WEST GLACIER - More than a foot of new snow in Glacier National Park's high country triggered midweek avalanches and stalled snowplow crews working to clear the park's only alpine road.
Those crews have retreated, and are busying themselves with widening low-elevation areas already plowed out and with digging avalanche debris from drainage culverts on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Progress up the historic and precipitous highway has halted until weather, avalanche activity and visibility improve.
The delay was particularly disappointing given the speedy work plows have made on the Sun Road this season.
"Until this week, near ideal snow removal conditions have been encountered," said Mick Holm, Glacier's superintendent. He added that prior to this week's storms, road clearing was nearly six weeks ahead of last year's schedule, thanks in no small part to below normal snowpack, clear weather, cold nights and warm days. Add additional equipment and crews, he said, and work was progressing at a satisfying clip.
Mother Nature, however, had other plans.
After the "rapid progress made during the month of April," Holm said, "May has started out much differently."
Snow is falling, clouds are descending and avalanches are thundering across the highway.
Each year, as crews labor toward Logan Pass, their work is often undone by late snows and avalanches. Regardless of the plows' progress, avalanche danger increases as spring emerges, until sustained warm temperatures either melt out the chutes or cut them loose.
"It is essential that snow loads in the mountains above the Sun Road slide in order to complete the annual clearing and opening over Logan Pass," Holm said.
Prior to pulling back in the face of Mother Nature, crews had pioneered a cut to the Rimrock area, just shy of the pass on the west side of the Continental Divide. Wednesday, they blasted from the roadway a 10-ton boulder that had crashed down from above.
East of the Divide, plows were nearing the east-side tunnel, and had been eyeing the Big Drift before weather shut them down. The perennial drift is estimated at 60 or 70 feet deep, which is about normal.
The Sun Road is open to vehicles west of the Divide between West Glacier and Avalanche Creek, and between St. Mary and Jackson Glacier Overlook on the east side.
Hikers and bikers can venture beyond the vehicle gates.
Many other park roads already are open, including roads into the Two Medicine and Many Glacier valleys and the Camas Road between Apgar and the North Fork Flathead River.
The Inside North Fork Road is open north of Logging Creek, and can be accessed via Polebridge.
On the Net
Live Web cam images (Apgar, Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, St. Mary and West Glacier) are available at www.nps.gov/glac/
whatsnew.htm. Also at that site are updated road conditions and recent photographs of the Sun Road plow work. Road and weather conditions also are available by calling (406) 888-7800.