An unusually strong weather system blew across the San Juan Mountains on Monday, causing power outages for roughly 1,200 local customers and grinding the gondola and ski lifts to a halt in the late afternoon.
The blizzard swept across much of Colorado, wreaking havoc on holiday travelers. The Interstate 70 corridor through the Rockies was hammered with high winds, sporadic closures and traffic accidents. Here in Telluride, high winds roared through the box canyon so strongly that branches and trees were blown down and visibility was severely limited.
The Telluride airport recorded 50-mile-per-hour wind gusts at times on Monday, according to Tom Renwick, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction Weather Forecast Office. The highest recorded surface wind gust during the storm was recorded on Mt. Abrams near Ouray, at 117 miles per hour.
“That’s stronger than a hurricane,” Renwick noted.
A powerful jet stream carried moisture to the region as well as tumultuous winds. The Telluride Ski Resort reported 12 inches of snowfall over 24 hours during the storm.
“The jet stream shifted from Washington state down to us, and it went directly over us,” said Renwick. “The core of this jet stream had winds of about 180, 190 miles per hour. It came from northern Hawaii, bringing all the moisture from the Pacific. That’s why we got all this snow and also the winds.”
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported high avalanche danger in the northern San Juans as a result of the storm, saying that natural and human triggered avalanches were likely and could be large and destructive.
There were at least 10 traffic accidents during the storm, according to reports from the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Department and the Mountain Village Police Department. Most of those involved cars losing traction and sliding off the road into a ditch.
A storm-related power outage affected approximately 1,200 customers in Mountain Village, Ophir, Trout Lake and roughly half of the ski area including the gondola, according to Becky Mashburn, San Miguel Power Association communications executive.
The outage was caused when a transformer in the local Sunshine Substation tripped at 2:08 p.m. on Monday, Mashburn said. Full power was restored just over two hours later, at 4:18 p.m. The loss of power did not affect the Town of Telluride.
“Weather was definitely a factor in the cause of the outage as well as the restoration efforts,” Mashburn said. “We had outages earlier in the morning in Silverton and Ouray. The weather was hitting us all over the place. It was not isolated to one region.”
Several trees blown over during the storm took down power in nearby Rico around 1 p.m. on Monday, Mashburn added. Power was restored to most of those customers by early Tuesday morning, but a small percentage of Rico residents remained without power at press time Tuesday afternoon as power crews worked to clear and repair the line.
The power outage also affected the gondola and every ski lift except for 1 (the Chondola) and 10 (Sunshine Express), according to ski resort interim PR and Communications Manager Pepper Raper. She said riders on the lifts when the power went out waited between seven and 46 minutes before they could get off. The lifts switched to auxiliary power to get all the riders off before shutting down until power was restored.
“We don’t like it when it happens, nobody does. But we’re prepared to deal with it and we did,” said Chris Colter, the transit director for the Town of Mountain Village, which operates the gondola. Transit officials started running the buses between Telluride and Mountain Village, which also serve riders during the off-season, while the gondola was offline so nobody was stuck without a way home.
“We get a lot of winter weather but yesterday and last night was unusual with all the wind,” Colter said.
Members of ski patrol were out in force on Tuesday morning with snowmobiles to remove trees that had fallen across ski runs due to the high winds, Raper added.
Another storm system is headed toward Telluride, Renwick said, with flurries expected to fall on Thursday morning and six inches of snow expected by Friday.
“It’s not going to be like this last one,” he said. “A little windy but nowhere near as bad.”