The nerves of steel that keep Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway open in winter

Million Dollar Highway in winter. (Alan Stark/Flickr)
Million Dollar Highway in winter. (Alan Stark/Flickr)
Million Dollar Highway in winter. (Alan Stark/Flickr)

I’ve driven the Million Dollar Highway on a clear day in summer, and that was plenty for me. I’ll admit to some anxiety around heights, so I just kept my eye on the road and tried not to think about the lack of guard rails.

It turns out there is a reason besides sadism that there are no rails on most of this stretch of road. In the winter, plow drivers need somewhere to put the snow — over the edge.

In Outside magazine, Leath Tonino spends some time with the crazy and/or brave folks who keep this highway clear in the winter.

The Million Dollar Highway is the portion of U.S. 550 that goes from Ouray to Silverton, so called because it cost a million dollars to build all the way back in the 1880s when Otto Mears, Colorado’s pioneer road-builder, built it as a toll road. With no shoulders along much of the road — to go along with the no guard rails thing — it makes World’s Most Dangerous Roads lists. That danger is heightened in the winter with 70 named avalanche paths, including one that has claimed the lives of three plow drivers over the decades.

These days, as Tonino writes, CDOT works with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to closely monitor snowpack and uses explosions to clear avalanches. They also close the road when it seems wiser to do so — but never for long. No one has died clearing the road since 1993, but that doesn’t make plowing here an easy job.

“We’ve got nicknames for everything,” driver Dack Klein tells Tonino. “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.”

Another driver describes the highway in a snowstorm this way: “It’s fucking spooky up there. Really fucking spooky.”

Read the whole thing here.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.