GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — Road crews worked their way from the east and the west to meet near Logan Pass Wednesday as they inched their way toward clearing this season’s snowpack from Going-to-the-Sun Road.
East-side crew member Thomas Bearchild broke through the spot known as the Big Drift driving a rotary snowplow, chewing up the remaining snow and rocks along the road and spitting them to the side at an altitude of 6,647 feet.
“I’ve never jumped out of a plane before, but I have to imagine it’s a similar rush. When you clear the road, it’s a drop-off to your left, and an avalanche to your right. You feel like you’re on top of the world,” said Bearchild, who is working his first year as a crew member.
Bearchild, along with the rest of the two teams, started plowing the road April 1, using excavators to tear through walls of snow that measured up to 60 feet deep. When they have worked the snow levels down to a manageable height of 5 feet, rotary snowplows wipe away the rest along the 50-mile road.
Behind the excavators and the rotaries, crews lift logs into metal brackets along the side of the road. These removable guardrails go up every year as a means of replacing the stone rails, which can be torn away by the frequent avalanches. The road crews lay roughly one mile of railing every year, putting 400 logs into place with a crane on the back of a pickup. The railings overlook drops of more than 1,000 feet.
Visitors to the park have already made their way into the nearly 30 miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road that has been excavated, bulldozed and swept.
According to roads work leader Brian Paul, who has met his teams at the Big Drift for the past 11 years, conditions for the road crews have been favorable this season. The teams connected two days earlier this year than last year. Working in cooperation with the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, Paul and his coworkers spent another season without accident, despite a reported 38 avalanches in Glacier National Park this season.
Avalanches have always been the main concern for the crews tasked with preparing the road, which has been maintained since it opened in 1933, for summer visitors. The snow slides' devastation poses a threat to both workers and the pavement.
USGS scientist Erich Peitzsch, who has helped to monitor the annual snowpack in Glacier since 2007, said a January 2009 avalanche tore out a chunk of the road. He described the slide as a “landscape changer,” and crews had to patch the road that had been narrowed to one lane.
“Every year is a challenge,” said Glacier roads supervisor Stan Stahr, who has been clearing Going-to-the-Sun Road since 1993 and will be retiring after this year. “You have to take it day by day. And some days, minute by minute.”
While Stahr has cleared the road for nearly three decades, and enjoyed the work, he said the men who built it had to be crazy.
The plowing of Going-to-the-Sun Road this year also marked the beginning of a $9 million park project to preserve both it and an additional 50 miles. Starting May 1, Federal Highway Administration crews began applying the second in an eight-year cycle of seals designed to keep Glacier’s roads accessible to both cars and an increasing number of bicycles.
According to Chris Rossmiller, the senior project engineer, FHA workers will continue until the end of summer. He said the FHA predicts this project to be completed by July 2020. Of the 90 miles they have to preserve, they’ve finished with roughly 10 since starting a month ago.
Progress of the preservation, just like sweeping Going-to-the-Sun Road clean of snow, depends on how forgiving the weather can be.
“There’s the weather. Then there’s moisture in the ground. Frost getting into cracks in the road and degrading it further. Then we also have the traffic, with visitors setting records each year,” said Rossmiller
FHA crews can only halt traffic for 30 minutes, and they can only lay down their coating, which is similar to a chip seal, in dry conditions.
Glacier National Park spokesperson Lauren Alley said the contract for the road crews will last through June 21, but recommends checking the status of Going-to-the-Sun Road before traveling to Glacier at nps.gov/applications/glac/roadstatus/roadstatus.cfm.
“Between rockfalls, snowfall and floods, the road’s opening always depends on the elements,” she said.