Why wait to assess the reopening for the North Cascades Highway until Feb. 22?

by guest blogger Jeff Adamson

The question comes up every time we have a mild “El Nino” winter in the Cascades, but the answer is the same. Sending our Avalanche and Maintenance crews to do a reopening assessment any earlier than late February/early March, wouldn’t work since there's still too much winter ahead. They need to be able to make any objective determinations about when to begin the reopening process. That is, setting a firm start date, figuring out how much and what kind of equipment will be needed (for example, we have to put the caterpillar work out for competitive bids) and get our internal crews and equipment lined up. North Central Region has a 3 man avalanche control team, Avalanche personnel are required to be on site while the crews are clearing the highway through the avalanche zones. Last year, for example, work on the North Cascades was delayed a couple of times when the Avalanche team had to go back to Stevens Pass in order to keep it open. The Kodiak snow blowers we use are from the three assigned to Stevens pass and can’t be released to NCH until they're not needed there. That means the clearing work usually begins with only one blower and more are “sent north” as they’re “available”.

Our Avalanche forecasters have lots of historical data and "know snow" and have done a pretty good job over the years picking a start date that worked, but doing the assessment any earlier could be risky and really unnecessary.

While we're always being urged to open the highway as soon as possible (preferably by the opening weekend of fishing season), we also hear from some winter recreation businesses that ask us not to open before Easter because when we do, it costs them business! Apparently, we’ll never please everyone.

Please remember that on the North Cascades, we do not do “active” avalanche control like we do on Stevens and Snoqualmie. Washington (and also Chinook) pass are federally designated Scenic Highways that are closed during winter. We really can't knowingly put our crews or drivers at risk by opening a highway before it can really stay open. In 2005, we had the earliest SR 20 opening ever on March 10. By opening that early, and then having a huge storm hit, refilling avalanche chutes, closing the road again for 10 days, we had to bring back the crews, equipment, etc. and repeat much of the reopening work. That "extra" clearing effort might not be considered to have been the best use of our gas taxes.

By the way, checking that last "El Nino" year for Stevens Pass one finds we had almost no avalanche control and low snow accumulations until March when we got hammered with almost 200" of snow. By way of comparison - there's less than 90 inches on the ground now and the total accumulation for this season, so far, is less than 250 inches. Last year’s season total was about average at 434 inches.