By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
A group of Powell students helped clear debris from a rock slide along the narrow canyon highway between Shoshoni and Thermopolis that brought traffic to a standstill for four hours on Saturday.
However, some are questioning the wisdom of the action given the instability of the mountainsides above the highway.
“You know, that was totally on their own, and we would not recommend that,” said Cody Beers, a public information specialist for the Wyoming Department of Trasportation. “Now, I’m glad it all went well, and I’m glad they were able to get through there safely. But at that point, it was a fairly volatile situation. There could have been more rocks that could have come down.”
According to reports, the rock slide just north of the three tunnels over U.S. Highway 20 between Shoshone and Thermopolis brought traffic on the highway to a halt. Photos taken by travelers showed a large amount of debris spread across both lanes of traffic.
Beers told Cowboy State Daily that the department received the initial call about the rock slide at about 7 p.m. Loaders were sent from both sides of the slide and had the road open again by about 11:15 p.m.
“And we ended up with five people out there Saturday night, and we got it cleaned out,” he said.
Included among the vehicles stopped on the road was a bus carrying members of Powell’s soccer team home after a meet.
Witnesses said students got out of the bus and began moving some of the rocks to allow some traffic to pass.
Michele Hampton said she was traveling with her daughter, a member of the Powell girls varsity soccer team, a few vehicles behind the bus from Powell and one from Worland when they came upon the slide.
“We went through the three tunnels,” said Hampton. “And I saw the Powell Panthers, they were there pulling the rocks up, and I got there at the tail end of that.”
Hampton posted words of praise and a photo of the Worland bus working its way through the path cleared by the Powell students on social media Saturday.
“I just want to give a standing ‘O’ to the Powell Panther Soccer boys major rock slide coming through Wind River Canyon,” she wrote. “These boys pulled boulders off the highway so cars could get through! All people and kids are safe.”
Comments responding to Hampton’s post regarding the boys’ actions were largely positive, with several, such as Chris Brewer, also a parent to one of the students, joining Hampton in expressing pride in the young people for helping others.
“I’m also glad our young men were able to assist on their own accord,” she wrote. “No one forced them to do anything. Most other men wouldn’t have hesitated to jump in. They make a great team. Glad they got to move through the canyon vs. sitting ducks in the canyon for hours or the drive around route which would have been treacherous as well.”
Others, while praising the students, said their actions might have been ill-advised.
“I do think that it was a highly commendable thought to help out the way that our Powell students did in regards to the slide,” said Chad Eagleton, also the parent of a Powell student. “However, they’re at a school function and the school is 100% responsible for their safety and how many were 18 and over? There was nobody qualified to say that scene was safe. It was extremely unsafe.”
Eagleton said the adults accompanying the athletes should have prevented them from putting themselves in harm’s way.
“I really do love that the kids’ first thought was to help,” Eagleton said, “but they do not have agency to make those decisions and neither does the school.”
Beers said when confronted with a rock slide, the best thing to do is leave the debris alone, since the mountainside that spawned the slide can still be unstable.
“The best bet when you encounter a rockslide is to not move rocks out of the way because there may be another event coming, you know, we just don’t know the stability of a canyon wall at that point,” he said.
The Wind River Canyon is the only option for travelers to get from the north-central part of the state to get to the southern half, so when the canyon closes due to winter weather or rock slides, it causes a major snag.
“I’ve heard the old-timers say this for years – we’re only really one bad rock slide away from an extended closure of Wind River Canyon,” Beers said.
Thankful No One Was Hurt
Beers said continued rock slides in the future are guaranteed.
“Man cut his way through that canyon and created a highway,” he said. “And so we disrupted whatever natural things were there, and so the rocks are going to come down – I mean, it’s basic gravity.
“Because when the ground freezes, it contracts, and when it thaws it expands, and that causes movement of rocks and dirt, and then you get weather and you have the possibility of having either a rock slide or mudslide,” he added.
And because of the geography and geology of the canyon, Beers said the issues there will always exist.
“I don’t think that there’s enough money or enough manpower or enough engineering to keep us from ever having a problem in Wind River Canyon,” Beers said. “It’s about 10 miles of road through there that can be very beautiful and breathtaking, and very treacherous and dangerous. It looks peaceful in there, but it’s anything but peaceful.”
Because rock slides happen randomly, Beers urged travelers to proceed with caution through Wind River Canyon, and be aware that what happened Saturday could happen again at any time.
Beers said he as also thankful none of the students were hurt.
“I’m just thankful that nothing happened while they were there,” he said. “But you know, as a parent, that’s the last thing I’d want my son doing, is cleaning rocks off a road at the bottom of where a rock slide just happened.”