Five years and a day ago, an unthinkably giant wall of rock and debris roared almost three miles down a valley outside Collbran, burying everything in its path, including three beloved local men.

A half-decade later, dangers associated with the West Salt Creek Landslide persist, as does the pain of the loss experienced by family members of those who died.

"I can tell you that we miss them everyday," said Mary Lane.

Her brother, Clancy Nichols, 51, and his son, Danny, 24, were killed in the natural disaster, along with 46-year-old Wes Hawkins.

"May is not a kind month for us. It's a constant reminder of many different losses," said Lane.

Her ex-husband Mike, the father of her two children, died east of Collbran when a bridge collapsed over flood-swollen Buzzard Creek in May 1984.

As families continue to process the loss of loved ones five years ago in such a freak geological event, at least in human time scales, officials are keeping a close eye on conditions in the slide area. Snowpack above the slide this season is the largest it has been since the slide occurred, leaving observers to wonder what the impact may be when all that snow melts.

There's "going to be a lot more water coming through than we've ever seen" since the slide, said Bill Edwards, district ranger of the U.S. Forest Service's Grand Valley Ranger District.

The upper part of the slide area is national forest land. For most of the time since the slide, the Forest Service has had a succession of closure orders in place in that area to protect the public from potential instability in the slide area, although the closure area has slowly been reduced in size over time as such concerns have been mitigated. Instability along the cliff edges remains a safety hazard, as the cliffs continue to erode following the slide. But this year, the closure order is in place through July and the end of the melt season, after which it could be lifted.

First, officials want to see what happens with all that snow looming above the slide. Snowpack was about 150 percent of normal in that area this year.

Andy Martsolf, Mesa County's emergency services director, said this year will be an important one regarding the status of the landslide, given all that snowpack and the longer-duration runoff it will produce from a lake that formed at the upper end of the slide just after it occurred.

"With that longer-duration outflow from the lake we're watching to see if we get any sort of soil- saturation issues that cause any problems that may cause further deterioration of the landslide mass," Martsolf said.

2016 issues

In 2016 some 50,000 cubic meters of earth fell from the cliff above the lake, with 30,000 meters ending up in the water and displacing about 120 acre-feet of water, he said. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

The 2016 event caused downstream flooding.

What's known geologically as the "head scarp" above the lake continues to slough off material, something soil saturation could accentuate this year. Ground infiltration of rain and snowmelt are believed to have triggered the 2014 slide.

Martsolf said that as rock and debris continues to flake off the cliff face and debris forms a fan below it, the cliff is gradually starting to lean back and find a "position of natural repose."

"Ideally nature is going to take care of itself, hopefully," he said.

For now, another concern is the possibility of a heavy rainstorm on snow above the slide, which Martsolf said could enhance snowmelt runoff into the lake.

The lake is full, with about 200 acre-feet of water, and is spilling water now from a naturally formed spillway. Officials are watching that spillway for signs of erosion that could lead to a larger spill of water. Martsolf said that fortunately, the upper part of the spillway is armored with basalt boulders. They should better resist erosion.

He said there haven't been many high-water years since the slide.

"This year will be different and hopefully we'll come out of this runoff season with a sense of comfort that we have a stabilized area up there," Martsolf said.

Once this runoff season is over, a technical coordination group will be able to regroup and decide how to move forward regarding the landslide, evaluating whether the county needs to continue with its monitoring of the slide.

"We knew when this happened we would be living with this on a frequent basis for a number of years," Martsolf said.

Electronic monitoring

Cameras and motion sensors are in place in the slide area. Martsolf said that over the years, the motion sensors have detected vertical movement from landslide settling, but horizontal movement has been limited to fractions of inches.

He said it takes a lot of work to maintain the equipment. Not helping matters has been interest from bears that are attracted to it and cause damage. Martsolf said one theory is that they are drawn to coolers that hold solar-charged batteries, having learned to associate coolers with food.

"That's just the theory," he said.

The rugged coolers withstand the bears' interest well, but other equipment suffers incidental damage.

Rex Cole, a geology professor at Colorado Mesa University, said the landslide has stabilized over the years, mainly through compaction. He's struck by how different the surface has begun to look in just five years. West Elk Creek has re-established itself. Large blocks of weak Green River formation rock already have disintegrated into piles of rubble. While Martsolf considers the revegetation there to be sparse to date, Cole has been impressed by what regrowth he sees.

A researcher interested in devoting the next 30 years of their career to the slide "could make quite a bit of an interesting study from the biological part of the story," Cole said.

Cole's own interest in the story is the amazing in-our-lifetime chapter the slide has added to the long geological history of landslides that have helped make Grand Mesa what it is today.

"Geologically it's very active, but we (geologists) think of things in tens and hundreds of thousands of years rather than human lifetimes," he said.

Even the West Salt Creek Valley has previously slid at some point in prehistoric times.

Such slides will continue to occur at various scales on Grand Mesa, which to Cole makes efforts to continue to geologically map the region and identify hazard areas important.

Cole notes that the kind of geological "mass wasting" that helped shape Grand Mesa through downslope movement of rock, soil and vegetation can be too slow to be detectable in a human lifetime, or instantaneous, as in the 2014 landslide and in rockfall incidents in De Beque and Glenwood canyons.

Pain of loss

While the West Salt Creek slide was astonishing from a geological standpoint, it also remains a story of unfathomable tragedy. Mary Lane was reluctant to discuss the anniversary of the deaths of her brother and Danny Nichols and Wes Hawkins in any detail because the topic is such a difficult one.

Clancy was a Mesa County road and bridge employee, as was Lane's ex-husband, who was checking the bridge that collapsed 35 years ago. His body wasn't found for six weeks.

"Clancy was instrumental in looking for Mike when he was missing," Lane said.

The remains of the landslide victims have never been found.

Lane said such losses don't become easier to bear over the years.

"Thirty-five years later it's still hard, so it's not easier after five," she said.

But she added, "You just honor them and know that they would want you to go on living. They would want you to enjoy life and live life."

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