Woman killed when boulder hits car near Mount Harris on Wednesday | SteamboatToday.com

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Woman killed when boulder hits car near Mount Harris on Wednesday

Craig resident headed to work in Steamboat when rock struck car

— What began as a typical daily commute for Craig resident Karen Lynn Evanoff ended tragically Wednesday morning on U.S. Highway 40 east of Hayden when a boulder fell on the roof of the car she was riding in, killing her instantly. The unidentified driver of the car was uninjured.

Evanoff was heading to Steam­boat Springs, where she worked as a housekeeper at The Phoenix condominiums near the base of Steamboat Ski Area. The accident occurred at about 7:15 a.m. near Mount Harris, specifically at the cliff band that hugs the north side of U.S. 40 just east of the railroad crossing.

Colorado State Patrol troopers said the basketball-sized boulder struck the 2004 Buick on the passenger side where the windshield meets the vehicle's roofline. The force of the impact crushed the car's roof, but the driver was able to pull off onto nearby Routt County Road 52 and bring the vehicle to a controlled stop, troopers said.

As a result, U.S. 40 never closed and the morning commute continued as usual for most Northwest Colorado residents, as well as those motorists using U.S. 40 as a detour for Interstate 70, which remains closed at Glenwood Springs because of a massive rockslide in the Glenwood Canyon that took place early Monday. No one was injured in that incident.

Colorado Department of Trans­portation spokeswoman Min­­dy Crane said a CDOT maintenance crew examined the U.S. 40 accident site Wednesday morning after Evanoff's death, including climbing up the steep hillside, and determined there was no immediate danger to other motorists. A CDOT geologist traveled to the site from Den­­ver on Wednesday after­noon and spent several hours studying the cliffside. The results of his investigation were not available Wednesday evening, but U.S. 40 remained open.

Crane said CDOT records indicate no serious rock incidents along that stretch of highway since 1998, and she said officials don't consider it a dangerous area.

"This is a location that's not common for us to see a lot of rockfall events," she said. "From what we can tell, it was just a very unusual occurrence. It was just one rock that came down."

While injuries or death resulting from rockfalls might be rare here, encountering rock debris on Routt County highways is not. That's particularly true during the late winter and spring months.

Bob Barrett spent more than 30 years as a landslide specialist and the chief geologist for design and construction of I-70 across the Colorado Rockies. Barrett worked for the Wyoming and Colorado departments of transportation and now works in the private sector.

Generally speaking, Barrett said the ongoing weathering process of rocks coupled with specific springtime conditions can result in "catastrophic events" such as a single boulder being freed from its resting spot and propelled down a mountain. Those catastrophic events are most common in spring because of the freeze-thaw cycle, Barrett said. Snowmelt and other forms of water penetrate a rock through fractures and other imperfections or pores. That water freezes overnight, and the pressure of the expansion — sometimes called "frost jacking" — and retraction throughout time decreases the stability of the rock. Those same natural forces can have a tremendous impact on the areas around a rock, including the soil or other geologic structures on which a rock rests.

That hydraulic cycle can cause movement in the rock, sometimes enough to send it tumbling.

Although the force that caused the Mount Harris boulder to fall to U.S. 40 Wednesday morning is unknown — a CDOT engineer told 9News that workers saw a herd of elk on top of the cliffs Wednesday — it's thought that frost jacking is to blame for the massive rockslide in Glenwood Canyon early Monday that forced the closure of a 17-mile stretch of I-70. One of CDOT's recommended detours is U.S. 40 through Craig and Steamboat.

CDOT crews have spent the past several days cleaning and repairing the damaged portion of I-70, as well as breaking up a large boulder on the mountainside above the closed section of interstate. Late Wednesday, CDOT reported that crews used dynamite to shatter the boulder in hopes of re-opening I-70 to one lane of traffic in each direction by this evening.

Thoughtful, hard-working woman

Family, friends and co-workers of Evanoff remembered her Wednesday as a kind-hearted, hard-working woman who never hesitated to offer a helping hand.

Evanoff had four children — three sons and a daughter. Craig residents Sadie and Levi Heythaler, Evanoff's daughter and youngest son, said via text messages late Wednesday that their mother was a wonderful and honest woman who loved her family dearly. She could always elicit a smile, they said, and she loved being in the company of friends and family. Sadie is 20, and Levi is 23.

Teri Wall, a Steamboat Springs resident who worked with Evanoff at The Phoenix from November 2007 until April 2009, said she gave her job everything she had.

"Karen worked a lot," Wall said Wednesday. "There were times when she worked weeks at a time without a day off."

But Evanoff never failed to recognize the needs of others, Wall said. "She was really sweet. She'd do anything for you."

In Wall's case, that meant Evanoff would seek her out whenever Wall was having a bad day.

"Karen would say, 'Come on, let's have a smoke. What do you want to talk about?'"

Dorothy Vallejos, a Craig resident since 1955, said she had known Evanoff since "she was just a tiny girl," and had worked with her at The Phoenix.

Vallejos said Evanoff would have celebrated her 56th birthday today.

Evanoff was born and raised in Craig, Vallejos said. She described Evanoff as a "quiet person, a hard-working girl who loved animals."

"Any time I needed something, she was willing to help me," she said, "no matter what it was."

There is not yet any information about a memorial service.

The Craig Daily Press and Associated Press contributed to this report.