The effort to reopen the North Cascades Highway will begin the last day of March. But despite the heavy late season snowfall, those responsible for the annual reopening effort are optimistic that State Route 20 could be open by early May.
Last year the clearing began Mar. 25 and was complete in less than 4 weeks. “There’s twice as much snow at the summit than last year and it’s likely to take closer to the usual 6 weeks to reopen this year,” said Avalanche Control Supervisor Mike Stanford.
On Tuesday, Washington State Department of Transportation avalanche-control specialists and maintenance technicians ventured up the North Cascades from the Early Winters information center near Mazama to Washington Pass. Along the way they stopped to measure snow depths in two dozen avalanche chutes and other sites. Snow at the summit of Washington Pass measured almost 10 feet compared to 5 feet last year. Snow on the highway below the Liberty Bell avalanche chutes averaged 35 feet deep.
WSDOT closed the highway for the winter last on Dec. 3. The earliest recorded opening was Mar.10, 2005. During the drought of 1976, it remained open all winter. Due to avalanches in 2011, WSDOT couldn’t begin clearing the road until Apr. 11 and didn’t reopen it until May 25.
Stanford suggested the conditions this year are similar to the 2011 reopening. “This is a weird year all over the region as far as the snowpack goes. Washington pass is no exception. Right now we have debris in places we normally do not see it and no debris in places we normally expect to. Some chutes have wet slide debris in them, others have none”.
• North Cascades Highway website http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/passes/northcascades
• Opening/closure history http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Traffic/Passes/NorthCascades/closurehistory.htm
• Flickr photo album http://www.flickr.com/photos/wsdot/sets/72157642267729715/