Open only to emergency travel
Four employees of the Methow Valley Ranger District safely navigated the rocky, narrow Harts Pass Road in treacherous conditions as torrential rains sent rocks cascading onto the road and seriously limited visibility on Aug. 22.
The work crew was coming down the mountain in three pick-up trucks when they hit a blinding rainstorm near Deadhorse Point, Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr said.
“Rocks were falling down as they were passing through. There was nothing to do but try to continue through it,” Furr said.
The first two vehicles made it through the showering debris despite very poor visibility, but their colleague was trapped behind a massive slide that rendered the road impassable, Furr said.
There were about 10 rockslides in all. The largest, about 1 mile downhill from Deadhorse Point, was 80 to 100 feet long and 25 feet deep, according to Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall. The ranger district contacted Goodall on Monday night because the slides stranded campers and hikers at Harts Pass.
Because of the emergency situation, Okanogan County Public Works sent a high-track cat and an excavator early Tuesday morning (Aug. 23), Okanogan County Engineer Josh Thomson said. It took three to four hours to move enough 4-foot boulders to build a road around the edge of the slide. “It was a weird mix of large rock and mud. It was so saturated that it was hard to walk across,” he said.
The road has been made passable for emergency access, but work is still needed to make the road safe for regular travel, and forest users are asked to avoid the road until further notice. Saturated material and plugged culverts make the road vulnerable to further slides, according to the ranger district.
This wasn’t full-scale road repair, but an emergency fix so people could get out, Goodall said. “It’s rough, but people can get in and out,” he said.
The repair required skilled operators and big equipment, Goodall said. “To watch these guys move this stuff is pretty impressive,” Goodall said. The slide diverted a creek so that it no longer flows through a culvert, which will also need to be addressed, he said.
There were five small slides on Deadhorse Point, but they involved smaller rock, shale and mud that the crew was able to clear. Another slide occurred higher up at Cache Creek.
Campers. hikers all safe
Some 50 campers and hikers were stranded in the Harts Pass area at 6,200 feet, half a dozen miles above Deadhorse Point. This is an especially busy time of year, as through-hikers who’ve trekked the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mexico reach the Canadian border and backtrack to head out at Harts Pass, Furr said.
Ranger district employees Thomson, who went home to get his dirt bike, made it past the slides on Tuesday to notify campers and hikers about the situation. The district also sent out social media posts through the PCT Association and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which many through-hikers monitor, Furr said.
Everyone was fine at the pass. “It was almost like a party atmosphere at the Harts Pass guard station,” Thomson said. The PCT through-hikers seemed to be the most concerned, since they’d been hiking since April and thought they were done, Thomson said.
About 20 people walked down and were shuttled out by Goodall and ranger district employees, and others drove out or were picked up after the county crews finished the emergency road repair. Everyone who wanted to leave on Tuesday was able to get out, but there were more than a dozen cars still parked at trailheads, since people were doing multi-day trips, Furr said.
“It was a very scary situation. We’re very fortunate everyone made it out OK,” Furr said.
Harts Pass is always precarious, and Deadhorse Point is notorious for its uneven, rocky roadbed, where it’s so narrow that only one vehicle can pass at a time. There’s a steep cliff above the road and a precipitous drop-off below.
U.S. Forest Service engineers are assessing the damage to determine what’s needed to fully repair the road for safe vehicle access. The district will also work out financial details connected with the assistance Okanogan County provided in the emergency. Thomson said he expected the Forest Service would reimburse the county.
Brief, intense downpours
The slides were caused by four storms that moved through the area on Monday afternoon and evening, dropping heavy rain in a short period, National Weather Service meteorologist Laurie Nisbet said. The weather service sent out flash-flood warnings before the storm.
The weather service gets data from volunteer observers on the ground who monitor gauges, as well as from radar estimates as storms pass overhead, Nisbet said. Observers on the ground near Mazama reported between 0.5 and 0.77 inches of rain in a little over an hour on Monday afternoon.
Radar estimates showed 2.53 inches of rain on Thompson Ridge Road above Sun Mountain Lodge, 1.78 inches on Sandy Butte near Mazama, and 2.1 inches at Thirtymile in the Chewuch drainage. Just 0.2 inches fell at Pearrygin Lake outside Winthrop and little or no rain was recorded in Twisp, according to the weather service.
Some of the downpour pelted the burn scar from last summer’s Cedar Creek Fire, sending mud, rocks, trees and debris onto a primitive stretch of Wolf Creek Road outside Winthrop, closing 3 miles of it, Goodall said. The slide gouged a deep ravine on U.S. Forest Service Road 800, which intersects with Wolf Creek Road and is also closed.
County road crews picked up huge boulders and were moving debris and repairing Wolf Creek Road last week and hope to reopen it this week. There are a few vacation homes on the road, but no one living there full time, Goodall said.
Goodall took aerial photos of the slide with a drone. Some of the mudflows reached the Methow River, depositing mud and trees and pushing a section of the river into a different part of its channel, he said.
Burned areas are more susceptible to mudslides because there’s less vegetation. Soil that burns intensely can lose its ability to absorb rain.
PCT hikers advised
Pacific Crest Trail hikers who planned to leave the trail at Harts Pass are advised to plan for alternate routes. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has provided alternatives at https://www.pcta.org/…/harts-pass-road-closed-mudslide.