though, you get used to driving mountain passes. I just watch the road and banish all thoughts of going over the edge.

Here's Wikipedia's entry on Colorado mountain passes.
posted by caryatid at 11:28 AM on January 25, 2018

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