YELLOWSTONE LAKE, Wyo. — Spring is finally coming to this snowbound high country, but don’t assume that it’s a gentle transition from winter.
The roar of straining diesel engines is deafening, vibrating bystanders’ chests. Linked by what seem to be insignificant strands of green synthetic rope, two 20-ton bulldozers pull a 27-ton road grader with a plow. The strain can at times be so great that the 4-inch diameter rope is stretched to only an inch-and-a-half thick. It takes this extensive effort, and much more, to break the snow’s firm grasp on Yellowstone National Park’s remote mountain roads.
Lance Tyson grins as he watches the work, his large grease-stained hands grasped together as he leans through the window of his mechanic’s truck. The smell of diesel exhaust hanging in the air.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he says. “There’s no tourists, nobody bothers us, and the buffalo and elk calves are being born.”
Tyson is just one of the park's hardy 14-member plowing crew. Their task is to clear snow off the park’s 466 miles of roads so they can be opened to spring visitors. It is no easy feat, taking about 1,000 gallons of fuel a day, buckets of hydraulic fluid, tubes of grease and — when needed — a little baling wire.
“You’d be surprised what we hold together with wire,” Tyson says as he pulls off an arm-long length, snips it with wire cutters and folds it over to increase its strength. He then winds it around a snow tire chain clasp on the grader to ensure it stays closed.
“It’s a shoestring operation we’ve got going here,” he jokes, the wire required because someone didn’t pay their taxes.
“Nothing but the best for you,” he tells the grader driver before walking back to his truck.
Earlier in the day, a $2 bolt had worked loose on a snow blower and pierced the machine’s radiator. One or two such mechanical breakdowns a day are common.
“Banging iron on ice, you’re going to loosen bolts,” Tyson says.
So he unhooked the radiator fins and crimped the punctured tube closed as a quick fix.
“In the real world we probably would have taken it to the shop and put in a new radiator, but out here we’ve got to fix it so it can get down the road,” Tyson says.
“Out here” on this day is about 7 miles north of West Thumb along the shore of a still-frozen Yellowstone Lake. That’s about an hour’s drive south from the plow crew’s headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo. Although the sun is shining intensely, the entire landscape at this elevation of about 7,700 feet is still buried under several feet of sound-stifling snow, like a huge cotton ball stuffed inside Yellowstone’s volcanic caldera ear. And even though today is warm and sunny, the crew has frequently suffered through days with temperatures bottoming out at 20-below zero or colder, or had storms or wind blow snow back on top of just-cleared pavement.
Yet by April 18, Yellowstone will unlock part of its circular road system — known as the Grand Loop — to auto traffic. The first to open is the stretch from Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo., to Old Faithful.
After that, Canyon to Lake and Lake to the East Entrance will open on May 2.
On May 9, Lake to the South Entrance, West Thumb to Old Faithful and Tower to Tower Falls will be cleared for travel. The last stretches to be plowed are the high Dunraven and Beartooth passes, which open on May 23.
In the end, Tyson and his fellow snowplow workers will have spent about three months blowing, pushing and plowing untold tons of snow and ice.
It’s a slow task, made all the more difficult where the snow has been densely packed by snowmobile and snowcoach travel like the section between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful.
“The most ground I’ve ever covered in a day is 10 miles,” says Kenny Whitman, a 29-year plow crew veteran. He leans up against the grader as he talks, sipping coffee that came from a metal thermos as dented and battered as a dimpled driving range golf ball. “The least is seven-tenths of a mile. You get in snow 14-feet deep, and you stay all day long.”
That’s not the deepest snow Whitman has encountered, though. On the top of the Beartooth Pass is a drift — called the Bar Drift, because in the 1930s Cooke City residents set up a bar in the snowbank for passing travelers — that once measured 39 feet deep.
To bust through the packed road snow, dozers are usually the first sent down the road to push some of the frozen moisture out of the way. Then the dozers hook on to the grader to plow down to the roadbed. Snow blowers follow, making the path gradually wider.
“It’s just like a big Toro snow blower on steroids,” Tyson explains of the churning augers mounted on the front of the heavy machinery.
The snow flies out from the top of the augers in a high white arc, a beautiful sight against the deep blue sky. Although it may look fluffy, though, snowplow operator Dana Riley said it falls so heavily that it will easily crush a snowmobile. Pieces of pine tree limbs lie scattered across the forest floor where they’ve landed after being broken off by the steady stream of snow.
On this day, Riley is driving a plow truck that requires a second man to operate the vehicle’s wing blade that trims off the top of the roadside snowpack to keep it from falling back onto the pavement.
When done, the only signs of the plows' and snow blowers' work are the webbed tracks in the snow made by the machines’ heavy tire chains and arcs etched into the sides of the hard snow walls by the augers.
Calm after the storm
As Riley waits to begin plowing again, he says it’s “kinda nice to have the park to yourself.” He once saw a bison cow give birth to its calf in the middle of the road. Whitman said he’s marveled at the way bison calves can swim the park’s cold waters so skillfully, with their mothers always downstream to keep them from drifting away.
“It’s pretty neat nature has figured that out,” Whitman says.
Compared to the summer, when the road crews face throngs of tourists impatiently bustling through, the springtime is pretty enjoyable, the crew agrees.
“This time of year, being out here by yourself, it’s the only time when you can stand in the middle of the road without getting run over,” Whitman says with a chuckle.
“When everything shuts down at the end of the day, it’s pretty peaceful,” Ryan says. It’s a quiet that the crew appreciates all the more after clanging, roaring and bouncing through snow for 10 hours a day.
“We were out here this morning and you could hear your heart beat it was so quiet.”