DENVER – 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.
• Photo Essay: Avalanche
"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.
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.
Three snow storms in as many weeks have dumped more than 4 feet of snow on parts of Colorado and authorities haven't had time to test all slide areas, Logan said.
"This is a tremendous amount of snow to come down the mountain for us," Stegman said.
What raised the avalanche danger as much or more than the storms was wind of 25 to 30 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph Saturday morning, Logan said. The avalanche danger was expected to rise with gusts up to 70 mph predicted Saturday night.
"That's not that fast for this area, but it's plenty fast enough to blow snow around and make for more of these potential avalanche slabs," Logan said.
Among those hospitalized after the avalanche was Darren Johnson, a member of the Oakwood Road Church in Ames, Iowa, said Johnson's father, Don Johnson. He did not know the extent of the injuries but did not believe they were life threatening.
Darren and his wife, Sarah Johnson, were in a group of about 30 church members returning home from a ski trip to Colorado that started Jan. 1.
Don Johnson said the group was traveling in a four-car caravan. He was unsure of whether other members of the church group were injured.
Johnson said the group had left their ski resort Saturday morning and traveled about 10 to 15 miles on their way home when they were caught up in the avalanche.
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 highway.
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.