GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — Winter 2018’s snows still cling to the slopes of Glacier National Park.
They’re about 40 feet deep in the Big Drift, just east of Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road. This wind-sculpted snowpack is one of the biggest obstacles facing the crews who clear the road each spring.
"The drift doesn’t really melt throughout the year,” explained Brian Paul, work leader for the park's west side road crew. “If we let that melt out, it would be late before we opened” the road.
Paul had just stepped out of a rotary snowplow he’d steered through the Big Drift’s remaining snow, chewing towards the pavement and meeting another plow from Glacier’s east side. Clearing this blockage marks a key step toward reopening the famous trans-park highway.
The operation began April 1, when a 12-person plowing crew began clearing snow from the park’s west side. Another crew started work from the east a month later. Little by little, they freed the road’s mountainous central stretch from a higher-than-average snowpack.
“It’s a slow process,” said Paul, a 10-year veteran of the clearing project. Each section begins, he told reporters, with a bulldozer making a “pioneer cut” into the top of the snowpack.
The bulldozers shave off the snow in layers, and then a rotary snowplow comes in and shoots the final 4 feet over the mountainside. Front-end loaders clear the remaining debris, while excavators clear out drainage holes on the road’s inside edge.
Paul described the work as “nerve-wracking.”
Working atop the snowpack, sometimes dozens of feet above the roadbed, “you risk creating your own avalanche and having everything slide off with you.” The dangers don’t pass once the snow is clear. “Rockfall is constant,” he said, remembering that an errant stone once struck his pack.
Fear of these hazards keeps him focused, he said. “If you feel really good about it, and you’re not scared, you probably shouldn’t be up here.”
But Glacier staff recalled no mishaps or close calls this year. Spring’s weather eased their work. U.S. Geological Survey physical scientist Erich Peitzsch briefed reporters on the park's conditions, explaining that the region had seen above-average temperatures, but below-average precipitation, and that “the snowpack gradually melted off, kind of the way we like it from a safety perspective.”
Facilities manager John Lucke agreed that conditions had cooperated. “We couldn’t ask for better weather,” he said. Looking towards the remnants of Big Drift, he remarked, “We were expecting double this.”
Regardless of snow depth, this annual ritual is time-consuming — and costly. While the exact price tag isn’t available, Paul estimated that the west side crew alone burned through 3,000 gallons of fuel this year. Clearing Going-to-the-Sun-Road takes up a big chunk of Glacier’s $1 million annual road budget.
And it isn’t over yet. Even once a clear ribbon of asphalt runs from Apgar to Saint Mary, the park still has much to do to prepare it for cars, including clearing out the water intake that supplies the Logan Pass Visitor Center, installing signs and nearly 500 log-like wooden guardrails, and sweeping the entire stretch of rock and debris.
As with the plowing, this work’s completion date depends on the weather. “We only assist in opening the road. Mother Nature really dictates the pace,” Lucke said. June snowfalls along the road aren’t unusual. In 2011, it didn’t open to cars until July 13.
While this uncertainty clouds plenty of Glacier vacations, clearing Going-to-the-Sun Road is a part of the park staff’s job, one they’re determined to get right.
“Once it’s all pristine,” Paul said, “then we can open it.”
As drivers await their shot at Going-to-the-Sun Road, hikers and bikers have the highway to themselves. While all cleared sections are accessible on weekends, some areas will be closed on weekdays to allow road work to proceed. For more information, visit nps.gov/glac, click on the “Info” tab, and select “Current Conditions.”