Delayed opener predicted for North Cascades Highway

A road sign peeks through the snow below Liberty Bell Mountain on the North Cascades Highway on March 16. State avalanche technicians ventured into the closed section of Highway 20 to assess conditions and found 35 to 45 feet of snow on the highway below the mountain — with avalanche chutes still full.

MAZAMA – The North Cascades Highway won’t be open for the start of fishing season April 22 or Winthrop 49er Days in early May.

It may not even be open by Memorial Day.

Clearing of the state’s northernmost route through the Cascades is tentatively set to begin April 10, “but heavy snowpack could keep it closed until June,” said state Department of Transportation officials.

Highway 20 closed Nov. 21, 2016, for the winter.

“If the clearing effort takes a full eight weeks, this year’s reopening could extend beyond Memorial Day into June,” said Jeff Adamson and Andrea Petrich, department representatives in Wenatchee and Mount Vernon, respectively.

“The weather, current snow slides over the road and the full (avalanche) chutes that haven’t emptied yet make it unsafe to begin any clearing work earlier than April 10,” they said. “The volumes of snow through the 34-mile closed section is responsible for the up to eight-week estimate to reopen.”

Department officials surveyed the highway March 16.

“An early opening is in time for the lowland fishing season opening, the third week in April. A typical opening is by the first weekend in May for Winthrop’s 49er Days. We’ve only been closed through Memorial Day once in 40 years, but it could happen this year,” said Twisp maintenance supervisor Don Becker.

The latest reopening ever was June 14, 1974, the year after the highway first opened.

On the March 16 assessment trip, DOT avalanche and maintenance staff found snow over the road 25 feet high below four of the 11 Cutthroat Ridge avalanche chutes.

Below Liberty Bell Mountain the three main chutes were still full but had 35- to 45-foot accumulations on the highway below them. Even Whistler, between Washington and Rainy Passes had 15 feet dumped onto the highway, three times more than recorded in the past decade.

Last year, clearing started March 17 and the highway opened about a month later on April 22. The latest opening in the last 10 years was May 25, 2011.

There is another change this year, officials said.

Too many close calls as the volume of bicycle and skiers has continued to increase while crews are working has forced closure of the highway Monday through Thursday during the clearing period.

“You’re still welcome Friday through Sunday,” said Adamson and Petrich. “We still advise checking with the Northwest Avalanche Center, the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service about the back country avalanche conditions before you go.”

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