Plowing Going to the Sun Road
Glacier National Park's epic feat
By DAVID REESE/MONTANA LIVING
Brian Paul opened the door of his 20,000-pound rotary snowplow, Thursday morning, stepped out of the rig and climbed down to dry pavement.
The cab of his plow has been his office for just over two months now, as he’s been inching away at the 60-foot drifts and snowbanks of Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.
On Thursday he finished the job for good. Coming up from the west side of Logan Pass he met the plows approaching from the east side. Their job was now mostly finished, save a few small housekeeping items of rockfall and tree debris still on the road. Plowing finished, the road could open over Logan Pass soon, but park officials have not set a date.
Paul has been plowing Going to the Sun Road for 10 years. He knows it quirks and dangers.
One of the dangers is falling rock. With the help of snow science, the road crews, along with a full-time spotter, are able to fairly judge avalanche danger above the road while crews are working. Rock fall is different. You never know when those buggers will strike.
On Thursday Paul arrived to find grizzly bear tracks outside his rig. Inside his big machine, atop more than 50 feet of snow with the pavement roadway far below him, plowing Going to the Sun Road is not a rush job. Snow conditions change year to year and day by day. “It takes patience,” he said Thursday, standing next to his now-idled rotary plow. “You take your time.”
The crews, about 12 men total, come up to the highway each day from opposite sides of Logan Pass. The West Lakes crew works from the west side, and the Hudson Bay crew goes at it from the east.
Thursday they met at the Big Drift — the final, 100-foot-deep obstacle just over the east side of the summit of Logan Pass.
This year the crews faced near-record snowfall and started two weeks later than usual when they began plowing April 1. But an unusually warm May, with rainfall at higher elevations instead of snow, helped them finish a week earlier than last year. In 2011, the road opened July 13 — its latest ever. Paul said that year the crews plowed snow from August of 2010 to July of 2011.
Paul was ready to be finished with this year’s effort. “I’m going to go park it,” he said. “I’m done. I’m glad to be done with it.
“Towards the end, everybody starts getting burned out, going at this day after day.”
Now finished the road crews will take on other jobs in the park, such as working on the North Fork of the Flathead gravel road, and fixing the roadway up into Kintla and Bowman lakes.
One of the dangers of plowing Going to the Sun Road is working around large holes that develop from waterfalls between the snowpack and the cliff face on the inside of the roadway. An excavator works at it first, pulling the snow away from the cliffs until they can build a track wide enough for a plow. “It’s never smooth sailing,” Paul said. “Even when the snow is lower, it’s still super steep.”
Avalanche spotter Noah Keller, a snow scientist with the U.S. Geological Service, works alongside the plowing crews, outside and on the snow. They keep their heads and eyes craned ever upward, watching for any avalanches or rockfall that might tumble over the workers. Keller said they’ll sometimes ski up above the highway to gauge dangers that might await snowplows.
“I would say the spotters have the hardest job,” Paul said. “They’re out in the elements all the time. We’re inside our rigs. They have saved me a few times.’
Starting on top of the snowpack, the plows work their way down and down until they hit the roadway, which is this year was mostly ice. “We had to use a D7 Cat to rip it up,” Paul, the West Lakes road crew leader, said.
Now that the plowing is finished, workers turn their attention to getting utilities running at Logan Pass. The visitor center uses a surface well from Mount Oberlin, and they have to make sure water is running before the pass can open.
ABOUT THE HIGHWAY
* Congress established Glacier National Park in 1911.
* Construction on the 51-mile highway began in 1924. Three men died during the construction project, according to the park service.
* The highway opened for the first time on July 15, 1933.
* The road has opened only 10 times in May since 1952. The road closes in mid-October.
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