Saturday, March 19, 2011

3/19 North Cascades Highway Update

When will it open?
Maybe not for a while. We told you it has been a great snow year. Here is the message from the Washington DOT. Complete with great photos.....

Hi all,
I’ll jump to the end of the story first – It looks like we won’t get started clearing the North Cascades for at least the next 2-1/2 weeks and maybe as late as sometime in the week of April 11th. 12 to 15 feet of snowfall over the last four weeks, which is about a third of an entire season’s total, means there’s still lots of deep and unstable snow in the mountains. Our forecaster says there’s more coming next week, but it’s the week after – that is, the last week of the month – when it looks like there’s going to be a big (season ending, maybe?) series of snowy fronts coming. In short, it means we can’t take the avalanche crew and any of the equipment from Stevens until the potential for weather to bring more snow and more avalanches is over. Usually, by the first day of spring, that’s the case. This year, with La Nina, the weather is hardly following a normal pattern. For the past five years, we’ve actually had less snow in the North Cascades than what had been normal for the previous decade. It allowed earlier starts and faster openings. This year, may be the latest start in the last twenty years and it’s pretty certain it’s going to take more than four weeks to clear.
We had a forecast that said Thursday was going to be a dry day – a break between the avalanche chute-filling-snowfall we experienced from the weekend through Wednesday morning on Stevens. The avalanche crew borrowed the radio crew’s snow cat (they had to leave their’s at Stevens) and loaded up a couple of snowmobiles and headed to Twisp Wednesday afternoon. At about 7 a.m. Thursday morning, the parade started up the highway from Early Winters (where the plowing stops) under chilly, windy but sunny skies. The snow depth there was 4 ½ ft. compared with 3 ft. last year, 2 ft. in ’09 and zero in ’08. (Check out the pictures on Flickr - ) By about 1 p.m., battling deep and very soft snow below Liberty Bell Mountain, they turned back. The temperature was rising, increasing the avalanche danger and the snow cat was dancing sideways on the 50 to 60 feet of slush topped snow under LB 3. There are remote electronic snow pillows at the Washington and Rainy Pass summits so they already knew that there were 10+ feet of snow there. The west side crew did some investigating of their own and reported no snow at the Diablo Gate, but a big slide a few miles east, below Ruby Mountain and more snow from Whistler was deep over the road. (The Westside crew is going to try to get started clearing the Ruby Mtn. slide as early as next week if weather and other duties allow. Note: the Ruby Mtn. avalanche chute starting zone is about 7,000 ft. and the highway above Diablo where it dumps is around 2,000 ft., so it’s not hard to imagine how we end up with snow depths below some of the NCH chutes that are up to 70 ft. some years.)
As the avalanche and Twisp maintenance crewmembers headed up, they took their annual assessment measurements. The first avalanche chutes one encounters are Cutthroat Ridge #1, 2 and 3. They all had 12 ft. of snow over the road this year compared to 3 to 4 ft. last year. CR #6, 7, 8 and 9 all had 20 ft. of snow on the road compared to 4 to 10 ft. last year. The totals below Liberty Bell Mtn. were 60 ft. for #1-2-3 and 40 ft. for LB#4. Last year they were all under a dozen feet and didn’t even require the usual caterpillar work to cut down the piles to snow blower height – we did it with just the snow cat. Avalanche Chief Mike Stanford says the avalanche danger is very high and there are cornices at the top of some chutes that will have to broken loose before he could allow anyone to work on the highway below and since some of them aren’t in the range of our portable artillery – we may have to place charges with a helicopter to even begin the clearing effort this year. He is hopeful that temperatures/ rain/wind might break them off naturally over the next two weeks, but… (Where are those Oak Harbor sonic booms when you need ‘em?)
Yes, I’ve already been told that this is great news for cross country and bushwhackers, heli-skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers – but I’m equally sure that those of you who want the highway open for fishing season and Easter aren’t happy with what I’m writing.
It’s going to take another few days to evaluate the data, the weather and get the paperwork started for the private caterpillars and operators we’re going to have to bring in to help. When that dust settles, I’ll send out another e mail with the firm starting date.
Happy Spring! (It starts Sunday, at least on the calendar…)
Jeff Adamson (509) 667.2815

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