When Steve Reed left the Montana side of the Beartooth Highway on May 11, work clearing the road for its Memorial Day weekend opening was going well. Thanks to a dry winter, there wasn't much snow to clear. Then overnight, 3 feet of snow fell, drifting up to 9 feet deep in some places near the top of the pass.
When Reed showed up for work on May 12, he had to struggle through the new snow for three-eighths of a mile to reach a road grader parked on the pass to begin plowing.
"That set us back about a week," said Reed, maintenance supervisor for the Montana Department of Transportation in Red Lodge.
Despite the setback, Highway 212 over the Beartooth Pass, which rises to nearly 11,000 feet, is scheduled to open to the public for the summer season at 9 a.m. Friday.
Winter came late to the Montana side of the Beartooths this year. Reed said that when the state crew began clearing the road on April 19, the snowpack was the lowest he'd seen. Then the storm two weeks ago hit and progress slowed.
"You've got to expect that to happen up here," Reed said. "The later in the year it happens, it creates more pressure to get the pass open on time."
Montana is responsible for clearing 11.4 miles of the nationally designated scenic byway that connects Red Lodge to the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The National Park Service clears the Wyoming side of the roadway.
On Tuesday morning, the Park Service plows, which have to negotiate the deepest drifts along the roadway, were about six miles from the Montana-Wyoming state line.
"While they have not been battling as deep a snowpack as in some previous years, the area has been receiving repeated heavy spring snowfall, which means they've been backtracking quite a bit," Al Nash, chief of public affairs for Yellowstone National Park, said in an e-mail. "The hope is to reach the state line sometime Wednesday, and then work to remove the ice layer underneath Wednesday and Thursday in order for the road to open as scheduled on Friday morning."
As further evidence of the low snowpack, when the History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers" television show decided to film a promotional video on the Beartooth Pass in late April, it only took the front-end loader they hired two days to reach the Vista Point overlook.
"That usually takes us two weeks," said Randy Roth, maintenance chief for the Billings Division.
Snow isn't the only element of nature that the road crews battle atop the mountain range.
"It's the wind that does the damage up here," Reed said.
As evidence, the so-called Line Drift near the Montana-Wyoming border on the plateau was cleared Friday. On Tuesday, it was drifted in 5 feet deep again.
The wind also rips signs off signposts over the winter, so signs are removed and rehung in the spring.
Rockfall, especially on the Montana side of the road, is also a constant concern. In places where rock-catching steel nets are strung, Reed said, it's a three- to four-day job to remove the guardrail, unhook the netting and scoop out the rockfall backed up behind the skirting with a front-end loader.
Every time it rains or snow melts or there's freezing and thawing, more rocks fall that the crews must scrape off the highway, even after it opens.
And this year, crews confronted another problem. A glacier buried by a rockslide that is underneath the road near the third switchback receded and left a portion of the highway's concrete slab hanging in mid-air. The old concrete was torn out, fill was added and graded and new asphalt laid down in a 2-1/2-week job that patched 300- and 165-foot sections of the roadway.
"It's still amazing to me how you can hang a road over the side of a mountain and it stays there," Roth said.
Even with the roadway opening on Friday, Reed said it's almost guaranteed snow will close the road to travel early in the summer until plows can clear a route again.
"It's almost a given that it's going to snow sometime this weekend," Reed said.