Crews To Begin Clearing North Cascades Highway On Monday

Apr 4, 2021

A snow gauge shows how much snow is in the mountains near the North Cascades Highway as crews prepare to clear the road for travelers.
Credit Washington State Department of Transportation

Washington transportation crews on Monday will begin their annual ritual of removing snow from a 37-mile stretch of the North Cascades Highway.

The effort usually takes four-to-six weeks.

State Route 20 is perhaps the most scenic east-west highway through the Washington Cascades. It’s also the most susceptible to heavy snow and avalanches. It’s why the state closes the highway late in the fall and reopens it in late spring.

Ryan Smith, the maintenance supervisor for the Washington Department of Transportation, based in Twisp, says huge piles of snow come barreling down the mountains, much of it through 27 designated avalanche chutes, and overwhelm the roadway below.

“Right from the get-go our beginning challenge is going to be the lower area where we’ve had quite a bit of melt all the way through. We’re going to be dealing with quite a bit of ice, anywhere from six-to-10 inches of ice that our blowers won’t be able to blow through. We’ll actually have to use a grader to get it scraped up," he said.

The North Cascades snow clearing is actually a two-front project. One crew works from the west and another from the east. Smith says, at first, just a few people with heavy machinery, are at work. They’re joined by technicians who are constantly checking avalanche conditions. By the time they reach the areas at the bottom of the avalanche chutes, they’ll have up to a dozen people and eight-to-10 pieces of equipment going 10 hours a day.

“Everybody that works out of our Twisp shed looks forward to this every year. This is one of the highlights of this area," Smith said.

While they’re up there, he says crew members get their cameras out to snap pictures so that the agency can share their work with the world.

“The public just absolutely loves it and they understand what we’re trying to do while we’re up there," he said.

This spring, the snowpack is a little heavier than usual. Smith says there’s still plenty of snow up in some of the chutes, so they’ll have to manage that to keep it from releasing down the mountain and overwhelming the workers below. That’s one reason why Smith asks people who ski in the area to stay away while the crews are at work during the week.

Once the work begins, you’ll be able to see pictures of their progress at the Washington Department of Transportation’s Flickr page.