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Snowplowing on the edge: The daily grind of keeping one of Colorado's most dangerous roads clear of snow

"I’ve been in the area for so long that that road is like looking at the back of my hand," he said.
Million Dollar Highway US 550 winter snowplow
Posted at 4:00 AM, Feb 16, 2022

SILVERTON, Colo. — At this point, Clint Rhoades could probably drive the most treacherous and narrow guardrail-free strips of US Highway 550 with his eyes closed.

After all, it's not that different from driving a snowplow in white-out conditions. And that's hardly a rare occurrence when winter hits Colorado's San Juan Mountains.

Rhoades is one of the few people with the Colorado Department of Transportation who have the ideal mix of bravery, comfort and skill to plow what has arguably been ranked as the state's most dangerous road — US 550 through Ouray County and San Juan County.

A good chunk of that stretch is called the Million Dollar Highway, which runs about 20 miles between Ouray and Silverton. US 550 then continues south to Purgatory and beyond. The highway leads travelers up and down Red Mountain Pass, Molas Pass and Coal Bank Pass, through a vast and mostly undeveloped part of Colorado beloved by many outdoor enthusiasts.

While the road does lend itself to stunning views of the San Juans, it comes with a price. The driver's attention cannot drift from the road for a moment. While it's as wide as 48 feet in some places, it narrows down to 23 feet in others. Guardrails line only small portions of the road, which is a mixture of easy-going straightaways and white-knuckle-inducing curves. Look over the edge and you'll see a several-hundred-foot drop, so it's no question why the speed limit is 25 mph or slower.

This section of US 550 attracts countless visitors in the summer months, when the road is clear and dry. Camping, hiking, mountain biking, fishing and backpacking are all common in the area, when the promise of sun and warmth draws adventurers into the backcountry.

Winter is a different story.

US 550 Red Mountain Pass avalanche_CDOT

In the summertime, you may not notice the 70 dry avalanche chutes or think about 25 feet of annual snow piling up. You may not imagine the temperatures plummeting far below zero or visibility shrinking to just a few feet.

And you may not remember that gritty snow plow drivers buckle up almost every day to keep that road clear.

"It's not rocket science to do this job — it's just stressful and dangerous," Rhoades said.

Rhoades was born and raised in Silverton, so US 550 has always been a part of his life. In 2009, when he was searching for a job, the CDOT supervisor out of Silverton needed a temporary snowplow driver and approached him. Rhoades decided to give it a go.

READ MORE: The Million Dollar Highway’s steep history as one of Colorado’s most scenic passes

"I’ve been in the area for so long that that road is like looking at the back of my hand," he said.

He was immediately assigned to US 550 from the top of Molas Pass to the top of Red Mountain Pass. He started in the fall when snowfall was light. Riding behind the wheel of a giant four-wheel drive plow, he was barely challenged.

Later that season, snowstorms started to move in in earnest.

"I was truly excited," he said. "That was what I signed up for. I know people that have been working there and knew what the work involved and entailed... I wanted to be a part of it. I was champing at the bit to put my plow down and move some snow."

US 550 avalanche clearing_CDOT

Each year, he gained more insight into the small details of the road from both personal experience and his teammates and mentors.

"I think their information and their knowledge was more valuable than anything," he said. "Because they're not going to steer anyone — and none of us are going to steer any one of us — down the wrong path that could lead to disaster. So, we want to make sure everyone is geared and prepared for any situation we can think of."

Now, about a dozen years after he started with CDOT, Rhoades is the supervisor of the Silverton patrol.

It hasn't come without a few adrenaline-spiking moments.

In the winter of 2018-2019, he was working out of the Cascade facility, where he was tasked with plowing along Coal Bank Pass and south Molas Pass. A massive storm moved in and ended up trapping people in their cars between two avalanches. They were lucky to have avoided a direct hit from the slides, but were stuck nonetheless.

Rhoades said his supervisor called him up and told him about the situation.

Rhoades drove up in a motor grader with a big plow and started "punching" a hole through the first slide, he said. About halfway through, the avalanche started to slide again and pushed his plow toward the edge of the road, where there was nothing but a 500- to 600-foot fall.

"And it made me nervous for a minute, for sure," he said. "I had to quickly hit reverse and back out of there before it kept pushing me over the edge. And then I just waited for it to finish running and went out again. Got the road open and got those people out of there. But it was definitely nerve-wracking for that 30 seconds while it was pushing on me."

