Geologist: Incident that killed Craig resident near Hayden was rare |

Geologist: Incident that killed Craig resident near Hayden was rare

No additional dangers identified in area on US 40

Brent Boyer

— A Colorado Department of Transportation geologist said the rocky cliff in Mount Harris is relatively safe and that no mitigation work is needed to try to prevent future rockfalls similar to the one that killed Craig resident Karen Evanoff on Wednesday.

After spending about three hours Wednesday afternoon studying the Mount Harris sandstone formation that hovers over the north side of U.S. High­way 40 a few miles east of Hay­den, CDOT senior geologist Alan Hotchkiss said there are no obvious safety hazards to motorists. Rather, the rock that killed Evanoff was the byproduct of an unusual, tragically timed geologic event.

"As far as I can see right now, it was a natural cause and something that was very rare," Hotchkiss said Thursday. "Right now, no mitigation is planned for that area.

"As far as the slope itself, it's a safe slope."

Evanoff was the passenger in a 2004 Buick sedan heading east on U.S. 40 toward Steamboat Springs. At about 7:15 a.m. Wed­nesday, a basketball-size rock struck the roof of the car, killing Evanoff. The driver was not injured.

Hotchkiss, a fellow CDOT employee and an official from the U.S. Geological Survey traveled to the site Wednesday afternoon to investigate.

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The sandstone formation that forms the wall of the cliff along U.S. 40 is part of the Mesa Verde formation, a huge swath of sandstone that was formed during the Mesozoic Era between 65 million and 85 million years ago, Hotchkiss said.

The cliff that's visible from the road is about 120 feet tall at its highest point, but it represents only the lowest section of a formation that reaches about 400 vertical feet at its summit. There are three "benches" of moderately sloped land that connect subsequent sandstone cliff faces, though the upper cliffs are only about 8 to 10 feet tall, Hotchkiss said.

The source boulder — the rock from which the smaller, basketball-size rock originated — fell from the uppermost cliff face sometime in the past. It had settled on the grassy, sloping surface of the upper bench. More recently, that source boulder rolled 180 degrees. That movement likely was caused by "frost jacking," a geologic event in which the cycle of water penetrating imperfections in a rock and freezing and thawing eventually causes the rock to fracture. When the source boulder fractured, it moved, and that movement was enough to propel one of the pieces down the steep mountainside, Hotchkiss said.

Hotchkiss said his team identified smashed bushes, broken twigs and a broken tree branch that provided evidence of the rock's path down the mountain. Tragically, the 400 vertical feet and 300 horizontal feet it traveled came to an abrupt end when it struck the roof of the Buick.

"It was horrible," Hotchkiss said. "Everything had to be just the right — and unfortunate — timing. It's just things you can't predict."

Hotchkiss and his team did not move the source boulder, which he said is now resting safely on a flat edge.

"It's not going to go anywhere," he said.

The geologists didn't find any other rocks that they thought posed a danger to motorists, Hotchkiss said. He said he thinks any attempt at mitigation work actually could increase the likelihood of future rockfalls by disturbing the ground and re-placing rocks in positions other than their natural resting spots.

CDOT officials said they have no reports of any other rock incidents at Mount Harris in the past 20 years. The location is, however, a rated site. CDOT has 750 rated sites across the state. The Mount Harris cliff on U.S. 40 is ranked 139th in terms of potential danger. Rating criteria include amount of vehicular traffic passing by the site, the geologic formation and angles. The No. 1-ranked site is the vertical rock cliffs adjacent to Interstate 70 on the steep climb out of Georgetown.

Other hazard areas

Paul Draper, director of Routt County's Road and Bridge Depart­ment, said two county-maintained roads pose some rock slide danger. The first is Routt County Road 64, or Seedhouse Road, outside of Clark. Draper said a short section of Seedhouse runs adjacent to a rocky slope from which smaller rocks often tumble onto the paved road, particularly in spring. In fact, Draper was up there last week to move a 3-by-3-foot rock that had rolled onto the road.

The other site is near the intersection of county roads 14 and 16, where it's not uncommon for smaller rocks to tumble onto the road.

Memorial established for Evanoff

The Resort Group, which oversees The Phoenix condominiums in Steamboat Springs where Karen Evanoff worked as a housekeeper since 1983, has established a memorial fund in her name.

The Karen Evanoff Memorial Fund is at Millennium Bank, and proceeds will be used to take care of the immediate needs of Evanoff’s family, said Dina Fisher, Resort Group human resources director. Evanoff had four children; the youngest is 20-year-old Sadie Heythaler, of Craig.

“She was a valuable employee and absolutely critical in the housekeeping department at The Phoenix,” Fisher said. “We’re just very saddened as an organization about her death.”

Fisher said Evanoff didn’t carry Resort Group benefits, so officials with the company are unsure of whether she had life insurance or other benefits that will assist her family.

The memorial fund’s proceeds will be overseen by a group of Resort Group officials, Fisher said. Millennium Bank’s mailing address is 685 Marketplace Plaza, Suite 10, Steamboat Springs, CO 80487. The Steamboat Springs branch is in Wildhorse Marketplace off Mount Werner Road.

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