Avalanche threat strands travelers west of Denver

TUESDAY, JAN. 1, 2008

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 Silverthorne.

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

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

Stretches began to reopen by Monday 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,” she said, “so we don’t have a massive traffic jam.”

Before I-70 was closed, drivers reported crawling along in white-out conditions. 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 town near the resorts of Vail and Breckenridge.

The American Red Cross brought in blankets and cots. 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 heading to Denver International Airport to catch a flight to his uncle’s wedding. “People understand the situation. They know they can’t do anything about it.”


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