Highway officials say avalanche buries cars on highway to busy to Colorado ski area

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Local Avalanche Risk Information: http://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/today.html

DENVER (AP) - A huge avalanche knocked two cars off a mountain
pass Saturday on the main highway to one of the state's largest ski
areas, shortly after crowds headed through on the way to the lifts,
authorities said.

Eight people were rescued from the buried vehicles and all were
taken to area hospitals, said state Patrolman Eric Wynn. Details of
their conditions were not available.

"Our crews said it was the largest they have ever seen. It took
three paths," Stacey Stegman of the transportation department said
of the massive slide on U.S. 40 near 11,307-foot Berthoud Pass,
about 50 miles west of Denver on the way to Winter Park Resort.

Wynn said crews were probing the area for other vehicles but
they believe all have been found.

Members of Oakwood Road Church in Ames, Iowa, who on a ski trip
were among those swept away by the avalanche, including Darren
Johnson, said his father, Don Johnson.

Darren Johnson's vehicle was the only one of the church's
four-car caravan hit by the snow, his father said.

Don Johnson said his son was treated and released from a Denver
hospital, while a passenger in his car, Peter Olsen of Nevada and a
sophomore at Iowa State University, was being treated for a broken

The avalanche hit between 10 a.m. and 10:30 and was about 200 to
300 feet wide and 15 feet deep, Wynn said. The area usually has
slides 2 to 3 feet deep because crews trigger them before more snow
can accumulate, said Spencer Logan of the Colorado Avalanche
Information Center.

Despite three snow storms in as many weeks, the area of the
avalanche hasn't been hit as hard as eastern parts of the state
that got up to 4 feet of snow, Logan said. But the pass did get up
to 10 inches in the past few days, he said.

Logan said authorities haven't had time to test all slide areas,
and he blamed 30 mph wind, with gusts up to 60 mph Saturday
morning, for the avalanche conditions. The danger was expected to
increase with the prediction of 70 mph wind gust in the evening.

"This is a tremendous amount of snow to come down the mountain
for us," Stegman said.

Michael Murphy and his friends were heading up to the
backcountry and to Winter Park ski resort Saturday when their path
was blocked by the avalanche, which he estimated came down minutes
before they got to the scene. One friend's father was about 10
minutes ahead of them, caught on the other side of the avalanche.
"Initially we couldn't get in cell phone contact with him so we
were pretty nervous," said Murphy, 20, of Boulder.

Murphy's party and other motorists used avalanche probes and
shovels to search for any cars that might have been trapped but
didn't find anyone. He said the two cars that were swept off the
road were pushed down about 150 to 200 feet into trees off the

Mile Cikara, who was headed to Winter Park to ski, told KMGH-TV
in Denver that he joined others furiously digging out victims. "I
along with 30 other people grabbed shovels and started digging to
get people out. I had a shovel but people were using their hands,
skis, ski poles, whatever, to dig out," until rescue teams
arrived, he said.

The timing meant most traffic headed to the ski area had already
passed through.

"Good thing it didn't happen a couple of hours earlier," said
Darcy Morse, a Winter Park spokeswoman. On an average January
weekend day, the resort draws more than 10,000 skiers and
snowboarders, with lifts opening at 8:30 or 9 a.m.

Wynn said the pass was closed and would not reopen until Sunday
at the earliest.

Colorado has been digging out for the past three weeks after
back-to-back blizzards and more snow falling Friday.

The Denver area was blanketed with up to 8 inches of snow
Friday, while nearly a foot fell in the foothills west of the city
before the storm moved into New Mexico.

Crews in Colorado have worked around the clock to clear roads so
residents could get to stores for food and medicine.

Agriculture officials also were trying to determine how to deal
with the carcasses of thousands of livestock that were killed in
last week's blizzard or starved afterward.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)