Anyone who has spent a winter in western Colorado has been there: wheels spinning on the ice, no visibility past the hood and miles of 7 percent grades to the bottom of the hill.
Jaws are clinched. Fingers strangle the steering wheel. But survival brings a story to be told over and over to those timid souls who will never know the exhilaration of a white-knuckle drive over one of Colorado’s famous mountain highways.
Now, Four Corners denizens can brag about surviving not just a bad mountain drive, but the worst drive Colorado has to offer.
Seized by the journalist’s desire to categorize, quantify and rank everything, the Herald assembled a list of Colorado’s paved, year-round mountain passes and rated them on all the problems that make winter driving such a scare: snow, switchbacks, steepness, traffic, elevation, distance from help and frequency of accidents.
The winner: Wolf Creek Pass.
Red Mountain Pass was a close runner-up, and the Coal Bank/Molas duo ranks in the top 10, so Durango drivers are hemmed in from the north and the east.
It’s journalistic pseudo-science in all its glory, but who could doubt the ferocity of Wolf Creek Pass? After all, it was immortalized in a country music song (C.W. McCall’s 1974 narrative about hauling a load of chickens over the pass).
“You better slow down or you gonna kill us. Just make one mistake and it’s the Pearly Gates for them eight-five crates a’ USDA-approved cluckers,” McCall sang.
Kevin Chavez takes Wolf Creek Pass seriously.
Chavez is the patrol leader of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Patrol 18, the snowplow platoon that keeps the state’s snowiest pass open.
Harsh storms can induce vertigo even in veteran plow drivers, Chavez said.
“The wind is just blowing the snow, and it’s snowing so hard you think you’ve stopped, but your mind thinks you’re still moving,” he said.
Heavy snow helped vault Wolf Creek into the No. 1 spot on the Herald’s list.
But Wolf Creek was not the leader in arguably the most important category: the accident rate.
That honor, or dishonor, goes to Monarch Pass, between Gunnison and Salida. The pass averages more than one crash per week.
Curtis Eisenhauer has pulled many of those wrecked cars and trucks off the pass or out of its ravines.
As the owner of Dotty’s Towing and Repair on the west side of Monarch Pass, Eisenhauer has seen some scary situations when trying to clear out a jackknifed semi from an icy road.
“People come flying around the corner. They can’t stop,” he said. “We’ve had them run into the side of the wrecker. We’ve bailed and jumped out of the way to keep from getting hit.”
Many of the speedsters are veteran mountain drivers who should know better, he said.
Keeping safe on the most dangerous passes is mostly just a matter of common sense, according to CDOT: slow down, don’t use cruise control, give plows extra room and make sure your tires have enough tread.
For the professional plow drivers who hit the roads in the worst conditions, there’s another worry.
Avalanches are the biggest fear of George Hudran, supervisor of the Wolf Creek plow patrol.
The week before Christmas, his team went to the Wolf Creek Avalanche School at pass summit to practice using the beacons the drivers carry in case they are buried in a snowslide. Hudran gets frequent avalanche forecast updates from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
This winter so far hasn’t been bad. It is nothing like 2007-08.
“That was my first winter up here, and I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life,” said Hudran, who comes from Lamar. “I never saw anything like it. It never stopped snowing.”
But as his crew practiced avalanche safety atop Wolf Creek Pass under a perfect Colorado-blue sky next to evergreens dusted with snow, Hudran says he’s glad he stayed.
“You couldn’t keep me off this mountain if you had to, now. I just love it,” Hudran said, pointing to the pass as it disappears down to Pagosa Springs. “The most beautiful office around right here.”
Joe Hanel crossed six passes in one day to report this story.