Just beyond the Nisqually entrance of Mount Rainier National Park, patches of snow dot the forest, but not far up the road the trees are quickly lost beneath two snowy walls looming above.
Maintenance crews worked all winter to keep the road to Paradise Jackson Visitor Center open, but east of Paradise the work has just begun.
For park employees, the spring opening marks the shift at Mount Rainier from winter recreation to tourist season. Every department is gearing up, but some of the biggest work is done by the snow removal crews. They clear the roads in steep, avalanche-prone areas seven days a week, but the snow is deep and the work is slow going.
Just past the Reflection Lakes, probably the most photographed vantage points of Mount Rainier National Park, Stevens Canyon Road lies beneath a blanket of snow 15 to 20 feet thick. In the winter, this part of the park is a prime destination for snowshoers and cross country skiers. Their tracks are still visible under the fresh snow, but access ends long before the snow melts. Plowing the 17-mile-long route has to start early if it’s to be ready for the unofficial start of summer.
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“Our goal every year is to try and have the road open to the public by Memorial Day weekend,” Facilities Manager Jim Ziolkowski said. “That’s the goal, but there’s a lot of variables that play into that.”
Working in near synchronicity, Donny Stewart and lead equipment operator Mike Ray drop their blades down into the snow, heave up piles the size of small garages and shove them down the mountainside. The snow clumps into huge blocks and slabs, which glow aquamarine blue around the edges.
“The idea is to push as much snow as efficiently possible,” Ray said.
Once the plows have it down to about five feet, a blower drives along the asphalt and shoots the last of the snow down the hillside. Starting at 5 a.m., the crews work 10-hour shifts, but the progress is slow going. On a good day, they can maybe clear out three-quarters of a mile.
“The weather really affects things,” Ray said. “We have days with four guys doing eight hours of straight equipment running and we might only go 3/10 of a mile.”
Where the road narrows, Ray goes into the lead, breaking a path for Stewart to do the majority of the digging behind him. A line of green sticks poke out above the snowline to mark where the road ends and the steep drop to the valley floor begins. Stewart moves his dozer between them and sluffs a heap of snow off his blade, hanging half of his 86,000 pound machine well beyond the road edge in the process.
“We can do that because the snow is so wet and dense in Washington,” Ray said. “It allows the equipment to float on top.”
Experience teaches the operators to read the snowfields like raft guides read rivers. They look for depressions and bright blue pockets near the sides of the road. They know the snow’s the softest in those places, and the most prone to slides.
“That is something you have to watch for, there’s a few really bad avalanche spots, you can get where it breaks off and the whole wall will go, if the machine drops or angles you know it’s time to move,” Ray said. “Otherwise you may fall 20 or 30 feet.”
About every other year a dozer slips down the mountain, but the machine can usually make road for itself through the snow and back up the hill. When things are really bad the dozer up above will help pull it out. Besides a few small slides Ray said no major accidents have occurred in the 22 years he’s been plowing at Mount Rainier.
But finding qualified employees isn’t easy. The NPS tries to recruit experienced people but the majority have never operated equipment in deep snow. The work isn’t not for everyone and Ziolkowski isn’t surprised. “Working in those conditions says a lot about the guys out there,” he said.