WEST GLACIER - In this corner of Montana, nothing heralds the approach of springtime quite like the mechanical whirring of a fleet of snowplows hewing out a path on Glacier National Park's famed Going-to-the-Sun Road.
On April 1, plow crews will begin the annual work of forging through a wall of white on the 50-mile-long engineering marvel, a job that will require several months of steady churning before visitors can make the tortuous journey - and perhaps longer, given this winter's cumbrous snowpack.
"We are definitely seeing above-average snowpack in Montana," said Brian Domonkos, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "There is certainly above-average snowpack in Glacier National Park, but it doesn't seem to be too far above average."
Measurement data show that as of March 1, the amount of water in the snowpack on Flattop Mountain was 108 percent of the historic average, while instruments at Many Glacier registered 126 percent of average. Basin totals for the entire North Fork of the Flathead River are an astounding 197 percent of average snow water equivalent.
Despite a productive winter, however, the rate of progress on the Sun Road is difficult to gauge so early in the spring and is largely weather dependent. Most years, plow crews are hindered more by the unpredictability of late-spring storms unleashed on the Rocky Mountain Front than by heavy winter snowfall.
Last year, a light winter and a warm March seemed promising to plow crews who hoped to dispatch the work quickly. But late-season snows in April, May and June slowed the crews and the labor became endless and unavailing. With Sisyphean frustration, plow operators saw weeks of work disappear beneath avalanche runs.
With forecasts projecting a cool spring, this year's operation could be just as plodding, and crews that began preliminary plowing last week in the Two Medicine area were already running into snow drifts 8 feet high.
"In the past, in a normal kind of winter, those would be more like 3-foot drifts," said Bill Hayden, a spokesman for Glacier National Park. "But it's totally weather dependent. If we get a warm spring and everything melts off quick, the winter may not have much of an effect on the timeframe. If it remains cool, it could be another story."
Due to maintenance and construction contracts, the earliest the road can open is June 17, Hayden said, and in the last couple of years the road has opened later than that.
"One thing we don't have is an aerial view, so we don't know which avalanche chutes have run yet," Hayden said. "Once we get a visual up there we will know if there has been damage to the road, or if we have any major avalanches that will take longer to get through."
One year at Big Bend, a portion of the Sun Road high above the McDonald Creek Valley, "avalanche debris was as big as the Big Drift," Hayden said, referring to the colossal snowdrift east of the Continental Divide, near the Logan Pass visitor center. Big Drift can become more than 100 feet deep due to winter snows and blowing winds.
The road is plowed through the winter up to Lake McDonald lodge, and once plow crews clear the section of road between the lodge and the vehicle gates at Avalanche Campground, cyclists and hikers can enjoy access to the road without having to worry about vehicles.
"That is really a sweet deal for the bikers and hikers when they have access to the road without the vehicle traffic," Hayden said, adding that he won't know when the section will open for several weeks. "We're not sure how much snow is up above Avalanche. If it is not very much, and there are no major avalanches, they can sometimes rip through that area pretty quickly."
Hayden said eight permanent employees and five seasonal staffers are assigned to the Sun Road's west side, while three permanent employees and six seasonal workers are assigned to the east side.
"The earliest we would open the road, weather permitting, is June 17," Hayden said. "And with a heavier-than-normal snowpack it really is anybody's guess."
Follow the progress of the plows online by visiting www.nps.gov/ glac/index.htm.
Up-to-date road status information is also available at www.nps.gov/ applications/glac/roadstatus/roadstatus.cfm, or by calling either 5-1-1 or 1-800-226-7623. For general park information, call (406) 888-7800 or visit www.nps.gov/glac.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 260-4197 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.