BEARTOOTH PASS -- In 13 years of plowing the Beartooth Pass, Steve Reed has never encountered so little snow.
But the weather can change things quickly on the section of Highway 212 that rises to 11,000 feet as it crosses the Beartooth Mountains from Red Lodge into Wyoming and then on to Yellowstone National Park. Park crews plow the Wyoming side of the highway. Traditionally, the route is opened the Friday before Memorial Day weekend and stays open through Labor Day weekend. But the highway is often closed, sometimes several times, when snow or rocks fall.
"It's usually the middle of June before you're feeling pretty good that you're out of the woods," said Reed, section supervisor for the Montana Department of Transportation in Red Lodge.
And even in low snow years like this one, there are endless challenges to working in a high-altitude environment of rock, more rock, cold and water.
This year's snowplowing efforts on the 11 miles of highway on the Montana side are the opposite of last year. Late snow last May kept filling in the roadway almost as fast as the crews could plow it out.
The drift on the Mae West corner, above Vista Point, is often much higher than the 10-foot tall plows. This year, it was only 6 to 8 feet deep. Last year, a drift above the Quad Creek drainage measured 28½ feet deep and took a week to plow through. This year, it took a day and a half to clear. Last year, all that was showing of the restrooms at Vista Point was their vent pipes. It took about three days to dig the restrooms out. This year, it took about three minutes.
Part of the reason snowplowing took less time was that the crew acquired new equipment. The pride of the group is a 644-horsepower snowblower made by Kodiak America, driven by an eight-cylinder Mercedes engine. The blower is rated at 5,000 tons an hour and is capable of throwing snow 80 feet high. Even better, it can be quickly attached and detached from the front-end loader that guides the blower. The 30-year-old unit it replaced took days to put on and was only half as powerful.
In addition, the crew used a SnoCat to plow deep snow off the top of drifts, pushing the snow off the side of the road, which cut the amount of snow the blower needed to throw.
Slip sliding away
Last year, the ground became so saturated with melt water that rocks flowed down the Quad Creek drainage, blocking a 4-by-6-foot concrete culvert and backing up water alongside the highway about 15 feet deep, even though water was rushing out an overflow culvert.
To unplug the culvert, a mini excavator was lowered by cable down the steep slope to the outlet end by a wrecker truck. The excavator rammed a length of guardrail into the 280-foot-long culvert to loosen the rock.
"It rumbled for about five minutes, you could feel the ground shaking, then it just shot rocks about that size through," said Tom Tilzey, MDOT maintenance superintendent, as he pointed to a dishwasher-sized boulder.
Randy Roth, MDOT maintenance chief, estimated there was 300 feet of head pressure generated by the backed-up water. That's equal to about 130 pounds per square inch.
To prevent such a blockage from occurring again, the agency last fall poured a concrete extension onto the uphill side of the culvert and installed a four-piece grate made of 8-inch diameter pipe. The idea is that the pipe would stop the rock, and the extension would allow the water to flow up and over any rocks but still let water drain back down into the culvert. The grate was built in four sections to allow it to be removed for cleaning.
It was a unique solution to an unusual problem in a difficult environment.
"We don't want that thing to plug again," Roth said. "That was a job getting that unplugged."
An estimated 1,500 cubic yards of rock was hauled out of the drainage to ensure the culvert doesn't jam up anytime soon.
"Gravity is always working up here," Tilzey said. "That's the name of the game, rocks and gravity."
No early opening
Despite the lack of snow this year, the Beartooth Pass won't be opened until May 25, the Friday before Memorial Day. That gives the Park Service time to reach the Montana-Wyoming state line. Last year, the crew was called off its work on the Beartooth Pass to open the Dunraven Pass after a rockslide closed off the highway between Tower Junction and Mammoth Hot Springs.
This year, as Roth noted, the situation is "totally different." Along the Beartooth Highway, though, different is normal.
"Two years ago, we had a crew up here all Fourth of July weekend because we had 4 feet of snow," Roth recalled. "I hope the lack of snow doesn't keep people from coming up this year."