Rockfall mitigation continues at Mount Harris Canyon | SteamboatToday.com

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Rockfall mitigation continues at Mount Harris Canyon

— Tim Able stood 50 feet below Carson Bartsch and Matt Dossett on Tuesday afternoon as the two men slowly rappelled down Mount Harris Canyon with crowbars on their backs.

The workers had a long stretch of road all to themselves as long lines of cars formed on U.S. Highway 40 at both ends of the canyon, waiting for rocks to safely fall to the ground below.

"Try that one on your left," Able said over a radio as he eyed a large boulder on the cliff face. His voice competed against the loud rumbling of a generator.

"Take that one down."

Bartsch tried to pry the rock free with his crowbar, but it barely moved.

The scaler then slid an airbag under the rock, connected by an orange tube to the air compressor and generator below. After several hisses and deployments of the airbag, the boulder finally came loose and fell down onto U.S. 40. It landed with an ominous thud and left behind a large plume of dust.

After the success, Able continued to coordinate the operation. Some rocks were easier for his men to remove than others.

"My experience tells me what needs to be brought down," Able said as he explained how he decides which rocks the scalers should remove from the steep wall of sandstone that hugs the highway for about two miles. "Obviously, this cliff needs some work."

Able, the rockfall project manager for Yenter Companies, said he has 15 years of experience in rockfall prevention.

He said Bartsch and Dossett have removed boulders as large as 6 feet by 6 feet since the Colorado Department of Transportation started a major rockfall prevention project last week in the canyon between Steamboat Springs and Hayden. Falling rocks on the stretch of highway have killed one person and have caused multiple accidents in the past two years.

CDOT engineer Rob Beck said Tuesday that the current scaling operation should continue at least through this week, and then crews will begin installing fencing and wire mesh on the canyon walls to prevent rocks from falling on motorists.

Rockfall mitigation in the canyon historically has consisted only of the scaling operations.

The $1 million project is expected to run through August, and CDOT is advising motorists to continue planning for 20-minute delays when they travel through the canyon.

"It's all about public safety," Able said.

Anchored to a cliff just west of mile marker 116 on Tuesday, the two scalers shared jokes to pass the time.

"It can be stressful up there," Able said from the ground. "Sometimes, keeping it light helps them stay focused. And at the end of the day, you get to look up and see what you've accomplished. That, and you're not stuck in a cubicle."

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com