Plowing crews are hoping for a Memorial Day weekend opening of the high-mountain route, which would be the second-latest in the highway's 45-year history.
It’s May, but you’re still thinking what a long winter it’s been? Here’s piling on: The North Cascades Highway, whose annual reopening is a harbinger of Washington’s spring, is expected to have one of the later openings in its 45-year history.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which is responsible for plowing and clearing snow from the scenic, high-mountain route, is hoping to open the highway by Memorial Day weekend, which begins Friday, May 26.
Only once, not long after the highway’s 1972 completion, was the spring reopening later in the season — on June 14, 1974. Last year, plowing crews reopened the highway on April 22.
“What’s different this year? Primarily the late winter and the volume of snow,” WSDOT spokesman Jeff Adamson said in an email.
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The highway, whose high point is at 5,477-foot Washington Pass, typically closes for winter in November because of heavy snow. The highway, designated as state Highway 20, connects the Skagit Valley with the Methow Valley.
Weather and conditions didn’t allow the intrepid plowing crew to start clearing this year until April 10. In several years, the highway has reopened in March. More than half the time, it has reopened in April. Once, over the winter of 1976-77, light snow meant the highway never closed.
Typically, from the time crews start plowing, it takes four to six weeks to open the highway. “This year it looks more like eight,” Adamson said. “We’re hoping to make it happen by Memorial Day if weather, equipment and personnel issues don’t happen.”
The Liberty Bell Mountain avalanche zone, where crews were working Tuesday, is a good example of this year’s challenges, Adamson said.
“In the past 19 years I’ve been here, the late February to early March assessment trip by the avalanche crew to determine when we can start the clearing will find 25 to 35 feet of snow on the highway under the three biggest (avalanche) chutes,” he said. “This year’s late March assessment recorded 25-35 feet there, but the avalanche chutes above were still full!”
This week’s forecast of warming temperatures creates concern about snow slides, the highway department’s Facebook page reported Tuesday. If Liberty Bell’s biggest avalanche chutes all let loose at once, snow could pile up 70 feet deep there, Adamson predicted.
“In a typical year, the temperatures are warmer and precipitation is rain so any snow still in any chutes melts instead of sliding,” he added. “This year, it hasn’t been unusual for the crew to be stopped by a slide on the road under a chute they’ve already cleared. Sometimes that’s due to warmer temps or rain – other times it’s been a chute refilled by new snow.”
Through last week, the crews were experiencing snow and freezing nighttime temperatures.
Tuesday’s Facebook update reported that only nine miles separate a crew working from the west and a crew working from the east, “but work is expected to be tougher the closer they get.”
On the west side the work has been progressing well with a plow truck and a loader-mounted blower, and on the east side, two big Caterpillars have begun cutting down huge piles of snow in the Liberty Bell avalanche zone, according to an online update at the end of last week. Workers reported 9 1/2 feet of snow at the top of Washington Pass. Find regular updates and a map of progress here.