Plowing snow (in June) — the opening of Glacier National Park

Going-to-the-Sun expected to open by July 1

By: - June 5, 2021 8:45 am

Indian Paintbrush popped their red blooms along Going-to-the-Sun Road, the Weeping Wall cried buckets, and a bighorn sheep munched above a ravine on the way toward Logan Pass. Later in the season, columbine will join the wildflower chorus, and cars and motorcycles and RVs – and yes, more cars – will jockey to fill the parking lot high in Glacier National Park.

Wednesday, though, the road crew, with help from avalanche experts, was still cutting away the last wall of snow along the Big Drift. Just on the east side of the pass, a claw pulled chunks of snow onto the corridor, and a dozer pushed away the piles.

“It’s definitely the highlight of the year that some of us live for,” said Christian Tranel, a road crew work leader.

Christian Tranel, work leader, said people who like working big equipment see Glacier’s iconic road as an extreme challenge. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

So far, Going-to-the-Sun Road is open 12 miles from West Glacier. Still on the to-do list before drivers can roll across all 50 miles? Install guardrails, removed for the season lest a slide smash them away. Place the “Exhibit Ahead” signs. Extract a boulder that dropped onto the roadway and embedded itself into the pavement. Rebuild the wall the boulder broke. Clear paths to the bathrooms at Logan Pass. And more.

By July 1, the gates are expected to be open this year, and if last fall’s record numbers of visitors are any indication, it’s shaping up to be another busy season on the iconic corridor. So far, though, the year has been average when it comes to Mother Nature.

“Right now, we’re at approximately 105 percent of snow water equivalent for the year,” said Zachary Miller, physical scientist with the U.S. Geological Service.

A couple of scientists from the USGS help the road crew avoid avalanches. So far this year, Miller counted some 80 slides on the corridor, mostly wet loose snow, including one that temporarily trapped three bikers last month. But Miller said higher temperatures are influencing shallow snowpack, more weak layers of snow are possible, so Glacier has the potential for more slides.

To help keep the road crew safe, the scientists start looking at their computers at 3:30 or 4 a.m., tracking past meteorological conditions, current conditions, and the weather forecast for the corridor. Some 22 people work on both sides of the pass.

Wednesday, the sun shone for a media tour with a gaggle of reporters and photographers, but the Glacier workers prefer the cold and snow. Cool temperatures keep the snow more stable.

At 6 a.m., Tranel and his crew get an avalanche briefing. This time of year, they’re at Logan Pass by 7:30 or 8 a.m., and throughout the season, spotters will join them at the right vantage points to call out danger. Rock falls and ice falls scare them; you can’t see them coming.

“If the danger is really high, we won’t go into certain chutes,” said Brian Paul, roads supervisor.

In 1953, two men died while working to clear the road, according to a story about the Glacier crew by the Flathead Beacon. Avalanche forecasts started roughly 20 years ago, and some of the workers have been there that long or longer.

In his 11th year, Tranel considers himself one of the newer crew members. For people who like running big equipment, he said, Going-to-the-Sun Road poses one of the most extreme challenges, and it brings an adrenaline rush.

“You just have to know where the edge is,” Tranel said.

Glacier tries to keep operators in the pipeline, growing in their experience on the road. Most of them start on the easy part of the corridor and work their way to the more challenging portions with help from veteran operators. A healthy dose of fear helps.

“There needs to be fear because you need to be cognizant of the danger,” said John Lucke, deputy chief of maintenance. “But you don’t want someone who is too scared.”

Snowplow: A rotary plow is a key piece of equipment to clear the road. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

As he and Tranel talked, a couple of equipment operators worked in the narrow path between a wall of snow and the edge of the road, or what will be the road after it’s unburied. Chains wrapped the giant tires of the machines. A rotary plow was parked at Logan Pass, not in operation in that moment, but a key piece of equipment nonetheless. Glacier counts two of those, one in Denver for maintenance, and they’re capable of moving 4,000 tons an hour and cutting more than 5 feet of snow at a time.

“We can’t really get ‘em like this anymore,”Lucke said.

These days, manufacturers are making large snowplows that can clear airport runways, for instance. But he said the smaller rotary plows can maneuver in the tight corridor.

Every day, a mechanic with a service truck and welder works alongside them, Lucke said. If the plows don’t need work, the mechanic does other jobs, like installing guard logs, the guardrails in the park. But even once the plowing is done, a layer of ice that’s 12 to 16 inches thick sits atop the surface of the road.

“It’s just a matter of taking the road down in sections,” Tranel said.

Once the roads are clear and the crowds pour into the park, workers will switch to other tasks. Last year, with COVID-19 shutting down transit, the amount of sewage the staff hauled away from the toilets under the majestic Reynolds Peak was cut in half to some 5,000 gallons a day.

Nonetheless, fall months saw record visitation last year, and this year, Glacier started a new ticketed entry system to try to cut down on traffic jams in the corridor. To alert drivers of the change, staff are pulling out all the stops, including a goat costume.

So far, all tickets have been sold out as the park has released them, but Glacier is making a portion of them available on a rolling basis 48 hours before entry. Drivers still need a park pass, but the tickets cost just $2. During one 8 a.m. release, just 12 tickets remained at 8:01 a.m., said Brandy Burke, public affairs assistant for Glacier.

“It’s fast. It is a fast process,” Burke said. “You have to be quick.”

More tickets will be available once the road fully opens since 50 miles of road can fit more cars than 12 miles of road. The park estimates the road can accommodate some 4,600 vehicles, including service trucks.

During the Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend that tickets were required, a few hundred cars didn’t have reservations, said Gina Kerzman, spokesperson for the park. So she said workers and volunteers siphoned them into a “ticket corral” on the way into the park and gave them other options.

“We feel like it went really well,” Kerzman said.

For one thing, she said some people are still surprised to find out the road isn’t open all the way, so they aren’t totally disappointed when they can’t enter. Visitors who want a preview of congestion and parking lot availability in the park can look at a dashboard on Glacier’s website. (Those who want to learn more about the park on their drive can download episodes of the Headwaters podcast.)

At the corral, staff direct visitors to other park entrances that don’t require tickets (only West Glacier and St. Mary require a ticket, for the Going-to-the-Sun Road), although they might not recommend the bumpy North Fork road to someone in an RV. They let them know they can enter the park before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m. without a ticket, or even tell them about the nearby Swan Valley.

“Montana is a beautiful, beautiful place to visit,” Kerzman said.

Wednesday morning, a light breeze rolled just a couple of wrinkles onto the surface of Lake McDonald, and the aspen glowed a Kermit-the-frog green. Tents had popped up again in the Sprague Creek campground. A rainbow sparkled through a ruffle of water falling over rock.

By early afternoon, a parade of bicyclists was pedaling up the road, some under their own power, some with help from e-bikes. A foursome with at least one skateboard among them rested along the creek, the water a churn of grey and green that tumbled into the lake.

Before Glacier opens up to cars all the way over Logan Pass, the road crew will make sure “tip outs” are cut from the tops of the walls of snow, overhangs that could come crashing down. Once it’s safe and the gates swing open, traffic is expected to be slow. In and around the park, though, the view for those who wait shouldn’t be too bad.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.