SR 20 North Cascades Highway 2010
Despite 100 inches of new snow that has fallen since the effort to reopen the North Cascades Highway began 3-1/2 weeks ago, WSDOT maintenance crews opened the gates on SR 20 to traffic at noon on Friday, April 16.

“The crews are really pleased that the highway will be open for the first weekend of fishing season (Apr. 24),” said Don Becker, WSDOT Twisp Maintenance Supervisor.

The noon reopening gives us time to "sweep" the entire 37 mile winter closure zone for sand, rocks and debris between milepost 134, seven miles east of Diablo Dam on the west side of 4,855’ Rainy Pass and milepost 171, nine miles west of Mazama on the east side of 5,477’ Washington Pass.

"It provides the safety margin we need so the first drivers over the passes make their trip safely," said Becker. "We had to rent a helicopter and do active avalanche control in the Liberty Bell Mtn. and Cutthroat Ridge zones on Wednesday to bring down snow that would surely have come down on its own with the warm temperatures in the forecast," said Becker, "We couldn't allow traffic below potentially unstable avalanche chutes." The avalanche control was successful to the point that crews weren’t able to clean up the huge piles of snow that slid down to the pavement in time for a Thursday opening.

The 3-1/2 week reopening effort this year is among the shortest ever. Typically, it requires closer to six weeks. This year's lower-than-normal snowpack was primarily responsible. Snow blowers were able to clear the 3-1/2 to 4-feet deep snow over the pavement without the assistance of caterpillar tractors, this year. The cats are usually necessary to cut the snowdrifts down to heights the snow blowers can handle. At the same time, equipment breakdowns (flat tires on the snow blowers, track issues on the snow cat) delayed the clearing by as much as a day. More days were lost having to re-clear already "cleared" sections and clean up after new snow slides following several snow events that dropped from a half-foot to nearly two feet of snow.

When the gates swing open, drivers should find the road conditions bare and dry or bare and wet across the entire route. The forecast for the next few days calls for a 40% chance of some rain, warmer days (perhaps as high as 60 degrees) with some overnight freezing above 5 or 6 thousand feet.

The highway closed for the winter last November 17, following two temporary closures earlier in the month. Last spring, the highway opened at 8 p.m. on Friday night, April 24. Most openings have come between the last week in March and the first week in May. The earliest opening ever was March 10, 2005, only to be closed by snowstorms and avalanches again for ten days from 3/26 to 4/4. There was one drought year, four years after the highway opened in 1976, when the highway remained open all winter.

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