Keep Your Hands on the Wheel and Don't Look Down
The most perilous road in America gets 300 inches of snow a year, features 70 named avalanche paths, and has almost no guardrails. Who would be crazy enough to keep Colorado's infamous Highway 550 clear in winter? Leath Tonino hopped into the cab of a Mack snowplow truck to find out.
It’s an exceedingly white January afternoon on America’s sketchiest road—white flurries rushing the windshield and swirling in the mirrors, white ridges and cirques disappearing among torn white clouds. Heck, even the road is white, though it won’t remain so for long. Dack Klein is behind the wheel of his 18-ton Mack plow truck, laughing his big laugh, navigating yet another lethal curve with all the casual confidence of a man who has done this some 7,000 times before. Or maybe it’s 8,000 times.
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An equipment operator with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), Klein has worked the 15 miles of U.S. Highway 550 that climb from Ouray to the top of 11,018-foot Red Mountain Pass since 2003. He has worked them at dawn and midnight, on Halloween and Easter and Cinco de Mayo. He has worked them in every imaginable type of blizzard—from the fierce to the downright savage, from the protracted to the never-ending.
Forty-two years old, with a black buzz cut, a stout build, and a probably-should-have-died crash under his belt, Klein is familiar with every inch of Red Mountain Pass. A typical shift for one of the four full-time employees stationed at Ouray lasts eight hours but will stretch to 12 or 18 when the weather insists. Weekends are more of a theoretical possibility, monthlong runs of consecutive days to be expected. Between late September and early June, Klein spends half as much time with his wife and three kids as he does with his Mack, doing the job, which he calls “pushing.”
Milepost 90, passing below an avalanche path named Ruby Walls: “You’ve got to appreciate the dangers when you’re pushing. Last winter we had a chunk of rock the size of a football field detach right here.”
Milepost 87, entering Ironton Park, the road’s only flattish section: “There have been nights I could barely see past the wipers when I was pushing. It can take 20 minutes to manage this one nasty mile if it’s blowing.”
Milepost 81, beneath Blue Point: “The saying goes that Blue Point will run if you sneeze. Usually it’s a bank slip, but occasionally it’s a giant, and then you’ve got to do some serious pushing.”
Milepost 80.28, at the summit: “Jackknifed 18-wheelers, four feet of fresh powder in eight hours—pushing on Red gets crazy. But that’s what makes it special, right?”
The San Juan Mountains average 349 inches of snow annually, and much of it falls twice: first from the sky, then from the crests and headwalls where it tries, and fails, to cling. Seventy named avalanche paths intersect Highway 550 in the 23 miles between Ouray and Silverton, the town on the south side of the pass that serves as a base for another of CDOT’s 200 patrols across the state. The infamous East Riverside slide can dump 50 feet of concrete-thick debris and has taken the lives of three plowmen—in 1970, 1978, and 1992—as well as a preacher and his two daughters in 1963, and two men and most of their team of mules in 1883. Since 1935, when the first attempts to keep the road open through winter were made, dozens of people have perished trying to get across, though an exact number is impossible to tally.
The threats are numerous: soaring cliffs, towers of brittle ice, 8 percent grades, unexpected doglegs. I spoke with Klein over the phone, and he explained that the lower portion of the road is literally chiseled into the vertical rock of the Uncompahgre Gorge—a narrow geologic throat 1,000 feet deep in places. The upper portion, beyond Ironton Park, traverses subalpine slopes largely scoured of trees. We talked for 15 minutes and he used the word respect often enough that I lost count. He also exuded a kind of pure, almost childlike enthusiasm for the elemental power of the range, the clarity of purpose his job engenders, and what he called his “Tonka truck.”
By the end of the conversation, an invitation was on the table: come ride.
So here we are—inside Klein’s shiny orange 4x4 Mack, a crucial player in a fleet that also includes a grader, a blower, a pair of loaders, and two other plows. It’s mid-January 2016. A three-day storm kept the Ouray patrol pushing straight through Christmas, and a fresh one is gathering. Our 12-foot rubber-coated carbide blade is lowered, our ten-foot wing extended on its hydraulic arms, jutting from behind the passenger-side door, forcing snow farther off the road. The rig is 13 feet tall, costs $200,000, gets two and a half miles to the gallon, and fills the lane like a football player in a too-small suit. Three hundred and twenty-five horses snort beneath the broad hood. The cab is richly perfumed with diesel fuel, warm and snug.
