Photos: Red Mountain Pass finally reopens, but rock slide fix only temporary

Update: Over the course of the past few weeks, we've told you about the efforts to reopen Red Mountain Pass, which has been closed to unfettered traffic since January 12, when falling rocks smashed onto Highway 550 south of Ouray, with others on the cliff side dangerously close to following suit. (See our previous coverage below.) At 8:30 p.m. last night, however, the road finally reopened, albeit to single lane, alternating traffic. See photos and get more information about the repair work and the continuing need for a long-term fix below.

In the days after our previous update, published on February 4, the Colorado Department of Transportation (which provided the photos and accompanying captions below) worked on installing rockfall fencing along the highway. The fencing was intended as a second safeguard for drivers, supplementing a series of nets that were stretched over the cliff in a helicopter-assisted engineering feat made even more challenging by weather conditions that didn't always cooperate.

After six of ten fence posts called for in the safety plan were installed on Thursday, February 6, Greg Stacy, CDOT's deputy superintendent for the Durango maintenance section, was upbeat about finishing the task soon. A few days earlier, officials had started to allow some traffic to go through, but only during a pair of two-hour blocks in the morning and evening. But in a statement, Stacy said, "Our target opening is Friday night if everything goes extremely well." It didn't, unfortunately. Delays pushed into and through the weekend. But late Monday came the following blast, spelled out, appropriately enough, in all capital letters: "RED MOUNTAIN PASS IS OPEN AS OF 8:30 P.M. TONIGHT!" That's not the end of CDOT's Red Mountain Pass mission. As noted by the department, "The on-road fencing will serve as an additional temporary safeguard in this still slide-prone area until a more permanent solution can be implemented."

In other words, additional work will be needed in order to move from single, alternating lane traffic to a complete return to normalcy. Meanwhile, however, the workers on this incredible project deserve credit for finally ending one of the longest Colorado highway closures in recent memory.

Continue to see our previous coverage of the efforts to reopen Red Mountain Pass, including photos and videos. Update, 8:50 a.m. February 4: On January 12, when rocks first started falling on U.S. Highway 550 south of Ouray, personnel with the Colorado Department of Transportation probably would never have guessed they'd still be trying to solve the problem the better part of a month later; see our previous coverage below. But at this writing, travel over busy Red Mountain Pass remains extremely difficult and intermittent as crews work to secure the hillside. The good news: If weather permits (and that's a big if), a temporary fix could be in place by week's end, with a potential reopening to follow. We've got the latest in photos and video below.

Last Friday, according to CDOT, crews had made sufficient progress installing a series of nets on the cliff to allow traffic to use the highway on an alternating-lanes basis, but only during two brief periods per day: 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, workers toiled at seemingly impossible angles, as shown in CDOT photos from the scene, featuring department captions.

The weather hasn't always been ideal, either. Yet the latest CDOT dispatch notes that the team on the ground and in the air (helicopters have been key throughout the process) are making what's termed good progress toward accomplishing the latest task: the installation of fencing.

There's a lot of the latter: The dimensions are 360 feet in length and 24 feet high. Nonetheless, it's described as only a stopgap solution, intended to get people in the area safely moving again while engineers and planners come up with a way to prevent rockfalls more permanently.

Should the weather cooperate and no additional difficulties crop up (avalanche risk is being regularly monitored in the work zone), CDOT reps estimate that the fencing could be in place as early as Friday. Once it is, the roadway should be reopened 24/7. Here are three videos from the scene, featuring Red Mountain Pass workers laying out netting carried by chopper. The clips are followed by our previous coverage, replete with lots more visuals of this daunting project.

Continue for our previous coverage of the Red Mountain Pass closure, including additional photos and videos. Update, 9:58 a.m. January 24: Earlier this week, we shared photos and videos of the efforts to reopen U.S. Highway 550 over Red Mountain Pass after a rock slab the size of a football field tumbled from a nearby cliff; see our previous coverage below. It's been nearly two weeks since the closure was put in place, and the Colorado Department of Transportation reveals that it'll remain off-limits at least through the weekend, and perhaps longer. Here are the latest details, including new photos.

According to CDOT, personnel made progress yesterday scaling more loose rock from an entire field of the stuff and drilling rock anchors to hold netting in place that's intended to restrain more stones from falling.

As we noted in our previous coverage, at least 46 nets are expected to be installed, with helicopters used to hoist them and workers on the cliffs to secure them in place. Not only will crew members be located high above the roadway, but they're have to do their jobs at severe angles, convincing us that whatever they're paid, it's not nearly enough.

No date for the closure's end has been announced, but CDOT staffers expect the work to continue through the weekend.

Here are the most recent pics from the scene, featuring CDOT captions. They're followed by our earlier report.

Continue to see our previous coverage of efforts to reopen Red Mountain Pass, including additional photos and videos. Original post, 8:50 a.m. January 22: Beginning on January 12 (and likely due to unseasonably warm temperatures), rocks began falling on U.S. Highway 550 south of Ouray -- and ongoing slides, or the risk of them, has kept the roadway shut down over Red Mountain Pass since then. It's one of the longest closures of the highway in recent memory, and the folks at Silverton Mountain admit that it's having a serious effect on the ski area and its home community. That's why resort personnel are assisting the Colorado Department of Transportation in an attempt to secure the hillside. Look below to see photos, videos and details about this Herculean effort.

Here's a Transportation Department photo of the area, complete with graphics showing the slide zone and the spots from which personnel are toiling to make it safe. The caption on the image below, along with the other pics shared here, features text from CDOT.

This photo is the earliest in CDOT's Highway 550 gallery.... ...and here's the most recent, co-starring some curious onlookers: Accompanying this image on CDOT's Facebook page is this update from Monday:
US 550 over Red Mountain Pass remains closed and there is currently no ETA for reopening. Technical climbers helped crews rig a ropes path from the top of the slope down to the highway. Crews will continue removing loose rocks and if all goes well, a helicopter will drop netting, possibly tomorrow, and crews can begin to bring down larger boulders below the field. We got a visit today from these guys, who don't seem to care that the road is closed!
Additionally, Silverton Mountain personnel have been enlisted by CDOT to help place an estimated 46 nets over unstable portions of the hillside, on a cliff face approximately 600 feet over the roadway. A helicopter is doing much of the heavy lifting, but assisting on the ground is a crew that has to rappel off 300-foot cliffs in order to get in place. The angle's estimated at 40 degrees -- and to add more difficulty, blasting work must be done at the site as well.

Continue to see more photos and two videos of the rock slide area and the efforts to get U.S. Highway 550 over Red Mountain Pass reopened. Here are more photos of the area, presented in chronological order. The captions feature text from CDOT.

Continue to see more photos and two videos of the rock slide area and the efforts to get U.S. Highway 550 over Red Mountain Pass reopened. See two more CDOT photos: And here are two videos, courtesy of Silverton Mountain.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our News archive circa January 8: "Photos: Tony Seibert, Vail Mountain founder's grandson, dies in avalanche near ski area."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts