Spring cleaning under way on North Cascades Highway

March 25, a five-person maintenance crew and a collection of snow-clearing equipment made the annual trek up State Route 20 past Mazama, marking the first day of work to clear the North Cascades Highway from the east.

Washington State Department of Transportation crews have a lot of work to do, but they’re optimistic the highway could open early.

“Last year we opened May 10, and that meant visitors coming to Winthrop’s 49’er Days Festival had to use Stevens Pass to get here,” said Twisp Maintenance Supervisor Don Becker. “We know that was hard on drivers, so we’re hoping this year we can get the highway open by the first weekend in May, perhaps even by the April 27 opening of the lowland fishing season.”

How quickly crews get SR 20 open depends a great deal on the weather.  The east slope of the North Cascades got about 20 inches of new snow over the last week, raising the total at Washington Pass to nearly 6 1/2 feet.

East-side crews worked Monday to clear the first 7 miles of highway between the Early Winters Information Center (mile post 178) and the Silver Star gate (mile post 171). This week, the crew will continue clearing to the first avalanche zone at Cutthroat Ridge (mile post 168).

Crews on the west side got about a week head start on their east-side counterparts, blowing 2 to 3 feet of snow off 14 miles of pavement above the Diablo closure gate. For the next couple of weeks, they’ll continue working up to mile post 148, widening the shoulders and clearing ditches so they catch snowmelt and keep it off the pavement.

During a one-day scouting trip early this month, the avalanche crew found much less snow than they had the last two La Nina winters. On March 5, snow at Washington Pass measured 5 feet compared to 7 1/2 feet last year, and 5 1/2 feet deep at Rainy Pass compared to 8 feet a year ago. Snow in the Liberty Bell avalanche zone ranged from 25 to almost 40 feet this year, compared to 35 to nearly 60 feet in 2012.

For maps, pictures, questions and a history of opening dates, visit the North Cascades Highway website.


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