“Less spacious than your Toyota Tercel,” Klein says with a grin after I mention the make and model of my car. “Little for comfort, but a blast to drive.”
Spacewise, the cab is indeed reminiscent of a compact—and thus concludes the vehicular similarities. We’re lording over F-350’s, enthroned seven feet off the ground, a sand-salt mix spraying from a massive hopper mounted to the truck’s rear. Electronics abound: ground thermometers, GPS tracking systems, so many screens and gauges one thinks of an airplane cockpit. A toolbox at my feet contains emergency supplies—MREs, rope, a space blanket, a Maglite, a wrench—and at my elbow, Klein has wedged in an additional backpack loaded with enough food, water, and clothing to last at least two days. Avalanche beacons strapped to our chests blink, their batteries fresh.
Having tagged the top of the pass 3,200 feet above Ouray and pulled a U-turn, Klein and I are now descending Upper Switchbacks, a set of precarious zigzags balanced on the mountain’s steep face. Pressing my nose to the window, what I notice is an absence. Despite the narrow shoulder and stomach-tightening exposure, there are no guardrails in sight. (A few exist along the route, but they are rare.) The reason, I’m told, is simple: plow drivers have to put all that snow somewhere. On Highway 550, that somewhere is over the edge.
“We’ve got nicknames for everything,” Klein says. “Paul’s Plunge, Scary Larry’s Rock, Upper Switchbacks, Dack’s Dilemma.”
The dilemma occurred in 2007 on a typical Red Mountain night: temperatures in the single digits, bad gusts, snow flying in every direction. Visibility was a few notches below poor, and a terrified kid in a sedan was hogging both lanes, approaching Klein head-on. Given the conditions, this member of the “traveling public,” as Klein affectionately calls such drivers, probably should have been at home playing video games or making out with his girlfriend. Klein slowed his rig—he was only doing about ten miles per hour to begin with—and eased to the side of the road. A bit too far, it turned out.
“It was this slow-motion tilting,” he says, recalling what happened next. “I kind of reached for my seat belt, reached for the door, thinking maybe I could jump out, but there wasn’t enough time.” Picturing his wife asleep in their house at the bottom of the pass, her belly round and pregnant, he gripped the wheel and “went for the ride.”
Klein dropped 60 feet before the truck’s cab crumpled around his body with a sickening metallic crunch, his Mack coming to rest upside down on the road. A lower switchback had caught him, nearly killed him, and saved his life, all at once. Bruised but otherwise uninjured, he tried to kick through the windshield. Ten long minutes later, when a car stopped nearby, he was still kicking. His rescuers were absolutely hammered— knocking back beers, aimlessly touring the storm—but their drunken hearts were in the right place. They bashed the glass, pulled Klein free, and stuffed him in among the dozens of empties in their back seat.
“I didn’t think the roll messed with me,” Klein says. “But ever since, I’ve had trouble getting over toward the lip in this spot. I’m fine everywhere else, but at this spot it’s like my body won’t allow it. I just can’t get over as far.”
With that, the memory residing in his hands takes the wheel and tugs gently left, inching us away from the shoulder and the void beyond.
Klein and his colleagues refer to this behavior—cheating the yellow line a bit, erring on the side of caution—as “favoring the mountain.” They refer to snow falling at a rate of a quarter-inch per hour or less as “nuisance snow” and to scraping compressed snow from the pavement as “peeling pack.” They refer to a job well done as “safe enough for your mother.” Neighboring patrols out of Silverton, Ridgeway, Cascade, and Norwood are “extended family” and are accordingly the target of much good-natured trash talk regarding who’s “keeping it pretty” and who’s “falling behind.”
