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Highway to hell

Red Mountain Pass has a legacy of death, but its allure lives on

In 2002, a prisoner in Utah who had been reared in an unhappy succession of foster homes wrote a letter to The Durango Herald hoping to find his birth-sister. They’d been separated after his parents died in an automobile accident on Red Mountain Pass when he was 3.

This month, USA Today named the Million Dollar Highway one of the “Top Ten Bucket List Road Trips” – a compliment to the beauty of Red Mountain Pass and an underhanded homage to its deadly track record.

Last year, USA Today pronounced the Million Dollar Highway from Durango to Ouray one of the “World’s 12 Most Dangerous Roads,” a distinction Red Mountain Pass shares with the “Highway of Death” in Iraq and the “Death Road” in Bolivia.

In an editorial, MSN Autos, an online car site, calls it a “highway to hell.”

“It’s scary,” said Nancy Shanks, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s spokeswoman for Region 5.

Red Mountain Pass, per mile, has the highest avalanche hazard on the North American Continent. The narrow two-lane road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.

“People stop in and ask, ‘Why are there no guardrails?’ We explain there’s no room because plows have to push the snow off the edge in winter,” said Heidi Pankow, public relations manager for the Ouray Chamber Resort Association.

Like Mount Everest, Red Mountain Pass’ lethal glamor enthralls tourists.

“It’s definitely a topic that comes up a lot,” Pankow said.

Although the speed limit is 15 mph for much of Red Mountain Pass, Shanks said more than 300 accidents took place there between 1995 and 2010. The majority occurred in dry conditions and involved only one vehicle. Eight accidents killed nine people, including five highway workers.

Shanks said while other Colorado roads have more fatal accidents, it is not a reflection of Red Mountain Pass’ lesser danger so much as people’s healthy terror when traversing it.

“It’s so scary, it forces people to focus and drive slow,” she said.

Fending off death

Colorado’s highway engineers have struggled to make Red Mountain Pass safer for decades; recently, they’ve had more success. Shanks said no avalanches have killed humans on Red Mountain Pass since CDOT started working with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in 1992.

Before then, it was a different story.

Retired Fort Lewis College professor and historian Duane Smith said in the early 19th century, wagons, cargo, horses and humans tumbled over the pass and into the ravine.

“In the 19th century, they were getting swept off in snowslides, rockslides, falling rock, with some surviving but most getting killed,” he said.

Into the late 20th century, anti-avalanche strategies involved highway workers bombarding the snowpack above Red Mountain Pass with bullets, rockets and bombs. Though such attacks may sound like highway workers waging a futile, “Braveheart”-style rebellion against the cruel if indifferent tyranny of snow, the idea was to prompt avalanches in controlled circumstances so no people would be hurt.

The same tactical credit cannot be extended to civilians, whose existential anger at Red Mountain Pass apparently led some to wage open war on its road signs. In 1979, highway authorities complained to the Herald that for locals, “it is a favorite pastime to shoot up road signs,” forcing the cash-strapped agency to replace bullet-riddled roadside warnings.

Legend

The lore of Red Mountain Pass is full of mortal tragedy, flecked with divine comedy.

The Herald reported in 1956 that the Rev. J.H. Halloran, a Catholic priest, and the Rev. Martin Hudson, a Protestant minister, “used their chance meeting atop 11,018 foot Red Mountain Pass to further the work of the Lord. Approaching from opposite directions, (they) found their paths blocked by an avalanche. They swapped cars to solve the difficulty. Later, their visits to members of their congregation over, they met and retraded their respective autos.”

Seven years later, a snowslide at Red Mountain Pass swept Hudson and his two daughters, Amelia, 17, and Pauline, 11, into the ravine, killing them.

Through the years, many things have mysteriously disappeared atop Red Mountain Pass, according to Herald “lost and found” classifieds, including a pair of snowshoes (2005), a black Labrador called “Skipper” (1973) and a lieutenant governor (1989) who later re-emerged alive in Denver. Nonetheless, a Herald article reported that Silverton was forced to cancel its winter celebration after guest-of-honor Lt. Gov. Mike Callihan “was reportedly following a snowplow over Red Mountain Pass on U.S. 550 but still couldn’t reach the town.”

The pass also has revealed that angels drive among us. In 1964, The Silverton Standard opined on the increased “number of Negroes passing through as tourists since the passage of the Civil Rights Bill.”

The editor recalled his “car trouble on Red Mountain Pass last Sunday. After being passed by motorists from all through the hospitable West and South, it was a gentle-voiced Negro lady who finally stopped and asked if she could be any help ... faith in humanity was again restored.”

Miracles

The highway to hell also is responsible for a lot of “miracles,” according to the Herald.

