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Snow going: As crews work to clear Sun Road, opening date in question
Crews clear drifts on Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road on Thursday. Heavy and repeated snowfall this year may postpone the road's opening past July 4.
Photo by MICHAEL JAMISON/Missoulian

WEST GLACIER - It was early spring when a bulldozer first carved an icy swath through the area known as Triple Arches.

The machine operator was working high on Glacier National Park's famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, a couple of miles west of Logan Pass, inching his dozer's nose out over the void. Atop 30 feet of snow, there was no telling where the road ended and the cliff began.

He'd get a bladeful of ice and snow and avalanche debris, and push it slowly toward the edge until it fell away. That was his signal to stop - fast.

Then he'd back up and do it again, and again, and again, gradually cutting down through snowpack two stories deep, a few gentle feet at a time toward asphalt.

Gentle, because dozers have been known to go right on over the edge when plowing this mountain road.

"And when he got done," Jim Foster said of that dozer driver, "an avalanche filled it right back up, 30 feet deep again."

Foster is deputy chief of facility management, and it was his job to send the driver back up a second time.

And then a third time, when another avalanche filled the newly cleared roadway.

And a fourth time.

"When it got buried the fifth time, he just looked at me and said, 'I can't do it again. My nerves are fried,' " Foster said. "Pushing that dozer out into the air like that, with nothing beneath for hundreds of feet, not knowing where the edge is Š I couldn't blame him."

So Foster sent another driver to dig out Triple Arches that fifth and hopefully final time.

"The last slide has slid," Foster said, "that's my bet."

He won't bet, however, on which day all 52 miles of Sun Road might open to vehicle traffic.

"All I'll say is weeks," Foster said. "Definitely weeks."

Which will plow the 2008 spring opening right into the record books as one of the latest ever. It's even possible winter may still lay claim to the highest reaches come the Fourth of July.

"It's been a long, persistent winter," said park spokeswoman Melissa Wilson, "and a very cool and wet spring."

A week ago, in the full flush of mid-June, with flowers blooming in the valley, a couple feet of snow fell on the Sun Road, burying work already done and triggering the avalanche that forced Foster's fifth plow job.

"That storm wreaked havoc on our schedule," he said.

First, the low clouds that heralded the spring storm forced crews off the mountain. Then the storm itself idled their machines. Then crews were kept busy clearing trees and debris from the road in the storm's wake. And then they began clearing the new snow dropped from avalanche chutes.

"We're only now getting back to where we were to begin with," Foster said, "and it's worse than it was the first time we plowed it. This winter has been amazing."

Crews have labored each spring since 1933 to clear the popular but precipitous route, and on average the job is done by about June 8.

The earliest opening was mid-May, back in 1987.

In 1943, with workers away at war, the road wasn't opened over Logan Pass until July 10. Since then, the latest openings came on June 28, 2002, when the road remained buried by late-season snows, and July 1, 2007, when leftover damage from a fall storm slowed the spring opening.

Crews are not likely to finish their work even by then this year, and still are cutting pioneer tracks from both sides of the pass.

"It's not just the snow," Foster said. "It's everything else. It's snow, rock, bushes, branches, trees, ice. Those avalanche paths are absolutely packed full of debris."

This season the big rotary plow has gone through hundreds of shear pins, designed to break away before the gear teeth do.

"But eventually the teeth broke out and the gear stripped, and that really slowed us down," Foster said. The fix required a $26,000 part, which took three weeks to arrive.

Up and down the road, crew members say they cannot remember a season like this. Sections with favorable sunshine - patches that usually melt out by the time plows cut through the shadows - are completely buried this year.

"They've literally plowed every inch, more than once," Foster said.

They started in April, down low, and when he followed between the sharp berms sliced by rotary blowers "the snow was halfway up the window of my pickup truck."

In late May, he finally drove into the Two Medicine Valley, "and I was walking on top of the buildings. Snow 12 or 13 feet deep. Some of that campground is still closed because the snow's so deep in there yet."

Foster steered his rig around a tight right corner, mountain to one side and empty space to the other, a narrow road between.

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"There was 40 feet here," he said as he rounded the curve. "When the operator got around the bend and saw it, his comment to me was 'holy …' - well, you fill in the blank. These guys have never seen anything like this."

Often, the road opens over Logan Pass only to close again due to washouts or rockslides or ice storms or any number of Mother Nature's insults. This year, though, winter has not loosed its grip enough for anyone to even think of opening the entire route.

"We had to dig through 12 or 13 avalanches on Monday, just to get back to Triple Arches," crew member Shaun Bessinger said. "Then we had to hike from there a mile and a half up to Rim Rock."

That's where they had left the big machines, in a safe zone, before the last storm.

"In that kind of slushy mashed potato snow, it's terrible stuff to walk in," Foster said.

Now, crews are pushing toward Rim Rock yet again, thanks to that fifth try at Triple Arches, trying to get back to where they were even as June slips quickly into July.

The long season and long hours - crews are now working seven-day weeks - have meant lots of overtime paychecks, Foster said, "and we're definitely borrowing from Peter to pay Paul."

It might mean road budget cutbacks later - "you always end up paying for it somehow," he said - but for now the only job is to clear the route for summer season.

The only good news here, except the recent warm weather, is for road repair contractors who are scrambling to make the most of their unexpected June work season before the gates swing open to tourists.

"Our misfortune is their fortune," Foster said, adding that lower-elevation reconstruction projects are now back on schedule thanks to the alpine plowing delays.

But when those contractors might have to give the Sun Road over to tourists remains anyone's guess.

"I can't forecast that," Foster said. "I couldn't have forecasted 2 feet of snow in the middle of June. All I can say is we're talking weeks."

Because even after plows from the east and the west meet nose to nose atop Logan Pass, he said, workers still have to install guard walls and signs and all the amenities along the way.

"Who knows how long it will take," Foster said. "For now, my next goal is just to get the road open to vehicles up to Big Bend."

Which is still three miles short of the pass, not where he'd hoped to be in the last weeks of June.

"All you can do is focus in and pay attention to the road you're working on," Foster said. "It gets dangerous if you look too far ahead."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at

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