Ouray’s four and a half drivers—two on the day shift, one on swing from 4 p.m. to midnight, one on graveyard, and a part-time backup for “when things fall apart”—maintain fewer miles of road than almost any other CDOT patrol, which is a testament to both the local terrain and the rowdy weather. In the summer, they do road maintenance, but the real test comes with the snow. Drivers complete a weeklong course in plowing before they start the job. They receive a 10 percent “hard to fill” bonus atop a starting salary of around $3,000 or $4,000 per month. The seven-bay garage at the beginning of Highway 550’s ascent from the south end of Ouray brims with bull plows, rotary blades, chin-high tires, and Peewag chains for increased traction. Some drivers prefer the rhythm of a career in, say, metro Denver. Those who come to Ouray need to have a sense of adventure.
There are dozens of treacherous passes in the American West. Colorado alone boasts Lizard Head (48 avalanche paths), Berthoud (25), and Monarch (19). But none compare to Highway 550, also known as the Million Dollar Highway. In addition to Red, this portion of the road includes Molas Pass (50 paths) and Coal Bank Pass (20 paths), both south of Silverton. It’s the most avy-prone road in the lower 48.
The slides are colossal. Some of the starting zones span hundreds of acres, release 150,000 cubic meters of snow, and generate wind speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. Add to these monstrous forces the Uncompahgre Gorge’s gaping maw and you get the well-worn CDOT expression: “If the slide don’t kill you, the sudden stop at the bottom will.”
Ouray is a small town—800 residents on a seven-block grid that appears lifted from a snow globe—and is made smaller by its surroundings. Brute origami comes to mind, as though a trillion postcards of sublime scenery have been folded and refolded into an orogenic Frankenstein. The topography is unavoidable, the mountain range young and sharp and everywhere, rocketing 5,000 feet from the sidewalks.
In 1993, a year after the third plow driver died at East Riverside, CDOT got serious about managing road-threatening slides and began a collaboration with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) that continues to this day. No one has been killed by an avalanche while driving the pass since, thanks to a mixed strategy involving teams of forecasters nerding out on the snowpack, gates that can lock the road shut when necessary, and explosives.
Take for example the Christmas 2015 blizzard. The sky dumps and keeps dumping. A CDOT driver, eyes burning and head aching from a tough shift, gets on the radio. “Hey boss,” he says, “I think it might be time to close her down.” Meanwhile, two CAIC forecasters stationed in Silverton, and one stationed in Ouray, have been eyeing the Doppler radar, monitoring the slopes, cruising the road at ungodly hours, worrying themselves sleepless over “what’s getting loaded” and “what wants to run.” More calls, more conversation, and more snow finally lead to a decision from CDOT headquarters: OK, lock the gate.
Ambulances, commercial truckers, and crazed snowboarders in need of a pow fix rely on the road being open, which means that the locked gate represents a ticking clock. Mitigation usually starts when the weather cooperates, often around six in the morning. According to CDOT’s Avalanche Fact Sheet, crews can employ any of the following to trigger slides: “5-pound charges set by hand; a truck-mounted ‘avalauncher’ that uses pneumatic pressure to fire 2.2-pound rounds; a 105 Howitzer leased from the Army that can fire 40-pound missiles up to seven miles; a helicopter that drops 30- to 50-pound bombs.” The debris, once down, doesn’t move on its own, and so they start pushing again, the clock still ticking. Klein has occasionally found himself working the Mack, the guns, and the front-end loader all in one slog of a shift.
“Every run’s different,” says Elwood Gregory, who plowed the road from 1979 to 1986. A mustached 77-year-old with a bald head, he misses “the thrill of battling Red.”
“You come around a corner and there’s an ermine in the road, or a ptarmigan, or a crippled elk that got swept away by a slide. Or you come around and headlights are shooting out of the gorge, straight into the air. One time I saw a car burning down there, flames and everything—turned out that a guy had murdered his wife and sent her over.”
“What about your family?” I ask. “What did they think about your work on Red?”
“My wife understood how much I enjoyed it, so she was fine,” he says. “It bothered my mother, though. Her house was right there at the bottom of the hill. At midnight I’d drive by and she would flicker the lights in her window and I’d flicker my headlights back. You know, it was a way to say, ‘You can go to sleep now, Mother. I survived another night.’ ”
Another night. It should be a bumper sticker slapped onto every CDOT truck. During my first afternoon ride with Klein, he emphasized that Red Mountain Pass morphs into a “different creature” with the fading of dusk’s alpenglow. The guys rotate shifts—two months of days, two months of swings, two months of graves—to share the burden. That order comes apart under the weight of heavy weather, though, everybody pushing together to make the road safe regardless of whose shift it is. And even when the snow finally quits, there are rocks to clear, vehicles to fix, a whole series of tasks to prepare for the next big dump.
