‘Good Progress’ as County Road Crews Work to Clear Cinnamon, Engineer Passes

Hinsdale County Road & Bridge personnel are simultaneously working their way through standing and drifted snow — and surprisingly little snowslide activity — as they open county roads toward Cinnamon and Engineer passes.
Although a heavy snow year in terms of snow depth through January and into February, March and April were generally mild in terms of snow depth, and the snow pack actually decreased in upper valley portions of both Henson Creek and the Lake Fork Valley.
Hinsdale Road & Bridge Supervisor Monte Hannah says it was pretty much “clear sailing” through standing snow between 3’ and 4’-deep up past the Shelf Road and as far as the dense timber stands near the Bon Homme Mine. It was only after reaching the dark timber on the upper Lake Fork that road crew workers Joe Schultheis and Johnny Bebout, and later JoAllen Blowers and Gavin McNitt who continue to clear the pass this week, began to encounter heavy snow accumulations.
Snow drifts crossing the road in vicinity of American Basin were up to 28’-deep. On some switchbacks above American Basin, snow was so deep that no vestiges of the county road remained visible; in order to make sure they were on top of the road, road crew personnel then “pioneered” by starting up higher, where portions of the road were still visible, and then worked back down the mountainside.
Road clearing on the approach to Cinnamon Pass was stymied late last week and through Monday this week as a dozer track roller was repaired. As of Tuesday, May 9, however, Blowers and McNitt are cutting through snow drifts on the series of switchbacks above the Tobasco Mine. The men are working in tandem, one maneuvering a D6C Dozer which cuts down through the accumulated snow to about 2’ above the road surface; this process is followed by a 938 Caterpillar Loader which is used to clean down through the remaining snow to the road surface.
Road Supervisor Hannah says the road crew will have Cinnamon Pass passable by its traditional Memorial Weekend opening date. Counterpart road crew from San Juan County has been at work opening their side of the pass, with word on Monday, May 8, that they have reached Cinnamon’s summit on the Animas side of the range and will now transfer their energies to Engineer Pass.
On Hinsdale County’s side of Engineer Pass on upper Henson Creek, Norman Ragle and Breck Thompson, aided by Gavin McNitt, are using the county’s D7H Dozer and 938 Cat Loader as they cut down through the snow to reopen higher elevation portions of County Road 20. Snow conditions were minimal as the result of settling and natural melt all the way up Henson Creek through Capitol City and as far as Rose’s Cabin.
As of Tuesday this week, the men have passed Thoreau’s Cabin and are on the above-timberline straight stretch of road leading up to the Palmetto Mine and stone powder house. Snow is averaging 12’ to 14’-deep and was complicated earlier this week by three small cornice snowslides which crossed the road. Up to this point, snowslide activity on both Henson Creek and the upper Lake Fork has been
Two of the largest Henson Creek snowslides — the Klondike and Casino — have failed to run thus far this year, with indications that the snowpack in those areas has settled and is now stable. A small snowslide was also reported in the vicinity of Empire Chief Mill but, again, minimal in comparison to past year slides which roared down Gravel Mountain, crossed Henson Creek and inundated the county road.
Supervisor Hannah says the road crew is “making good progress” on the pass opening, although it will almost certainly be several more weeks — post-Memorial Day Weekend — before Engineer Pass is opened. He expects the road crew will encounter increasingly deep snow after reaching the Palmetto switchbacks, as well as the usual deep drift near the pass summit which in past years has exceeded 50’-depth.
While work continues to open both Cinnamon and Engineer passes, public access remains blocked with gates from near Rose’s Cabin on upper Henson Creek, and at Sherman on the approach to the Shelf Road on the upper Lake Fork. High country adventurers are anxious for access, however, prompting Hinsdale County Sherif’s Office to ask the R & B Dept. to strengthen the road closure barricades with boulders which have been placed on either side of the gates.
Elsewhere in the county, annual spring road openings are actually several weeks in advance of the usual schedule. Supervisor Hannah states that both the Deer Lakes Road down the Cebolla to Cathedral and Upper Rio Grande Road as far as Lost Trail were cleared as of last month. The Upper Rio Grande road is now traversable, although the Deer Lakes/ Cathedral Road is cleared but remains gated until the road dries out.
Also on the Upper Rio Grande, the road to Pearl Lakes is open and is being maintained by a private contractor as part of the Forest Service logging contract.
In June, after successfully opening the high country passes, Hinsdale Road & Bridge will turn its attention to opening other high country access routes, including North Henson Creek, Wager Gulch past Carson to the Continental Divide, and Nellie Creek up to the Uncompahgre Peak trailhead.