US 550 avalanche clearing 2_CDOT

Around Christmas on another year, a plow driver was headed up Molas Pass and mistook a ditch full of snow for an extension of the road. The plow rolled off the road and down about 30 to 40 feet before coming to a stop. The driver, who was wearing a seatbelt, was OK, but Rhoades called the incident an "eye-opener." A heavy rig company had to go in later to retrieve the plow, which was too damaged to use for the rest of that year.

Aside from the particularly noteworthy frights, the everyday stress also takes a toll.

"The long periods sitting in a truck for that long, strain on your eyes from the snow, constantly just stressed if an avalanche is going to come down, or if another driver is going to slide into you, or if you're not following the road exactly because you can't see — it wears on you big time," Rhoades said. "But you just push through it."

Plus, equipment doesn't always pull through when it needs to, and it's not uncommon for a plow to blow a hydraulic line or for a pump to seize up. It often means the driver needs to get out of the vehicle and poke around in the elements to solve the problem, or call a fellow teammate over the radio to come pick them up.

He said CDOT drivers must wrangle with the "tough beast" of plowing tight switchbacks where their wheels near the brink. Even in Ironton, a flat two-mile stretch between Ouray and Silverton, the wind can blow snow to reduce visibility to barely 10 feet. Up at the higher elevations, plow drivers must memorize where the avalanche chutes — all 70 of them — cross the road.

Eagle Slide on US 550_CDOT

"If it's snowing real hard and you can't really see, you just got to know where you're at on that road and know, ‘Hey, I’m under an avalanche path, I can’t be stopping here. I need to move down the road a little more.’ You've got these narrow roads, sheer drop offs — 1,000-foot drop. And so you really got to pay attention. Take your time. And like I said, just know the road, be comfortable with what you're doing, and don't get in a rush. Don't get complacent.... Each section has its own little set of challenges that you gotta be ready for and know what to do when you come to them."

But Rhoades' fears lay mostly dormant and tucked away. If he thinks about the dangers too much, he feels like "it's going to draw me toward that edge."

"I act like it's not even there," he said. "I just go about plowing, knowing that I'm on the road. Just trust my instincts, trust my skills, knowing that I can do it."

Sound like a thrilling job you'd like?

CDOT does have a position open in its Silverton patrol. Anybody with a Class B CDL can apply. Experience driving mountain passes is a plus, but the license is the main part, he said. Supervisors can teach the rest.

But it's a tough sell, though, Rhoades acknowledged. Eight-hour shifts can quickly turn into 12-hour shifts in a storm. Drivers must live in Silverton, where affordable housing is difficult to find and standard grocery stores are either 60 miles north to Montrose or 50 miles south to Durango.

US 550 avalanche clearing_CDOT

Of course, that's the exact reason why the snowplow job is so crucial. US 550 must stay open.

"Our main focus is keeping Molas Pass and Coal Bank Pass open so people can get to Durango," he said. "We will close Red Mountain Pass, and not worry about it. But we will make sure that Molas and Coal Bank are open so people out of Silverton can get to the south."

After particularly heavy snowfall, sometimes two or three days pass before the highway reopens. But Rhoades said most residents understand and are prepared for lengthy closures.

"I feel better being able to make that call and close the road down because then I know no one is up on the pass, trapped driving over the pass," he said. "My guys are off of the pass. No one's going to get stuck or hurt or have any issues with that road closed."

That eliminates the problem of unprepared drivers. From his own experience, Rhoades estimated that nine out of every 10 drivers on this stretch of US 550 aren't ready for winter conditions. CDOT snowplow crews have encountered a multitude of problems with travelers in far over their heads, he said. Sometimes they don't have good tires, or are driving too slow or too fast. Sometimes they ride their brakes the whole way. Spin-outs are common.

"If you're in doubt, pull over off the road and wait. And if that doesn't sound good, find a road that bypasses the mountains and takes you to where you're going in a different direction," Rhoades said. "You can always go around."

During storms, the fewer drivers on the road, the better for the snow plowers.

US 550 avalanche cleanup_CDOT

"A good group of guys out there, they're taking care of the roads. It really eases a lot of people's minds," he said. "Knowing that you got that family home safely or knowing that that road is in good shape because of what you did and being out there plowing it — there's not a better feeling than that."

You can list to Denver7 Traffic Expert Jayson Luber's podcast featuring the stories of Clint Rhoades on Podbean here.

Denver7 Traffic Expert Jayson Luber contributed to this story.