SAN MIGUEL COUNTY, Colo. — The thrill of Black Bear Pass in the San Juan Mountains attracts adventurous drivers every year, but a county sheriff had snide remarks Monday for the irresponsible drivers who became stuck on the dangerous pass, labeling them "ass clowns."
This OHV route between U.S. Highway 550 and Telluride slowly leads drivers up to the summit of Red Mountain Pass at about 11,000 feet. Along the way are tight switchbacks, unforgiving drop offs and technical obstacles to navigate. Black Bear Pass is often named one of the most dangerous roads in Colorado.
The pass is currently closed to traffic as county crews have not cleared debris from avalanches or surveyed the road's condition.
Nevertheless, some drivers pushed ahead on Monday.
And it resulted in a colorful warning from the San Miguel County sheriff on social media.
"Some people have it together and know what they are doing, but some who venture up there are complete ass clowns," said Sheriff Bill Masters. "Some people are taking children into these dangerous situations, and in some cases it’s irresponsible and possibly criminal behavior. Keep in mind, we may not be able to reach you if you have an emergency up there and need assistance, so be prepared to abandon your vehicle, be stranded for days, or be seriously injured and inconvenienced."
Of course, that sheriff's office is known for being a bit quirky online. You likely remember the tiny blunder of "large boulder the size of a small boulder" in a 2020 Tweet that went wildly viral and is still a beloved typo today.
Monday's incident started in the afternoon, when the sheriff's office warned that a red Toyota 4Runner was stuck below a section of the pass called the stairs or the steps. In this area, drivers must navigate four switchbacks on a narrow road above a 1,500-foot drop. The 4Runner was partially off the roadway and blocking all other traffic. The sheriff's office said more than a dozen cars were lined up behind it.
Telluride Towing was called in to help. Like all incidents involving a tow truck or rescue on the pass, the cost — which can add up to thousands of dollars — will fall on the involved drivers.
As of 7:15 p.m., the 4Runner and all the cars behind it had been cleared.
Based on the sheriff's office investigation, the people in the 4Runner drove around deep snow on the pass after digging around it for hours this past weekend. They posted on social media that the pass "was unofficially open," the sheriff's office said, even though it was closed.
“None of the people that were up there today should be able to claim they didn’t know Black Bear Pass is closed," Sheriff Masters said. "People are supposed to pay attention to our county’s official announcement rather than social media rumors. It is your responsibility to know before venturing into the backcountry, whether hiking a trail, or driving on a pass, if the area is open and can be traveled safely. Black Bear Pass is dangerous, and you need experience and the right vehicle to navigate it safely."
The U.S. Forest Service strongly recommends that all drivers headed up Black Bear Pass have a high-clearance, short wheel base, four-wheel drive vehicle.
Rescues like this, and the subsequent frustrations, are not uncommon in San Miguel County, said Susan Lilly, public information officer with the sheriff's office.
“The sheriff has had many reasons to call people 'ass clowns' privately and behind closed doors. There’s no shortage of reasons that people could be called that," she said. "But in this case, he's really calling attention to how important it is for people to be prepared, experienced, have the right vehicle before they go up, and drive a very, very dangerous pass.”
“Last year I think we had people stuck who were wearing flip flops and they were up there for hours," she continued. "The weather changes very rapidly up there.”
She noted it is important for drivers to remember that rescuers may not be able to respond immediately in the case of an emergency. In some cases, it can take more than a day.
"There are people who take their children out there who aren't experienced and they get stuck," she said. "It's irresponsible, frankly."
Lilly said Black Bear Pass is typically open in the summer, but this past winter's avalanches had resulted in a lot of rockfall, so conditions have not been safe enough for the county's road and bridge department to mitigate any possible dangers.
"So, certainly when it's closed, there's rockfall around that can cause a rock slide," she said. "It is just not a good idea to get there before that pass is mitigated to make it safe.”
Even with plenty of warnings posted around the road and online, the county has a lengthy history of rescuing drivers who found themselves way over their heads.
In August of last year, San Miguel County deputies and search and rescue teams, along with aircraft crews, responded to the Ingram Falls area after mudslides left eight vehicles stranded.
In September 2021, the pass closed after a 2021 Ford Bronco rolled about 400 feet off a cliff. A woman, dog and the car's engine were ejected.
Deputies determined that two women were driving up Bridal Veil Road and entered the one-way section of Black Bear Pass going the wrong way. They said they didn't see the signs and after a couple switchbacks, decided to turn around. The passenger got out of the car to guide the 23-year-old driver before the car went over the edge, the sheriff's office said. The woman was seriously injured and the dog had minor injuries. Nobody else, including the passenger who was out of the car at the time, was hurt.
“Black Bear Pass is an extremely dangerous road and should only be driven by experienced off-road drivers in appropriate off-road vehicles," Sheriff Masters said after this incident. "Legally, a 16-year-old who got his driver’s license a few hours prior may attempt to drive the pass in his grandmother’s 1980s sedan. That doesn’t mean it’s safe to do so."
About a month prior, on Aug. 20, 2021, the pass closed so authorities could recover an overturned vehicle near Ingram Falls. Nobody was injured in the crash, but the sheriff's office reminded the public that there is limited to no cell service to call for help on the pass.
Back up a few more months to June 20, 2021, and deputies, search and rescue and the Telluride Fire Protection District responded to a UTV rollover on the pass.
The 51-year-old driver said the vehicle tipped as he drove over a rock pile going the wrong way up Black Bear Pass, but he was able to get out without injuries.
A few days beforehand, the pass had closed again for about a day after a pickup truck overturned. The driver said he had misjudged a turn and gone too far up the cliffside. The crash blocked all other vehicles.
Two wreckers were required to remove the truck, and the sheriff's office said large rockfall would be possible during that process. Luckily, the vehicle was removed without any other issues.
Sheriff Masters stressed that incidents like this are the sheriff's office responsibility, but they can't do much beyond installing signs and warning drivers about the route ahead.
"It is unreasonable and unaffordable to place a deputy up there all day to try and prevent people from making poor driving decisions," he said.
In October 2020, authorities responded to the scene of a Jeep that had rolled down several switchbacks from the pass. The driver, a 22-year-old man, said he had shut off the engine of his Jeep Wrangler Sport and applied the emergency brake while he tried to help a driver behind him. But his Jeep, with a 23-year-old woman and two dogs inside, started to roll, eventually ejecting the woman.
The man said he had tried to get in to steer the car, but was thrown into rocks as the Jeep rolled.
Both people were transported to a hospital. While one dog was initially missing after the crash, it was later found safe.
Another close call happened in August 2019, when a SUV rolled down the pass, landing on its roof just feet from what appeared to be a steep cliff. The driver was not seriously injured.
The driver — the only person in the car — was not seriously injured. It took about a day to remove the vehicle.
In July 2018, four people were transported to a hospital after a two-car crash on Black Bear Pass. Highland Helicopters out of Durango helped evacuate two patients. None of their injuries were life-threatening, the sheriff's office said.
The driver of one of the cars was taken into custody on a charge of driving under the influence.