GOING-TO-THE-SUN-ROAD – Up ahead, beneath Mount Clements on a sun-splashed Friday, Herb Ferguson is making his first run over previously untouched snow with his plow.
Somewhere, a good 10 feet below him, sits the narrow pavement that is Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.
How does Ferguson find it?
“He’s got a built-in GPS in his head,” says Eric Knoff, an avalanche specialist with the National Park Service.
The 10 feet of snow to be moved here before asphalt is located, above Oberlin Bend, is nothing.
Less than a mile from where Ferguson is now, he was “pioneering” on snow 35 feet above the pavement, not to mention several thousand feet above the valley floor.
“Pioneering” is the term Glacier officials use to describe work done by the first plow to touch the often-deep snow on Going-to-the-Sun.
Other equipment follows as the snow is removed, layer by layer and section by section.
In time, Ferguson will be a short distance past Logan Pass and at the Big Drift — as will another crew working its way up the east side of the Continental Divide — where Glacier road crew supervisor Stan Stahr says the snow can still be 50 to 70 feet deep.
The going, as you can imagine, is slow, but when the weather cooperates, it is steady.
Glacier officials earlier this year identified June 20 as the absolute earliest possible date Going-to-the-Sun would open to the public.
That won’t happen, they now say — there were days just earlier this week where bad weather made it too dangerous to remove snow — and no new date has been announced.
“It’s a moving target,” Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said Friday. “June has a lot of weather to offer us. You have questions that have to be answered once the snow is plowed: Is the road ready? Is there avalanche danger?”
A firsthand look
Still, the west-side crew is tantalizingly close to Logan Pass. Ferguson was starting work on the final incline to the summit as Mow and GNP management assistant Denise Germann led media members up Going-to-the-Sun for a firsthand look at the snow-removal operation.
The contingent is still on the valley floor when it’s obvious that there’s more involved than plowing snow to get the road open.
A February avalanche flattened trees down one mountainside, across Going-to-the-Sun, and all the way to McDonald Creek.
The area is called the 54 Paths, Knoff explained — not because there are 54 potential avalanche chutes (there are three), but because in 1954 all three produced avalanches.
This year No. 3 roared down, and so not just snow, but rocks and trees, had to be removed from the road.
“Last year we had a rock the size of one of our red (touring) buses on the road that had to be dynamited,” Knoff said. “Haystack is our most problematic chute because it has so many potential starting zones.”
There are at least 30 avalanche chutes in the 16 miles between Avalanche Creek, near Lake McDonald Lodge, and Logan Pass.
Rock, tree debris
Not only is the road littered with rock and tree debris from another long Glacier winter that must be cleared.
Once the crews reach Logan Pass, there’s still a parking lot full of snow to remove and facilities to open before tourists can start making the iconic drive.
“And as soon as you open the gates,” Germann said, “people show.”
There are also 400 individual sections of timber guardrail to be moved, one by one, and hand-bolted back into place. The removable guardrails are part of rehabilitation work done recently on the road, replacing rock walls that still, where they are left, sometimes disappear during avalanches.
The annual plowing is in its third month.
Going-to-the-Sun is kept plowed year-round to Lake McDonald Lodge. The rest of the work begins at the gate located at Avalanche Creek the first week of April, according to Stahr.
“There’s 4 feet of snow there when we start,” he said. “It’s not quite as deep when we reach The Loop, but above The Loop it just increases as we go up.”
“The east side is no picnic,” Germann said, “but on (the west side) there are more chutes, steeper mountains and sheer drop-offs. This side doesn’t get much sun exposure, either.”
Germann said the “institutional knowledge” of crew members such as Ferguson is key to the road being opened every year long before the snow would normally allow it to be.
It’s important to businesses outside the park. Many visitors wait until they know they can drive across Glacier on the one and only road that climbs up one side of the mountains and descends on the other, offering one-of-a-kind views.
It’s a yearly challenge, Knoff explained, because “Nature wants to take back this road ... any chance it gets.”