WEST GLACIER - Spring storms this week conspired against plow crews forging through deep snow along Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, hindering progress and forcing some to turn back and replow lengthy sections that had already been cleared.
"They had to backtrack on the west side and go from Avalanche Campground up to the Logan Creek area and reclear that whole section," said David Restivo, visual information specialist at Glacier Park. "It amounted to a day or two of reclearing. And on the east side they got a lot more snow."
The storms deposited 8 inches of new snow in West Glacier and 18 inches on the east side of the park. Plow crews spent the beginning of the week clearing the previously plowed sections before they could get back on schedule and proceed toward Logan Pass.
Avalanche debris added to the burden, and crews reported encountering one slide path near Red Rock Point, just north of Avalanche Creek, that was approximately 30 feet deep and 100 feet wide.
As always, threats of avalanche have also added an element of danger to the annual work; the hazards are especially pronounced this season, as the most significant chutes have yet to slide.
"We have our avalanche forecasters from USGS and the Park Service up there evaluating the snow conditions on a regular basis, and they report back to the plowing crews," Restivo said. "They're very helpful in helping us determine when it's too dangerous to be working up there."
Glacier Superintendent Chas Cartwright said employee safety is his principal concern, and urged visitors exploring the Sun Road by foot or on bicycle to be cautious while they enjoy the spring access.
"As our plow crews are getting into the interior of the park, the depths they are finding are tremendous. None of the avalanche chutes have slid significantly, making for some dangerous work ahead," Cartwright stated in a news release. "Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our employees and we will proceed ahead with the utmost caution using the knowledge and expertise of our plow crews and avalanche specialists."
Snow depth on the road surface at lower elevations varies between three and six feet, while avalanche specialists recorded 16 feet of snow at an elevation of 6,000 feet along the Garden Wall, which looms above the Sun Road.
"Park Snotel sites that collect data on snowpack usually would be leveling off or showing a decrease in snow water equivalent at this time of year," park spokeswoman Ellen Blickhan said. However, the Many Glacier Snotel site accelerated to 206 percent of normal snow-water equivalent in recent weeks.
West Glacier weather records dating back to 1958 show March 2011 as the wettest month on record, with April so far falling just shy of the record. Temperatures in the park remain unseasonably cool.
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On the west side, plow crews were able to dig through the slide path at Red Rock Point on Thursday and are proceeding toward the West Tunnel.
The vehicle gate remains closed at Lake McDonald Lodge, but there is access for hikers and bikers. The road is mainly clear of ice to the Logan Creek Comfort Station, approximately 10 miles beyond Lake McDonald Lodge. The Camas Road will remain closed to vehicle traffic but offers hiking and biking opportunities.
On the east side, plowing continues in the Many Glacier Valley between Many Glacier Hotel and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, where crews are encountering drifts between two and eight feet deep.
In the Two Medicine Valley, the road has been cleared to the park boundary. On the Sun Road, the vehicle gate remains closed just beyond St. Mary campground; however, plow crews have reached Rising Sun Campground. There will be opportunities to hike, bike and ski on all three of those roads this weekend.
Visitors should be alert for snowplows and other heavy equipment on all park roads, as well as areas of ice, slush, avalanche zones and fallen rock.
For photos, video clips and plowing status, visit the park's home page website at www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm.
Information on current park road conditions is also available on the park's road status website, http://home.nps.gov/application/glac/roadstatus/roadstatus.cfm.
The page is updated as conditions change. Travelers may also call park headquarters at (406) 888-7800 for current road and weather conditions.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 260-4197 or at email@example.com.