“The storms usually come after dark,” Klein says. “Clifford’s on graves, but he’s been puking with some kind of flu, so I don’t think you want to seal yourself into a truck with him for eight hours. We’ve got to make sure you ride with Michael on swing.”
Michael Harrison is a 52-year-old from Chicago’s South Side who moved to the San Juans after college and still retains the accent of his childhood. (He stopped working on the patrol before the 2016–17 season.) Compared with the ebullient Klein, he is a monk of the road, focused and intense. “It’s fucking spooky up there,” he says. “Really fucking spooky. You sure you want to do this?”
The weather that’s been growing on the pass is finally peaking, snow falling at three inches per hour. Harrison just finished his first run, and already his efforts are close to erased. There’s no time to waste. Clean gunk-ice from the lights, load the hopper with sand, and go. Rule number one of plowing: push with the storm.
As we drive, the temperature dives to two degrees in the gorge, visibility tightens to 25 feet, and the wind makes a menagerie’s worth of animal sounds. Harrison says nothing, his right hand working the three joysticks that adjust the angle of the plow and wing, while his left hand stays steady on the wheel. We’re low-beaming it, squinting, billions of snowflakes flashing in our yellow and blue strobes.
What by day felt like an airplane cockpit presently feels like a spaceship. Town is gone for good, a distant planet, a false memory of security and laughter and cheery neon lights in tavern windows. The 1,000-foot abyss yawns invisibly to our right.
Milepost 90, passing Ruby Walls: “In sideways weather, I’ve got to be able to get out of the truck, take three steps, and touch the mountain. If I can touch the mountain, I’m safe. If I can’t, that means the mountain might drop out from under my tires.”
Milepost 87, entering Ironton Park: “Sometimes I catch myself saying, ‘Where’s the road?’ I’ll be humming to myself: ‘Where’s the road? Where’s the road?’ ”
Milepost 81, beneath Blue Point: “This is definitely the let’s-get-the-fuck-out-of-here section. You see these sloughs spilling across our lane? They came down in the last hour. That’s bad. We call those indicator slides. They mean trouble.”
Milepost 80.28: “It’s life and death up here, no doubt. People think you can just drop a plow and go for it, but you can’t. That’s why so many CDOT drivers don’t want anything to do with Red Mountain Pass. If you make a mistake, it will probably be your last. You’ve got to be on it. You’ve got to be in tune. You’ve got to be in the game, totally in the game.”
Minutes later, creeping back down toward Ouray, Harrison downshifts as we approach milepost 88. “I’m going to pull over for a second,” he says. “I want you to see the Monument.”
We adjust our safety helmets over our wool hats, open the doors, and exit into knee-deep powder. Inside the truck, the weather is something to fear and respect. Outside it simply is—equal parts motion and stillness, chaos and calm, violence and peace.
Harrison trudges into a drift, pulls a Maglite from his pocket, and shines it over a polished slab of granite that is fast on its way to being buried. Below the engraved image of a plow truck almost identical to the one idling behind us, I read three names and dates: ROBERT MILLER (MARCH 2, 1970), TERRY KISHBAUGH (FEBRUARY 10, 1978), EDDIE IMEL (MARCH 5, 1992).
“These dudes gave their lives to keep the road open,” Harrison says. “East Riverside took them all. Different events, but the same slide.”
We stand there for a minute, maybe less, the names on the stone disappearing beneath so many weightless flakes. Soon enough the engraved plow will be resting on its own white road.
“The mountain’s got a lot of different moods,” Harrison says finally, without turning toward me. “In its own sick little way, it can be kind of magical.”
He switches off the Maglite and tilts his face to the sky.
“I guess we’d better get back to pushing. It’s really coming down now, isn’t it?”
Leath Tonino wrote about soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause in the January/February 2016 issue.