THB, Banditos, Wayward and more confirmed for Cosmic Cocktail!

Colorado avalanche threat strands 3,000

The Baltimore Sun

DENVER -- It was a heck of a drive for a plate of pasta.

Visiting friends in Colorado for the holidays, Mike Watts and his father decided on a whim to take a spin to the mountains for lunch. They made it to a Ruby Tuesday's about 60 miles west of Denver.

Then the winds kicked up.

Twenty-four hours later, they were still stranded.

"It's a mess," groaned Watts, 20, speaking by phone from a shelter in the town of Silverthorne.

Nearly 3,000 travelers were trapped in the high country from early Sunday evening through late yesterday after gusting winds - and the threat of avalanches - forced authorities to close a 70-mile stretch of the Interstate 70 highway.

From about 10 miles west of Denver to the ski resort of Vail, the highway was shut down starting at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, said Mindy Crane, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The section - 60 miles or so - carries as many as 39,000 cars on Sundays this time of year, officials said. I-70 is the main route between Denver and many of the state's major ski resorts.

Stretches began to reopen by yesterday afternoon, and Crane expressed optimism that no one would be forced to spend New Year's Eve in a shelter.

"We'll see phased openings," Crane said, "so we don't have a massive traffic jam."

Blowing snow and low visibility also kept three other mountain passes closed yesterday: U.S. 40 over Berthoud Pass, U.S. 6 over Loveland Pass and U.S. 550 over Red Mountain Pass.

Before I-70 was closed, drivers reported crawling along in white-out conditions, barely able to see the tail lights ahead of them. It took emergency crews eight hours to clear everyone from the treacherous highway and settle them in schools, churches and the recreation center in Silverthorne, a small town near the ski resorts of Vail and Breckenridge.

The American Red Cross brought in blankets and cots. Local businesses donated crates of fruit and sandwiches. Medics circulated with oxygen for travelers afflicted by altitude sickness.

At the recreation center, front-desk clerk Gail Hunt spent the night directing 980 people - and a surprising number of pets - to bunk in the gym, in the yoga room, on the jogging track, even in the lobby. The staff brought in board games ("but not enough," Hunt said) and tried valiantly to keep the bathrooms stocked with toilet paper.

All in all, Hunt said, it was going pretty smoothly.

"The mood hasn't been too negative," agreed Dave King, 19, who had been headed for Denver International Airport to catch a flight to his uncle's wedding when the interstate closed. "People understand the situation. They know they can't do anything about it."

More than two-dozen mountain ravines - known as "avalanche chutes" - had filled with snow by Sunday. With a powerful wind racing through the area, authorities judged the risk of avalanches high.

State road crews typically try to manage the danger by setting off explosives that knock the snow out of the ravines. But yesterday's sustained winds of 50 mph - and gusts up to 70 mph - made such work impossible.

"We have to get a little bit of cooperation from Mother Nature," Crane said.

Stephanie Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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