'Don't think I've ever seen this much snow this late' | North Cascades Highway
Snow up to 65 feet deep on the North Cascades Highway is causing one of the latest spring openings in the history of the 39-year-old highway.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The mammoth snowpack that has delighted skiers and challenged cross-state travelers over the past months is contributing to the latest opening of the North Cascades Highway since the 1970s, with workers clearing snow up to 65 feet deep.
"I've seen more snow up there, but I don't think I've ever seen this much snow this late," said Don Becker, a maintenance supervisor with the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT), working his 19th annual pass-clearing effort.
Becker said crews hope to clear the popular route by the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to the summer-vacation season. "That's not written in stone, but we're doing the best we can."
Only one time since the highway was completed in 1972 has the route been closed past Memorial Day, opening on June 14, 1974. In most years, it has been open by mid-to-late April.
The reopening can't come fast enough for businesses in the Methow Valley, on the eastern section of the highway.
"I normally by this time have about four people working at my shop, and now I'm here by myself," said Doug Mohre, owner of Sheri's Sweet Shoppe and a past president of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, who said the closure affects businesses throughout Eastern Washington.
Even though Western Washington residents can cross Stevens Pass or Snoqualmie Pass to access Winthrop from the east — perhaps just as quickly, depending on their starting point — many postpone their trips until they can travel one of the most dramatically scenic routes in the state. The highway is also popular with visitors from British Columbia.
"As soon as that pass opens, we get another 10 to 15 rooms a night, so it's very important to us," said Gene Westlund, owner of the Winthrop Inn.
Work to clear the highway began April 11, with crews starting about 44 miles apart on the east and west sides of the closure.
By Wednesday, they had come within seven miles of each other but still faced some of the deepest snow and most avalanche-prone slopes.
Even as workers have cleared sections of the highway, new slides triggered by warming temperatures have covered the road, particularly in the Liberty Bell Mountain area, east of 5,477-foot Washington Pass, the highway's highest point.
"On Monday, we had slides coming down all day," said Jeff Adamson, a WSDOT spokesman. "Essentially, the crew couldn't get any work done at Liberty Bell."
On Tuesday, before workers on the east crew could get down from the job site, they had to clear a 25-foot-deep slide that had come down behind them.
Adamson said that in a typical year, the snowpack is shrinking by April, but late storms this year added 8 to 9 feet of snow during the month.
Where slopes are unstable, crews fire 105-millimeter artillery shells with tips that explode on impact, to jar lose as much snow as possible.
Bulldozers carve though massive snowbanks to bring the snow down to a level that allows excavators and snowblowers to work on the roadway surface.
In some areas, trenches are cut above the roadway to contain or slow any slides that occur while crews are working on the highway.
Crews are working four 10-hour days per week, which WSDOT regards as more efficient than five eight-hour days, because each workday includes time to move the equipment to and from the job site.
Some business owners, such as Mohre, would like to see the state bring in additional crews and continue the work seven days a week. He predicts the state could more than make up the money in sales tax spent in Eastern Washington.
Adamson said WSDOT crews are trying to do the best job of opening the route soon and safely, within budget constraints.
On a typical year, it costs about $150,000 to reopen the highway, but extra work caused by late and deep snow could push that closer to $200,000 this year, Adamson said.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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