By Ann McCreary
For the second time this fall, the North Cascades Highway has reopened after a temporary closure.
“I’m getting tired of opening and closing and opening and closing,” joked Don Becker, maintenance supervisor for Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in Twisp. Becker and his crews are responsible for evaluating highway conditions and clearing the roadway.
Road crews reopened State Route 20 Tuesday morning (Nov. 7) after a five-day closure. The high-elevation highway was closed due to a forecast of potentially heavy snowstorms and rising avalanche danger last weekend.
A WSDOT avalanche and maintenance team assessed conditions on the highway on Monday (Nov. 6) and found about 6 inches of snow on the pavement and temperatures in the 20s. While avalanche chutes got new snow, they were found to be stable and continued cold temperatures allowed crews to safely plow and prepare the highway for traffic.
The first temporary closure of the highway was put in place Oct. 22 after an early season snowstorm dumped up to 3 feet of snow in the Cascades and sent several slides across the highway. The largest slide below the Liberty Bell spires was 12 ½ feet deep and 60 feet wide. The highway reopened on Oct. 25.
“In past years if it has slid shut, we kind of pull the plug on it,” Becker said. “We got that one slide, and it was significant. Then we got warm weather and the highway was almost clear up to the slide.” Crews were able to clear the slide with plow trucks, so the decision was made to reopen the highway.
This week, crews came to a similar conclusion, Becker said. “We didn’t get the snow we thought we were going to get” from last weekend’s storm, he said. “It was going to be pretty easy to get it open again. It looked like there would be a few weekdays that it could be open.”
Becker said this week’s opening may only provide a few extra days for travelers, because as of Tuesday, a significant winter storm was predicted for the weekend.
The decision to try to keep the highway open is based on safety for the public and WSDOT crews, but also considers impacts to businesses in the Methow Valley that use the highway to transport goods or rely on tourists who come into the valley via the North Cascades, Becker said.
“Commerce-wise, there’s a logging outfit, and people delivering hay,” he said. “It’s kind of a business decision. We’re here for the public if we can do it without a whole lot of cost. We were able to do it with just some plow trucks. There’s no reason for it to be closed.”
WSDOT crews from Newhalem worked on the highway from the west side. “There was very little snow on that side, more ice,” Becker said. WSDOT uses a combination of sand and salt on the roadway.
While some people may be happy that the pass reopened, backcountry skiers and snowmobilers may feel otherwise, Becker said. “I suppose people who are cross country skiers will think, ‘Will they ever close that thing?’ There are some people waiting for it to close and people wanting it to stay open, and I’m stuck in the middle,” he said with a laugh.
This is the only year since the North Cascades Highway opened in 1972 that the road has been temporarily closed and reopened — not once, but two times. In every other year the highway has been temporarily closed to assess conditions, and then closed for the season, or simply closed for the season after a storm. The Oct. 22 closure was only the third time the highway has been temporarily closed in October.
Permanent seasonal closure of the highway is determined by avalanches and the potential for more. That usually happens around Thanksgiving to mid-December. “I’d be surprised if we have it open for Thanksgiving,” Becker said.
Travelers can get real-time information about the North Cascades Highway by clicking on the mountain pass tab in the WSDOT traffic app, following the WSDOT East and WSDOT North Twitter accounts or by signing up for North Cascades Highway emails.