Road may not be cleared until early June
By Don Nelson
The snowpack giveth, and the snowpack taketh away.
An unusually massive accumulation of snow on the North Cascades Scenic Highway corridor will delay the opening of that vital tourism route to motor traffic until possibly as late as June, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said in a press release last week.
That would make it one of the latest openings in the 45-year history of the North Cascades portion of State Route 20.
The deep snow is good news for local rivers and water supplies this summer, but has made conditions so treacherous for road-clearing crews that the usual starting date for WSDOT work on the highway has been moved from mid-March to April 10.
It could take up to eight weeks to clear the road, WSDOT said, which would mean that traffic may not be able to use the route until early June.
That would affect not only the annual ’49er Days celebration in Winthrop, scheduled for May 12–14, but also Memorial Day activities including the Methow Valley Rodeo.
“The latest reopening ever was … June 14, 1974,” WSDOT said in the release. “If the clearing effort takes a full eight weeks, this year’s reopening could extend beyond Memorial Day into June.”
The depth of snow covering the road, and the potential for avalanches — particularly in the “chutes” at the hairpin turn just below Washington Pass — “make it unsafe to begin any clearing work earlier than April 10,” WSDOT said.
“The volume of snow through the 34-mile closed section is responsible for the up to eight-week estimate to reopen,” the release said.
“An early opening is in time for the lowland fishing season opening, the third week in April. A typical opening is by the first weekend in May for Winthrop’s ’49er Days celebration. We’ve only been closed through Memorial Day once in 40 years, but it could happen this year,” said WSDOT’s Twisp maintenance supervisor, Don Becker.
During WSDOT’s first assessment trip on March 16, WSDOT avalanche and maintenance staff found snow over the road up to 25 feet deep below four of the 11 Cutthroat Ridge avalanche chutes, according to the release. Below Liberty Bell Mountain, the three main chutes were still full and had 35- to 45-foot accumulations on the highway below them.
“Even Whistler, between Washington and Rainy Passes, had dumped 15 feet onto the highway, three times more than recorded in the past decade,” the release said.
The delayed closure apparently will have other effects. A WSDOT project to repave Highway 20 through the town of Winthrop had originally been scheduled for completion by ’49er Days. Apparently that project’s beginning will now be postponed to after the ’49er Days celebration, with completion projected in mid-June.
WSDOT is also conducting major repairs on four bridges on Highway 153 between the communities of Methow and Carlton this summer, with traffic delays expected. No dates have been announced for that work.
Reconstruction of the pedestrian ramps at the four-way stop in Winthrop will begin April 24, WSDOT said.
Kristen Smith, marketing director for the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is hoping to have a WSDOT representative at its April membership meeting to talk about the projects affecting the Methow Valley this summer.
Smith predicted that when the North Cascades highway does open, “it will be like opening the [tourism] floodgates.”
As for strategizing how to keep people coming before that, Smith said Winthrop may look into coordinating efforts with the Okanogan County Tourism Council and the Cascade Loop Scenic Byway.
Last year, clearing started on March 17 and the highway opened on April 22. Avalanches closed the highway for the season last Nov. 21. The latest opening in the last 10 years was May 25, 2011, according to WSDOT.
WSDOT also announced that the highway will be closed to bicyclists and skiers Monday through Thursday while crews are working on clearing the highway. Recreationists are still welcome Friday through Sunday, WSDOT said.
WSDOT advised checking with the Northwest Avalanche Center, the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service about backcountry avalanche conditions.