Crews break through Big Drift, set stage for opening Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Brian Paul opened the door of his 20,000-pound rotary snowplow Thursday morning, stepped out of the rig and climbed down to dry pavement.
The cab has been his office for just over two months now as he’s chipped away at the 60-foot drifts and snowbanks covering Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.
On Thursday, Paul finished the job. Coming up from the west side of Logan Pass, he met plows approaching from the east side.
Their job now is mostly finished, save a few small housekeeping items of rockfall and tree debris still on the road. Plowing finished, the road could open over Logan Pass soon, but park officials have not set a date.
Paul has been plowing the Sun Road for 10 years. He knows its quirks and dangers.
One of the dangers is falling rock. With the help of snow science, the road crews, along with a full-time spotter, can fairly judge the avalanche danger above the road while crews are working.
But rock fall is different. You never know when those buggers will strike.
On Thursday, Paul arrived to find fresh grizzly bear tracks outside his rig. Inside the big machine, atop more than 50 feet of snow with the pavement far below him, plowing Going-to-the-Sun Road is not a rush job.
Snow conditions change year to year and day by day.
“It takes patience,” he said. “You take your time.”
The crews, about 12 men total, come up the highway each day from opposite sides of Logan Pass. The West Lakes crew works from the west side, and the Hudson Bay crew goes at it from the east.
They met at the Big Drift – the final, 100-foot-deep obstacle just over the east side of the summit of Logan Pass.
This year, the crews faced near-record snowfall and started two weeks later than usual when they began plowing April 1.
But an unusually warm May, with rainfall at higher elevations instead of snow, helped the plows break through a week earlier than last year.
In 2011, the road opened on July 13 – its latest ever. Paul said that year the crews plowed snow from August of 2010 to July of 2011.
Paul was ready to be finished with this year’s effort.
“I’m going to go park it,” he said. “I’m done. I’m glad to be done with it.
“Toward the end, everybody starts getting burned out, going at this day after day.”
Now finished, the road crews will take on other jobs in the park, such as working on the North Fork Flathead gravel road, and fixing the roadway up into Kintla and Bowman lakes.
One of the dangers of plowing the Sun Road is working around large holes that develop from waterfalls between the snowpack and the cliff face on the inside of the roadway.
An excavator works at it first, pulling the snow away from the cliffs until they can build a track wide enough for a plow. “It’s never smooth sailing,” Paul said. “Even when the snow is lower, it’s still super steep.”
Avalanche spotter Noah Keller, a snow scientist with the U.S. Geological Service, works alongside the plowing crews, outside and on the snow.
They keep their heads and eyes craned ever upward, watching for any avalanches or rockfall that might tumble over the workers. Keller said they’ll sometimes ski up above the highway to gauge dangers that might await snowplows.
“I would say the spotters have the hardest job,” Paul said. “They’re out in the elements all the time. We’re inside our rigs. They have saved me a few times.”
Starting on top of the snowpack, the plows work their way down and down until they hit the roadway, which this year was mostly ice.
“We had to use a D7 Cat to rip it up,” said Paul, the West Lakes road crew leader.
Now that the plowing is finished, workers turn their attention to getting utilities running at Logan Pass. The visitor center uses a surface well from Mount Oberlin, and they must make sure water is running before the pass can open.
ABOUT THE HIGHWAY
- Congress established Glacier National Park in 1911.
- Construction on the 51-mile highway began in 1924. Three men died during the construction project.
- The highway opened on July 15, 1933.
- The road has opened only 10 times in May since 1952. The road closes in mid-October.