The most perilous road in America gets 300 inches of snow a year, features 70 named avalanche paths, and has almost no guardrails. Who would be crazy enough to keep Colorado’s infamous Highway 550 clear in winter? Leath Tonino hopped into the cab of a Mack snowplow truck to find out.
It’s an exceedingly white January afternoon on America’s sketchiest road—white flurries rushing the windshield and swirling in the mirrors, white ridges and cirques disappearing among torn white clouds. Heck, even the road is white, though it won’t remain so for long. Dack Klein is behind the wheel of his 18-ton Mack plow truck, laughing his big laugh, navigating yet another lethal curve with all the casual confidence of a man who has done this some 7,000 times before. Or maybe it’s 8,000 times.
An equipment operator with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), Klein has worked the 15 miles of U.S. Highway 550 that climb from Ouray to the top of 11,018-foot Red Mountain Pass since 2003. He has worked them at dawn and midnight, on Halloween and Easter and Cinco de Mayo. He has worked them in every imaginable type of blizzard—from the fierce to the downright savage, from the protracted to the never-ending.
Forty-two years old, with a black buzz cut, a stout build, and a probably-should-have-died crash under his belt, Klein is familiar with every inch of Red Mountain Pass. A typical shift for one of the four full-time employees stationed at Ouray lasts eight hours but will stretch to 12 or 18 when the weather insists. Weekends are more of a theoretical possibility, monthlong runs of consecutive days to be expected. Between late September and early June, Klein spends half as much time with his wife and three kids as he does with his Mack, doing the job, which he calls “pushing.”
Milepost 90, passing below an avalanche path named Ruby Walls: “You’ve got to appreciate the dangers when you’re pushing. Last winter we had a chunk of rock the size of a football field detach right here.”
Milepost 87, entering Ironton Park, the road’s only flattish section: “There have been nights I could barely see past the wipers when I was pushing. It can take 20 minutes to manage this one nasty mile if it’s blowing.”
Milepost 81, beneath Blue Point: “The saying goes that Blue Point will run if you sneeze. Usually it’s a bank slip, but occasionally it’s a giant, and then you’ve got to do some serious pushing.”
Milepost 80.28, at the summit: “Jackknifed 18-wheelers, four feet of fresh powder in eight hours—pushing on Red gets crazy. But that’s what makes it special, right?”
The San Juan Mountains average 349 inches of snow annually, and much of it falls twice: first from the sky, then from the crests and headwalls where it tries, and fails, to cling. Seventy named avalanche paths intersect Highway 550 in the 23 miles between Ouray and Silverton, the town on the south side of the pass that serves as a base for another of CDOT’s 200 patrols across the state. The infamous East Riverside slide can dump 50 feet of concrete-thick debris and has taken the lives of three plowmen—in 1970, 1978, and 1992—as well as a preacher and his two daughters in 1963, and two men and most of their team of mules in 1883. Since 1935, when the first attempts to keep the road open through winter were made, dozens of people have perished trying to get across, though an exact number is impossible to tally.
The threats are numerous: soaring cliffs, towers of brittle ice, 8 percent grades, unexpected doglegs. I spoke with Klein over the phone, and he explained that the lower portion of the road is literally chiseled into the vertical rock of the Uncompahgre Gorge—a narrow geologic throat 1,000 feet deep in places. The upper portion, beyond Ironton Park, traverses subalpine slopes largely scoured of trees. We talked for 15 minutes and he used the word respect often enough that I lost count. He also exuded a kind of pure, almost childlike enthusiasm for the elemental power of the range, the clarity of purpose his job engenders, and what he called his “Tonka truck.”
By the end of the conversation, an invitation was on the table: come ride.