State transportation crews clearing the North Cascades Scenic Highway from the east and west are within 8 miles of each other, but avalanche chutes east of Washington Pass are stubbornly holding their snow, slowing progress for crews working to open the east side.
Cool spring temperatures have continued to dip below freezing on some nights since the east side crews began work on April 9. That means the numerous avalanche chutes above the highway aren’t releasing their snow, said Don Becker, Twisp maintenance supervisor for the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
“There’s a lot of snow in the chutes. We’ve never had them [slides] stay up in the chutes this long,” said Becker, who has overseen the annual highway clearing each spring for more than 20 years.
Last Wednesday crews had to stop work after a couple chutes released some of their snow, hitting a snowcat and a blower. The snow knocked a window out of one vehicle and “scared the guys a little bit,” but no one was hurt, Becker said.
Crews spent much of Thursday blasting chutes below Liberty Bell spires with a howitzer to try to stabilize the snow so they could work on the road below. Snow deposited below the Liberty Bell chutes can reach 50 feet deep or more.
Crews had made it to Washington Pass and had a large D8 caterpillar there early this week. But until the weather warms up and the chutes release their snow, the highway can’t be safely opened to the public. Becker said he might be able to make a prediction next week about when the highway would open for the season.
There are about 91 inches of snow on the road at Washington Pass, Becker said. Crews coming from the west side had made it as far as milepost 155 Tuesday, about a mile beyond the Swamp Creek chain up area. Snow on that part of the road was about 38 inches deep, WSDOT reported.