Peter Shelton

Surfing the avalanche

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Road Trips West, Watch columns by pshelton on January 7, 2011

Ellen thinks maybe the second avalanche was still moving when we drove through it.

I’m not sure, because the visibility was so bad, and we came upon the debris so quickly in that squall on Lizard Head Pass.

Red Mountain Pass was closed. All the passes between Ouray and Durango on Highway 550 had closed the night before and remained shut for avalanche control. The New Year’s storm of 2010 had come in with a vengeance. But the family was gathering in Albuquerque, and we had to get there.

My sister and her daughter had flown in from Washington, D.C., earlier in the week. My brother, his wife and their four-year-old son had taken the train from southern California. They in turn had picked up our 85-year-old mother and ushered her aboard the Santa Fe Super Chief with them. They couldn’t afford sleepers, so they sat up for the 20-hour ride.

My dad, who is 87, drove himself in his VW motor home, “Charlie” (as in Steinbeck’s Travels With. . . ). He puttered across the southern route through Tucson and up the Rio Grande past Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It had taken him two nights and three days.

Cecily and Mike and their new baby drove down from Ridgway. They’d crossed the passes, but they’d left on Monday, before the storm hit.

Everyone was converging on Coe and Adam’s house, a sprawling, faux-adobe rental in suburban Albuquerque. It’s a big house with four bedrooms, two and a half baths, and two living rooms, one of which was surely intended to be a den but has become the fun room/toy room for Cloe’s two kids, ages twenty-seven months and eight months.

So, we had to get there.

All told, we would have 16 camped out on air mattresses and cots, and in Charlie parked on the street. Four generations of Sheltons, and Shelton in-laws, in one house, one kitchen, one hearth. It was going to be special. And E and I would be the last to arrive.

We plotted the long detour over Lizard Head then on down through Cortez to Ship Rock, Farmington, and finally back on the regular 550 route to ABQ. We left early. I knew from emails that morning that Lizard Head was going to be subject to spot closures while Department of Transportation crews shot likely slide paths from Rico north to Trout Lake. If they got anything to run across the road, they’d clean that up, then move on to the next avalauncher location. We might have to wait for a little while, but we’d almost certainly get through.

We were stopped for a time near the pass at 10,000 feet as the CDOT girls and boys blasted a couple of bank slips, neither of which moved. They waved us through.

While we were waiting, I’d chatted up the driver in front of us, a guy with long hair and an easy grin who said he really liked driving in this weather, got a kick out of Mother Nature’s tantrums. When we were moving again, I settled in behind his old flatbed truck with its high oval taillights.

I mile or two down the road, I’d temporarily lost him in a swirl of wind and spindrift rushing down off the bank on our right. The road was white; everything outside our windshield was white, and suddenly I realized we were rolling through foot-deep snow. Right on the road. We hadn’t drifted off the side, though we’d seen other rigs, including a logging truck that had. This was clearly debris from a recent slough. Very recent, since the CDOT plow had been through here just minutes before.

Twenty seconds later I saw my flatbed friend feint slightly left then back right again, as if thinking better of it. Then he disappeared, and I saw why he’d reacted. There in front of us was another debris pile, this one a good three feet deep across the road.

I couldn’t have stopped if I’d tried. I didn’t have time to do anything except grip the wheel and aim generally for the path the flatbed had taken through the wall of snow.

Our little Saab dove in as if into a breaking wave. We were completely covered, engulfed in crystals that luckily, I realized when I could think again, had not had time to settle and become dense. The Saab surfed through as if skiing powder and emerged with drifts on her hood and roof that lasted all the way to the desert.

That was the second of the three debris piles we hit, the one E thought might have been moving still. The third one was about two feet deep, as pillowy as the first two, and at that point practically old hat.

What is normally a five-and-a-half-hour drive, took us nine. The 130 empty miles between Bloomfield and Cuba were snow packed and slick and extra tense because most of our fellow travelers were panicked, and crawling.

But the blind avalanche surfing took the cake and, when we finally arrived, most of the initial storytelling time. I’m not sure the Californians and the Washingtonians quite believed us. Why should they? They’d never imagined anything like it.

I myself felt more lucky than good to have escaped unscathed the mountains we love.


2 Responses

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  1. Joe Roland said, on January 12, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    When I left my job as travel editor at the Buffalo News, I didn’t think I’d have a chance to read your prose again. Boy, was I wrong. Blogs may have been the death of the travel writing business, but they are great for readers. And I just finished your latest piece in Ski. I feel your pain. Keep up the good work.

    • pshelton said, on January 12, 2011 at 6:18 pm

      Thanks, Joe. It’s a brave new word world, isn’t it? Thank you for reading, and writing.

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