DENVER (eTN) – Wind-whipped snow and avalanche danger kept the main highway through the Colorado mountains closed on Monday, stranding thousands of travelers as they headed to New Year’s Eve celebrations.
About 35 miles of I-70 remained closed in both directions west of Denver. Officials were waiting for 70-mph gusts to die so they could bring down potential avalanches with explosives before opening the entire route.
“I’ve got some (champagne) in the car, but it’s probably frozen by now,” said Ken Simons of Grand Junction. He and his wife were trying to get to Denver for New Year’s when the road closure forced them and more than 2,000 others to spend Sunday night in shelters.
With no definite word on when they could hit the road again, some contemplated the prospect of ringing in 2008 on a cot in a school gymnasium.
Liquor stores did a brisk business.
“We’ve definitely seen a rush,” said John Will of Antler’s Discount Liquor in Frisco. “People are coming in complaining that they are stuck here, or that it takes two hours to get to (Breckenridge) when it normally takes five minutes.”
Leaha Widrowicz was trying to get back to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her boyfriend and his mother after a skiing trip but had to spend the night in Frisco, missing their midnight flight from Denver International Airport.
“We’re not even thinking of New Year’s right now,” Widrowicz said. “We are just trying to get home to family.”
High winds piled deep snow into more than two dozen narrow ravines in the mountainsides – known as avalanche chutes – raising the danger of potentially deadly snow slides cascading onto I-70. The wind-blown snow reduced visibility to nearly zero.
Loveland Ski Area, about 45 miles west of Denver, shut down for the day because the highway closure kept both skiers and workers away.
Winds at the Eisenhower Tunnel, where the interstate passes under the Continental Divide at 11,000 feet above sea level, wind gusts reached 70 mph, keeping crews from clearing the avalanche chutes.
“That is basically the problem we are having right now,” Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman John Nelson said. “It’s not snowing, it’s blowing snow.”
The highway was shut down on Sunday night. By Monday afternoon, westbound lanes were closed from just west of Denver to the Copper Mountain ski resort, a distance of about 55 miles. Eastbound lanes were closed from Vail to Georgetown, about 57 miles.
The overlapping distance, where both directions were closed, was about 35 miles.
That section carries as many as 39,000 cars on Sundays during this time of year, officials said.
While many people took advantage of seven Red Cross shelters in schools and recreation centers, others relied on the kindness of strangers.
Brian Jerry of Colorado Springs said people he’d never met before let him stay in their Silverthorne home because motels were full.
“We called the local Quality Inn, and they basically laughed at us,” Jerry said Monday.
Jerry, who had been snowboarding at Keystone Resort Sunday when high winds began, said he and his friends found a place to stay through conversations at a restaurant.
“The good will and the bonding together has been outstanding,” he said.
I-70 is the main route between Denver and many of the state’s major ski resorts, but it wasn’t clear if the closures would hurt ski business during the lucrative holiday season.
“It’s going to be resort-by-resort,” said Jennifer Rudolph, a spokeswoman for the industry group Colorado Ski Country USA.
Blowing snow and low visibility also closed three other mountain passes Monday: U.S. 40 over Berthoud Pass, U.S. 6 over Loveland Pass and U.S. 550 over Red Mountain Pass.
Steamboat Ski Resort reported 17 inches of fresh snow Sunday.