State transportation crews began clearing the North Cascades Highway Monday (March 25), and east side crews starting at Early Winters had cleared about 14 miles as of Tuesday (March 26), reaching the Lone Fir campground.
Barricades will remain in place at Early Winters because crews need to remove some trees that pose a danger to travelers beyond the Silver Star gate. Crews from the Twisp office of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) were using a blower and a grader to clear snow from the highway, which has been closed for the winter since Nov. 28.
The job of clearing highway from the east is somewhat more difficult this year because it was groomed for snowmobiles up to Cutthroat Pass, which packed the snow and makes it harder to move, said Don Becker, maintenance supervisor for WSDOT in Twisp. Becker said an excavator and grader will be added to the arsenal of road clearing equipment on April 1.
Crews clearing the 37 miles of closed highway from both sides expect to meet between Rainy and Washington passes within four to six weeks, according to WSDOT.
WSDOT crews traveled up the highway on snowcats and snowmobiles last week to assess conditions. They found only 6 feet of snow at Washington Pass, compared to 10 feet last year. Avalanche chutes at Liberty Bell that dump 35-70 feet of snow on the road most years have deposited only about 20 feet this year.
Since the highway opened in 1972, it has been closed every winter except one because avalanches make it unsafe. During the winter of 1976-77, the highway did not close because there wasn’t enough snow.