Ray Mumford’s snowplow twists around hairpin curves on its way up U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass in the Colorado Rockies, one of the nation’s highest passes kept open to traffic year-round. Suddenly, a powerful wind gust rocks the 20-ton truck and the highway disappears in a blast of swirling snow.
Without hesitation, Mumford, who has plowed Loveland Pass for 33 years, inches the plow forward, pushing aside snow and dispensing sand onto the icy pavement.
“These reflector posts up here are definitely our friends on days like this,” says Mumford, 58, steering between orange triangles shimmering on poles flanking the road.
A regional avalanche coordinator for the Colorado Department of Transportation, Mumford knows every bend along the 13-mile stretch of road that peaks on the Continental Divide at 11,990 feet. “This road becomes part of you,” says the resident of nearby Dillon (pop. 802). “It has its own personality.”
Mumford and his crew of six keep Loveland Pass passable for truck drivers, skiers and locals motorists, and refer to a half-dozen curves along the route by their nicknames. “This is Scotty’s Curve, named in the 1980s after a snowplow driver who went off the road and rolled all the way down,” Mumford says.
A few miles further he points out Outward Bound Pass. “Some kids in the 1960s from Outward Bound were killed here,” Mumford says. “You don’t want anything up here named after you.”
Avalanche chutes along the pass also have nicknames—Widow, Professor, Big Windy—bestowed by the pioneers whose wagons traversed the mountains. During the winter, Mumford keeps Loveland Pass, Berthoud Pass, Vail Pass and Interstate 70 open by blasting unstable snow that piles 30 feet deep in places and directing its fall. Otherwise, acres of sliding snow can bury the road—and motorists.
Mumford triggers avalanches by blasting the snow with cannons and explosives. He sometimes drops charges by helicopter or snowshoes up steep peaks at night, guided by a headlamp, so he can be ready at daylight to drop explosives by hand—“the old John Wayne method—light and throw.”
Co-worker Bill McCormick praises Mumford’s knowledge of the mountains and their dangers. “Ray has such a volume of experience and history with these avalanches,” McCormick says. “This job is almost an obsession with him. It’s a huge responsibility.”
Mumford, who is single and a native of Brighton (pop. 20,905), says the job is all-consuming during the winter months. He can’t remember the last Christmas or New Year’s Day he spent at home. “There are very few jobs where literally your life depends on whatever nature throws you,” says Mumford, whose snowplow has been buried several times by avalanches.
After avalanches and blizzards, the pass can be closed for hours—or even days—as workers clear the road of snow, ice and debris.
Keeping Loveland Pass open is critical, though, because the route is traveled daily by hundreds of tankers and trucks carrying hazardous cargo, which is not permitted in the 1.7-mile-long Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70.
“About 5 in the morning, the tankers start coming one right after another,” Mumford says. Oversized vehicles, such as mobile homes, also use Loveland Pass, along with skiers bound for the Arapahoe Basin and Loveland Ski areas.
In the summer, Mumford repairs snow fences on the slopes and recovers undetonated explosives. He enjoys the best perk of his job then, too, which is taking his lunch on a clear day on the Continental Divide. One lunch break he watched a motorist get out, stand and admire the grandeur of the mountains for almost 30 minutes. “He had tears in his eyes and said, ‘Anyone who doesn’t believe in God hasn’t been on Loveland Pass.’”