BEARTOOTH PASS — If the ribbon of highway that winds up this 11,000-foot high mountainside is any indication, snowpack in the peaks south of Red Lodge is minimal compared to years past.
“Normally in upper Quad (Creek) it’s 20 to 25 feet of snow,” said Randy Roth, Montana Department of Transportation maintenance chief, in talking about a section of the roadway. “This year it’s 6 or 8.”
Roth led the annual tour of his agency’s snowplowing efforts at the pass on Wednesday, weeks earlier than usual. The plow crew has been at work for about a week and found only scattered patches of snow until they passed 9,190-foot-high Vista Point, which is where the plows and blower were working on Wednesday.
Steve Reed, MDOT’s section supervisor in Red Lodge, said he's rarely seen less snow on the lower mountain.
Less snow has been a benefit for the crew of Geostabilization International, a Colorado-based company that is working on hills alongside the highway to remove old concrete laid to stabilize steep slopes and put down new anchors, steel mesh and what’s called Shotcrete, concrete that’s sprayed on.
The company’s employees began removing some of the old concrete — originally laid in 1964 — using a crane and wrecking ball last fall after the road was closed.
“There were spots where it was several feet thick,” said Bryan Wavra, project development engineer for Geostabilization International. “It was very challenging to get it removed.”
With the old concrete out of the way, the company uses winches to lower wagon drills down the 200-foot tall hillside that has a 45-degree slope. Wavra said the crew will end up drilling more than 1,000 4-inch holes about 6 feet into the rock. Inch-and-a-half pipes are grouted into the holes. Flat panel drains, which look like large rubber strips, underlay the welded wire mesh to which the concrete is applied.
The drains help relieve hydrostatic pressure by channeling any water under the concrete to the bottom of the slope, Wavra explained, without it getting trapped next to the Shotcrete where it could freeze, thaw and break up the material.
“They are about the only company that does this kind of thing,” Roth said.
Although Geostabilization has worked in some tough places, including the Colorado Rockies and removing hanging sandstone slabs from Billings’ Rimrocks, Wavra said the Beartooth Highway has unique challenges.
“The Beartooth Pass is definitely up there in terms of difficulty to access and climate,” he said.
You have free articles remaining.
The project has an estimated cost of $4.7 million and is projected to be done by July 15. Until completed travelers on the road may be confined to one lane of traffic around the curve where the work is being done.
The road has traditionally opened to travel on the Friday before Memorial Day. This year that falls on May 27. Merchants in Red Lodge, Cooke City and Cody, Wyo. — which all benefit from tourist traffic on the route — may see an increase in visitors this summer.
“MotorHome magazine had a nine-page spread on the highway (in April), so it’s definitely catching big words,” said Lauren Larson, of the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce.
Larson took the tour with MDOT to “build the excitement of the highway. We love the highway and the people it brings from all over the world.”
A 2012 study said the route over the mountains that continues on to Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance contributes an estimated $72 million a year to the economy of the three communities, said Tim Weimer, Red Lodge chamber executive director.
“Fifty-percent of our resort tax is collected in a three-month period and the highway is the No. 1 reason,” Weimer said.
Also joining the tour was Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney who took the opportunity to ride in MDOT’s 644-horsepower snowblower made by Kodiak America that can blast 5,000 tons of snow an hour and a PistenBully snowcat as they cleared the highway.
“This is spectacular,” he said.
Cooney noted he was recently asked by a young student what he liked about his job. His response: “I get to travel around Montana for my job. Some people pay a lot of money to do that.”
The Montana Department of Transportation is responsible only for plowing a portion of the roadway — about 11.4 miles that climbs up from the West Fork Rock Creek canyon south of Red Lodge to the Montana-Wyoming state line. A Yellowstone National Park plow crew clears the Wyoming section of the highway.
The Beartooth Highway was officially completed in 1936, a marvel of engineering, rock blasting and sheer determination at the time that claimed the lives of two workers during its construction. After falling into disrepair in the 1950s, federal funds rebuilt the road in 1978. In 2002, the route was designated a National Scenic Byways All-American Road because of the beautiful mountain country it bisects.