In 1985, an avalanche swept two people down a 400-foot embankment. “Miraculously,” the couple survived, though the husband told the Herald that their ensuing hospitalization somewhat marred their vacation.

In 1999, an avalanche buried four people – three highway workers and one motorist – alive beneath 40 feet of snow; they survived through the night, and rescuers retrieved them the next day.

In 1993, Fort Lewis College’s assistant basketball coach George LeSaltz skid off Red Mountain Pass. His Chevrolet pickup full of FLC players tumbled 100 feet down the cliff at a 45-degree angle until a freak snowbank “miraculously” interrupted its fall – sparing the players certain death and the Raiders (the mascot at the time) another setback in what was an already “difficult” season, according to the Herald.

In 2005, a minivan carrying six people careened over Red Mountain Pass, plummeting hundreds of feet down a 60-degree slope. Somehow, everyone survived, and “the miracle” was featured on NBC’s “Today” show. (CDOT’s Shanks said the family later starred in a seat-belt commercial.)

In 2011, Eric Petranek, a Bayfield resident, drove off Red Mountain Pass, escaping his 330-foot plunge and flaming car with only second-degree burns.

But on Red Mountain Pass, miracles aren’t for everyone.

In 1978, Lloyd Barry, a snowplow driver and father of three, retired, saying, “This is my fifth winter. Five winters on Red Mountain Pass are all I’m willing to risk. The way I figure it, after five, the odds of surviving get too short.”

Earlier that year, a snowslide killed Barry’s colleague, Terry Kishbaugh, 28, a husband and father of three.

“It took three months to recover his body. His truck was smashed like a toy,” Barry told the Herald.

Indeed, for decades, the heroism demonstrated by snowplow drivers and highway workers – Red Mountain Pass’ primary casualties – has awed and confused locals. In 1978, Caroni Adams McCallum praised the bravery of the men who maintain Red Mountain Pass in a letter to the Herald: “I am always surprised that the state highway department can even find people to apply for the job of clearing Red Mountain Pass. They take huge personal risk just so we can pass safely.”

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

The legacy of Red Mountain Pass

Nancy Shanks and Dennis VanPatter, with the Colorado Department of Transportation, provided this information about Red Mountain Pass:

When was the pass built?

The first wagon road over the pass was built in 1883 by a private toll road company.

When did the first automobile cross the pass?

The first vehicle to drive from Ouray to Red Mountain Town was a Ford Model T in 1911 – taking a doctor from Ouray to a house call in Ironton, and then the group went on to the top of Red Mountain Pass. The return drive from Red Mountain to Ouray took two hours.

When was it paved?

First paving occurred in the 1950s, and the road was paved in stretches over the next several years.

What were the challenges?

The natural terrain of the area made building the wagon road, and later re-engineering by the state of Colorado for motor vehicle travel, difficult. The lower six miles from Ouray up through the Uncompahgre Canyon travel through areas of vertical cliffs. The original toll road was built far lower in the canyon, close to the river, and it joined today’s grade in the vicinity of Bear Creek Falls. When the state of Colorado took over the road at the request of the counties in about 1920, the road was reconstructed on its present grade, well above the river and out of reach of flooding. Other sections were rebuilt, and the road was widened and graveled to accommodate motor vehicles. It was opened in 1922. Steep mountain terrain and high elevations bring their own kind of challenges, as CDOT faces in many locations around the state.

Why isn’t it safer? Is this the best we can do given the terrain?

This highway is safe. Speed limits are, by necessity, slow, and the types of major accidents that occur in high-speed situations elsewhere are nonexistent on this road. Drivers typically drive the road carefully and cautiously. This is one of the most spectacular drives in the world, and motorists treat it as such. Construction of the East Riverside snowshed, where a major avalanche path intersects the highway, greatly reduced adverse impacts of snowslides on the highway. The highway is open year-round and is used daily by commuters, local residents, trucking companies and visitors.

Why was it deemed necessary to build the road?

Extensive mining in the area of Ouray, Red Mountain, Silverton and Telluride provided the impetus for the original construction of the toll road. Railroads reached Silverton and Ouray, but transportation of ore to the railheads required a wagon road. Later, with motor vehicle travel predominating, this major north-south route through southwestern Colorado became a major contributor to commerce.

Why is it called the “Million Dollar Highway?”

Only theories exist on this topic. One theory says that the gravel used to pave the road prior to it opening for motor-vehicle traffic in 1922 contained nearly $1 million in ore per mile. Another says the road cost $1 million to build per mile (an astounding total even as late as 1922). Another theory is that the scenery along the highway results in “million-dollar views.” The bottom line – no one is sure, but it’s fun to speculate.

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