Boulders tumble down cliffs

Photo by Dean Humphrey—Colorado Department of Transportation workers break up a big boulder which fell into the lanes of I-70 near the milemarker 51 in DeBeque canyon on I-70 this morning. The slide has been removed from the road. Both lanes of westbound and one lane of eastbound traffic have opened this afternoon.



Photo by Dean Humphrey—Colorado Department of Transportation workers break up a big boulder which fell into the lanes of I-70 near the milemarker 51 in DeBeque canyon on I-70 this morning. The slide has been removed from the road. Both lanes of westbound and one lane of eastbound traffic have opened this afternoon.



Eric Thompson received an in-your-face lesson Monday on just how different negotiating big-city traffic is from winding through the high cliffs and curves of De Beque Canyon.

Several boulders the size of sport-utility vehicles tumbled onto Interstate 70 in the canyon, shutting down portions of the highway for several hours but fortunately avoiding vehicles zipping along during the morning commute.

Officials with the Colorado Department of Transportation were expected to spend today and possibly longer examining the hillside to determine what caused the rocks to fall.

The slide was reported just after 9:30 a.m. east of the Beaver Tail Tunnels and initially closed both eastbound lanes and one westbound lane. Four boulders dropped onto the interstate, including one that bounced across the eastbound lanes, smashed through a concrete median and came to rest in the left-hand westbound lane. A fifth boulder landed behind an earth wall constructed in part to prevent boulders from toppling onto the road, CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks said.

CDOT gradually reopened the interstate throughout the day as crews used front-end loaders to push the boulders off the road. Crews also patched 2-foot to 3-foot diameter potholes left by the boulders, Shanks said.

Only one eastbound lane remained closed as of 10 p.m.

Thompson, a facility manager with oilfield services company Schlumberger, was with a co-worker heading back to Grand Junction from a Parachute job site when they came upon the rockslide about 15 minutes after it was reported.

“Honestly, it was, ‘Holy (expletive),’ ” he said of his reaction to seeing boulders larger than the Ford F-250 carrying his co-worker and him. He snapped a few pictures from the passenger seat as they veered around the boulder in the westbound lane.

Thompson moved to Grand Junction from Houston about a year ago and drives through the canyon virtually daily.

“We don’t have any kind of scenery like this, much less the possibility of something falling on top of you,” Thompson said of driving in Houston. “This will definitely add a whole new dimension to my drive through the canyon.”

Thompson noted he was part of a convoy of 12 Schlumberger vehicles that drove east through the canyon about 4 a.m. He said he expected company executives to brief drivers on the slide and the need to be on the lookout while driving through the canyon.

Shanks said a mechanically stabilized earthen wall was erected along that section of I-70 more than 10 years ago to both stabilize the hillside and catch any rocks that tumble down.

A CDOT geologist arrived in the canyon late Monday afternoon to begin an investigation.

“One notion is always looking at weather impacts and fluctuations in temperature,” Shanks said, noting that moisture and expansion and contraction of the ground can trigger slides.

Grand Junction dipped to a record low of 23 degrees Monday morning after climbing to a high of 59 on Sunday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Schwitzer.

Monday’s slide was the first in De Beque Canyon since September 2007, when heavy rains loosened shale and undercut boulders that crashed down onto the road. The slide killed 53-year-old Patricia Bradshaw, a Grand Junction truck driver.


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