A mass of snow can break off a mountainside sending large slabs racing downhill, collecting more snow along the way, obliviating anything in its path. This is known as an avalanche and it’s important that high county commuters are aware of the dangers they present and avalanche mitigation on our roadways.

Colorado accounts for one-third of all avalanche deaths in the United States and this time of year, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) closely monitors snowpack conditions on over 250 prominent Colorado avalanche paths. CDOT heavily relies on information from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) which joined the CDOT highway safety program in 1993. In addition to their partnership with CDOT, CAIC offers public avalanche education and avalanche forecasting.

In Grand County, CDOT and CAIC recently changed their avalanche mitigation process on Berthoud Pass by installing the O’bellx avalanche control system. O’bellx device stands sit above the snow line and are remotely controlled by CDOT crews. Once launched, the system dispenses a mixture of oxygen gas and hydrogen into an explosion chamber, prompting ignition with a spark plug to initiate a regulated explosion, forcing a controlled avalanche.

Regardless of weather conditions, O’bellx can detonate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with up to seven detonations at one time. The frequency of detonations diminishes snow volume, shortening the time of cleanup efforts and road closures. The system enables crews to frequently mitigate potentially dangerous, built up snowpack from safe distances as opposed to the previous method of manually placing and detonating explosives by hand. Safety in avalanche mitigation became a top priority after an explosive round prematurely detonated during a controlled Loveland Pass avalanche in 2014. Crews had used the standard, repurposed World War II era canons and two workers were seriously injured.

The O’bellx technology derived from the Gazex system. CDOT experimented with it on Berthoud in 2015. Over a two-year period, nearly 30 mitigation missions occurred with over 100 blasts. Only a few forced avalanches made their way onto US40. Proven safe, effective and environmentally friendly, Winter Park Resort and the governments of Grand County approved O’bellx and installed it in January of last year.

If you plan on commuting on Berthoud or anywhere in Colorado high country, it’s always a good idea to check the CDOT site for all the latest road conditions and delays. Those recreating in the snow-packed backcountry should be aware of avalanche conditions.

CDOT Avalanche Control – https://www.codot.gov/travel/winter-driving/AvControl.html

CAIC – https://avalanche.state.co.us/

Video of the Gazex System – https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=110&v=gR-9iwhYW4c&feature=emb_logo

Tracy Navarrete