The Colorado Department of Transportation is looking to add another weapon to their arsenal of avalanche control mechanisms for Berthoud Pass in the form of an automated, fixed-avalanche control system in the Stanley Slide area, the largest slide path on Berthoud Pass.
"We're excited about moving the department and its avalanche mitigation program into the 21st century," said Peter Kozinski, a project engineer for CDOT, who is the main driving factor behind the project for the Stanley Slide area.
The pilot project would be used to test the viability of automatic avalanche systems in Colorado and if it succeeds, could lead to more systems being installed in other areas on Berthoud Pass as well as throughout the state, according to Kozinski.
The approval process for the project began on Saturday, Dec. 1, with a public meeting at the Winter Park Town Hall, during which the project's proponents accepted comments and questions about the project from members of the public after they made a presentation about the automated system.
The next hurdle the project must overcome to become a reality is approval by the U.S. Forest Service, which will conduct an environmental review of the plan. If the plan is approved by the Forest Service, the devices could be in place by the winter of 2014-15.
The automated system would be made up of five, fixed devices in the Stanley path, similar to Gazex systems that are being successfully used in three Western states and throughout Europe.
Gazex systems use a mixture of propane and oxygen, which is ignited in the bottom of a galvanized steel tube that is around 12 feet long with an elbow at its end that points toward the snow. The explosion is remotely detonated to create a shockwave that initiates an avalanche.
While the system is controlled remotely, CDOT would not change the procedure they use when employing explosives to mitigate avalanches. CDOT takes a number of pre-avalanche mitigation steps to ensure that members of the public, including motorists and backcountry travelers, remain safe.
CDOT first checks the pass for any parked cars and attempts to make contact with the owners of the vehicles by working with the Colorado State Patrol. They then visually inspect the area to make sure there are no backcountry travelers before they proceed to start a slide.
Using an automated system on Berthoud pass would allow CDOT to trigger slides more frequently, thereby making the slides less intense than in the past, which in theory could reduce road closures on Berthoud Pass.
"We may be in a situation where we never have an avalanche reach the road," Kozinski said.
While the Stanley Slide isn't the only avalanche path on Berthoud Pass, it is the largest, according to Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
In January 2011 a large storm hit the pass and prompted Colorado Avalanche Information Center officials to suggest closing the pass due to avalanche danger. CDOT closed the pass based on the recommendation and began clearing cars off of the pass.
Within 45 minutes of clearing all of the vehicles from the pass an avalanche in the Stanley Slide area let go on its own, said Ray Mumford, an avalanche weapons trainer for CDOT and a proponent of the project.
After CDOT had cleared the first slide another natural slide followed. The two slides caused the pass to be closed for more than two days.
In the past, CDOT has looked into other forms of fixed avalanche mitigation such as snow sheds over the road and snow fences that would have lined the ridges around the Stanley Slide area. Those plans did not work well with this slide path for various reasons, Greene said.