San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters wants unprepared people to stay off Black Bear and other backcountry passes.
“Don’t be an a** clown” Masters said bluntly Wednesday. “With all due respect to a** clowns.”
Black Bear Pass requires skill, the right kind of vehicle, and drivers who are dressed and equipped for a lengthy stay in all kinds of conditions. It is not the place for the inexperienced.
Masters has for years warned the public about the rigors of the pass, but each year sees people trapped on the pass or wrecking. Although not always, such incidents are often the result of people who don’t know what they’re doing trying to tackle Black Bear, Masters said. And he’s had enough.
Masters is at this point even considering a sign, one with a skull and crossbones — and the aforementioned admonition.
“It’s a dangerous, scary road. People are going up there that have no business being on it. All our mountain communities need to stand united and tell people it is dangerous. If you have to ask the question if it is dangerous, you shouldn’t go up there,” Masters said.
Over the years, some people have died in crashes on Black Bear, while others have survived “by the grace of God,” Masters said.
Among recent search and rescue calls throughout San Miguel County was one involving too large of a pickup to navigate Black Bear Pass — a road Masters, well experienced with the area, avoids driving on at all. Another person, misdirected by GPS, tried to take a box van over Ophir Pass. Masters said another person wrecked on rolled on Black Bear, thankfully remaining on the roadway instead of going over the nearby 1,000-foot drop-off.
The number of responses isn’t the issue, but rather, that each one is resource heavy and requires lengthy pass closures when they occur there, Masters said.
Several deputies spend several hours for each call, getting equipment in place to remove the vehicles with the assistance of the skilled wrecker operator with Telluride Tire and Auto. All the while, people who are skilled and equipped to drive the pass have to wait.
“It’s a huge impact on our office and our one wrecker driver who agrees to go up there. Other people in the meantime are trapped behind the vehicle that is stuck,” Masters said.
People also need to heed the weather and what they are wearing, including footgear — yet travelers hit the pass wearing flip-flops and other unsuitable shoes.
“It can be snowing up there any day of the year. Mudslides can come down and trap vehicles. Unless they are prepared to spend several days in the mountains, they are going to have to walk out. They’re literally wearing sandals that might be appropriate in a Mall in Dallas. They can’t even walk out,” Masters said.
So, his agency and partners respond to help them. Because many such assists could be avoided if people made better decisions at the outset, the sheriff is frustrated.
“It’s ridiculous. We need to make sure everyone knows it is ridiculous. Stay off our mountain passes if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Although it’s been broiling in Montrose and lower elevations, with rainstorms in the afternoon, Black Bear has seen snow and hail this week, making the road slick.
There have also been mudslides, some of which came down on the eastern side of San Miguel County on Tuesday, at the time closing Colorado 145 east of Telluride, as well as closing Black Bear Pass, Bridal Veil Road and Tomboy Road.
Mudslides not only close more traveled highways to traffic, but can trap people on Black Bear. Masters anticipated extensive delays on Black Bear Thursday because of mudslides, and reminded the public that the area is under a flash flood watch.
“People just don’t get it. They don’t believe it’s as bad as we say,” Masters said. “They think they’re on the freeway or something, that they’re going to instantaneously have (rescue) vehicles to take care of it.”
Masters hopes a more explicit warning on his county’s side of Black Bear Pass will help deter the inexperienced. He also hopes jeep rental companies continue informing their clientele, and is pleased that so far this year, there have not been problems on the pass with people who are driving rental jeeps.
“Everyone needs to be careful and know what the hell they are doing and have the appropriate vehicle,” Masters said.
Weather is also snarling traffic on well-traveled and maintained roads elsewhere. Monsoons triggered mudslide and flash flood warnings statewide — for the region, most notably, on I-70, Glenwood Canyon and Colorado 133, McClure Pass.
According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, crews were on the ground Wednesday, clearing five mudslides on I-70 in Glenwood Canyon and sections nearby. McClure Pass south of Carbondale was open to one-alternating lane of traffic as road crews cleared up mudslides from Tuesday
CDOT warned travelers that road closures are likely to continue along with the rains, and to keep up to date on conditions and restrictions (cotrip.org or dial 511). Motorists should bear in mind the possibility of lengthy delays.
The National Weather Service has predicted the full force of the summer monsoon season during the next week to 10 days.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.