Deep snow, avalanches: Late reopening predicted for North Cascades Highway
MAZAMA — The North Cascades Highway may see an historically late reopening this year thanks to a heavy snowpack, cold spring weather and avalanche chutes that are still full.
State Department of Transportation crews assessed the 34-mile stretch of Highway 20 that closes every winter, and discovered areas below Liberty Bell Mountain with 35 to 45 feet of snow on the highway. The three main chutes next to the iconic mountain are still full of snow, making it too dangerous to start the annual chore of clearing the highway between Mazama and Newhalem.“We’ve only been closed through Memorial Day once in 40 years, but it could happen this year,”
DOT’s Twisp maintenance supervisor Don Becker said in a news release.
The only time the highway wasn’t open by June was in 1974 — the newly-built highway’s second winter. Crews opened it on June 14 that year.
Usually, the road is reopened by the first weekend in May, in time for Winthrop’s ‘49er Days celebration. And often it’s open by mid-April, when fishing season starts.
The latest opening in the last 10 years was May 25, 2011.
Last week’s assessment by Department of Transportation avalanche and maintenance workers determined that it could take as long as eight weeks to clear the highway of snow and avalanches.
In addition to the deep snow below Liberty Bell, 4 of the 11 chutes below Cutthroat Ridge had left more than 25 feet of snow on the road. And Whistler — a spot farther west between Washington and Rainy passes that isn’t as snowy — dumped 15 feet on the highway, three times more than crews have seen in the last decade.
Last year, crews started clearing snow on March 17, and reopened the highway on April 22.
This year, they don’t expect to start the process until at least April 10. The highway closed for the winter on Nov. 21, due to avalanches.
Although closed to traffic, the highway is still used for winter recreation. But this year, as the popularity of bicycling on the newly-cleared roadway, and skiing in newly accessible areas grows, the DOT will not be allowing recreationists in from Mondays through Thursdays once clearing begins. There have been too many close calls between highway crews and people recreating on or near the road, the agency says.
People will still be welcome to use the road Fridays through Sundays during the clearing process, but anyone using the area is advised to check for avalanche danger.