Steamboat Springs Travelers headed over Rabbit Ears Pass in the past week may have thought they were seeing evidence that someone was using a large snowcat to groom the snow along U.S. Highway 40. And they were at least half right. However, the packed paths along the highway shouldn’t be mistaken for ski trails.
Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Ashley Mohr confirmed that snow removal crews based on Rabbit Ears are using a snowcat to redistribute accumulated snow in tight areas and areas prone to wind drifting along the highway. The plan is to use the snowcat in places where traditional snowplows and the giant truck-mounted snowblowers used by CDOT can’t move the snow far enough from the highway to prevent it from building up.
“Part of our problem in those tighter areas is that we can’t blow the snow out of the way, and it becomes packed and more difficult to move. So our guys decided to try a new method,” Mohr said.
The snowcat is based at CDOT’s Rabbit Ears Patrol Camp just west of the Dumont Lake turnoff.
Motorists who have survived winters like that of 2010-11, when the snow banks on the side of U.S. 40 towered over cars, will get the picture. The tall, vertical walls of snow can create an effect not unlike a wind tunnel.
The snowcat, with its ability to travel atop the snow banks parallel to the highway, allows operators to redistribute snow 50 to 100 feet away from the trouble spots, Mohr said. And redistributing the snow reduces uneven melting patterns that sometimes take place above 9,000 feet on Rabbit Ears, feeding into a thaw/freeze cycle that creates ice on the highway.
The CDOT snowcat based on Rabbit Ears was used effectively in May to get Independence Pass east of Aspen, which is closed in winter, ready to open in time for Memorial Day.
A CDOT press release issued May 26 explained that the snowcat, with 12 feet of track and a blade that can twist and turn, made quick work of avalanche slides and snow banks as deep as 25 feet along the side of the snowed-in Colorado Highway 82 over Independence Pass.
The snowcat cannot get high-centered like a bulldozer, and its ability to move at 18 miles per hour over the snow is a big plus, according to the release.
— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com