About 4:15 p.m. Saturday, CDOT reopened Lizard Head Pass between Telluride and Rico on Colorado Highway 145. About 1:30 p.m. Sunday, CDOT reopened Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain passes on U.S. 550. All the passes had been closed after a weekend storm dumped surprising amounts of snow in the mountains. CDOT also said that snow slides were a problem on U.S. 550.
Tyler Carlson, CDOT maintenance patrol foreman, on said Lizard Head received more than over a foot of snow overnight Friday.
“The heavy snow was a concern because several avalanche paths were coming down naturally. We could not have vehicles driving through the pass under these conditions,” he said. “We’re confident we were able to trigger any additional slides. We then cleared the road and corridor of snow as quickly as possible.”
All three mountain passes on U.S. Highway 550 – Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain – were closed overnight Saturday, according to a news release from spokeswoman Lisa Schwantes, of CDOT’s southwest region.
The 42-mile closure on U.S. 550 began just north of Purgatory Ski Resort at Cascade Creek and continued to Ouray. It was too dangerous for crews to do avalanche mitigation on U.S. Highway 550, Schwantes said Saturday.
Natural snow slides dumped snow on the highway, prompting the closure, she said.
Jeff Colton, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the San Juan Mountains received anywhere from 7 to 20 inches since Friday, with south-facing slopes above 10,000 feet receiving the most amount of snow.
Colton said Lizard Head Pass received 12 inches of new snow, Red Mountain received 13 inches, and Coal Bank and Molas passes receiving about 12 inches.
As of Sunday afternoon, weather stations at Cascade and Molas Lake recorded approximately 180 percent above the normal snowpack of the year-to-date, Spud Mountain recorded 169 percent, and the gauge at Red Mountain Pass recorded 143 percent.
“And there’s still more coming,” Colton said.
He said the current weather pattern is likely to keep dropping precipitation in the high elevations of the San Juan Mountains Sunday night until about mid-day Monday, when it will move out to the Eastern Plains.
The San Juan Mountains were under a winter storm warning through 5 p.m. Saturday, including the towns of Silverton, Rico and Hesperus. Wolf Creek and Cumbres passes also were in the winter storm warning area.
The risk of avalanches should ease in the next few days, said Spencer Logan, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The center has recorded data from 400 avalanches across the state from Jan. 1 through Thursday, he said. This includes those that are triggered by humans and natural.
“We document one in every 10 avalanches that occur,” he said, so it’s mostly a ballpark estimate.
This month, 12 people in Colorado have been caught in avalanches, he said. There were some injuries, but no fatalities.
“Overnight snowfall exceeded the high end of the forecast with heavy snow continuing at this time,” said Ann Mellick, forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “Snowfall rates have reached more than 2 inches per hour. This intense rate has triggered widespread avalanching along the U.S. 550 corridor.”
In Montezuma County, the National Weather Service called for a mix or rain and snow through Monday, and for sunny skies and a high temperature of 40 degrees on Tuesday.