DENVER — Wind-whipped snow and avalanche danger closed the main highway through the Colorado mountains for most of Monday, stranding hundreds of travelers.
Portions of a 60-mile stretch of Interstate 70 — the main route between Denver and some of the state's biggest ski resorts — were shut down in both directions from around 5 p.m. Sunday until about 4 p.m. Monday.
The long delay had some travelers contemplating the prospect of welcoming the new year on a cot in a shelter. More than 2,000 spent Sunday night in shelters, but the Red Cross closed all its shelters Monday after traffic started moving.
Doyle Peterson told Denver's KUSA-TV that it took him two to three hours to drive home to Denver once the highway was opened.
"I was thinking I was going to have to spend New Year's Eve in my pickup truck," Peterson said. "I just opened up a beer in celebration and said `Yeah, finally I get a warm shower.'"
Liquor stores did a brisk business after the highway shut down.
"We've definitely seen a rush," said John Will of Antler's Discount Liquor in Frisco.
Leaha Widrowicz was trying to get back to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her boyfriend and his mother after a skiing trip but had to spend the night in Frisco, missing their midnight flight from Denver International Airport.
"We're not even thinking of New Year's right now," Widrowicz said. "We are just trying to get home to family."
High winds piled deep snow into more than two dozen narrow ravines in the mountainsides — known as avalanche chutes — raising the danger of deadly avalanches cascading onto I-70. Blowing snow reduced visibility to nearly zero.
Authorities cleared out that snow before letting traffic through again.
Wind gusts at the Eisenhower Tunnel, where the interstate passes under the Continental Divide at 11,000 feet above sea level, reached 70 mph.
The section of the highway that was closed carries as many as 39,000 cars on Sundays during this time of year, officials said.
Loveland Ski Area, about 45 miles west of Denver, shut down for the day because the highway closure kept skiers and workers away.
While many people took advantage of seven Red Cross shelters in schools and recreation centers, others relied on the kindness of strangers.
Brian Jerry of Colorado Springs said people he had never met before let him stay in their Silverthorne home because motels were full. "We called the local Quality Inn, and they basically laughed at us," Jerry said.
Blowing snow and low visibility also kept one other mountain pass closed Monday; two others that had been cut off were reopened.
In Utah, an avalanche at a trailhead Monday swept away a man whose snowmobile had broken down, authorities said.
"Two people went to help, and my understanding is the slide triggered 400 yards above them," said Lt. Jeff Winterton of Wasatch County Search and Rescue. "The other two were able to swim out of it."
Rescuers performed CPR on the man before he was airlifted to a hospital in Provo, Winterton said. His identity and his condition were not immediately released.
Authorities had warned of the danger of avalanches in Utah's backcountry, where thousands of people were expected to ski, hike and snowmobile on New Year's Day. Avalanches there have already claimed two lives this season.
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