Whiteout on Wolf Creek

2020/01/OT-011620-train2-300x219.jpg Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Running a mountain railroad could be risky business in pioneer Pagosa days. This engine rolled over on the track just south of Pagosa Springs on what is now U.S. 84 near its junction with the Blanco Basin road.

If you’ve recently risked shepherding your most mobile debt, the family auto, over snow-packed Wolf Creek Pass, you’ll likely agree with a group of Durango journalists who concluded a few years ago via a poll that Wolf Creek Pass is the worst drive in Colorado. That’s worst meaning most dangerous.

The data categories used in the poll were snow, switchbacks, steepness, traffic, elevation, distance from help and frequency of accidents.

Closely behind Wolf Creek in the poll were Monarch Pass and Red Mountain Pass. Monarch suffered the most deaths from accidents, averaging one a week. Red Mountain is a few miles northwest of Wolf Creek on the same Continental Divide mountain range.

The worst calamities on Wolf Creek occur at the switchback adorning the west end of the pass. Ironically, tourists often pull into a parking area known as the overlook adjacent to the switchback, where they ooh and aah over the scenic panorama spread out below them. Little do they know that the flat, brushy terrain 200 feet directly below them is known as the graveyard by truck drivers and Pagosa-area locals.

A long, downhill slope leads to the sharp turn at the overlook. Some truck drivers burn out their brakes by the time they reach the sharp turn and, consequently, roll into or though the guardrail, spilling whatever payload they are carrying. The list of spilled products is long. I have known locals, after hearing about a new wreck, to rush to the graveyard and load up on spilled beer cans, cans of beans, packaged meats or other desirable items.

Not so desirable was an over-turned circus truck loosing a load of lions, tigers, leopards, etc., allowing them to pad off into the Rocky Mountain wilderness. I subsequently heard that most of the oversized felines were soon recaptured. In later years I listened and wondered as neighbors in New Mexico described a large, hair-maned cat they had been seeing on a nearby hillside.

I personally spent a nerve-wracking night on Wolf Creek Pass a few years ago on my way home to Pagosa Springs from Creede. I was thoroughly enjoying the scenery and the star-speckled night sky as I hummed Cash McCall’s recent hit “Wolf Creek Pass” and started westward up the east side of the pass. Just a little before reaching the snow shed designed to keep avalanches from burying the road-way, dark clouds swept in and snow dropped in bunches, I mean so much snow I couldn’t see the hood ornament, let alone the edges of the highway. A sure-enough whiteout it was.

As I entered the shed, I noticed a “Do not park in the snow shed” sign. I also noticed an overhead light at the west end of the shed. What to do? Break the law or break my neck while falling off the mountain? Easy decision. I was betting that the highway patrol was busy down on lower, flatter and blizzard-less ground.

I parked my flivver under the light at the west end of the shed and spent the night staring out the exit until daylight allowed me to fire up and putt putt along westward to Pagosa Springs, where I gulped down a pot of black coffee at Al’s Café and shared tall tales with the early morning truckers.