Snow­bound Cal­i­for­nia roads still get­ting big plow jobs


YOSEMITE NA­TIONAL PARK, CALIF. | There may be no more po­tent re­minder of Cal­i­for­nia’s hu­mon­gous snow­fall than the plows still clear­ing roads that snake across the state’s high­est moun­tains as sum­mer ap­proaches.

Crews have been dig­ging, blow­ing and blast­ing for months — and the work is not fin­ished, though an ap­proach­ing heat wave could speed up the process.

“We’re al­most at the mid­dle of June, and we still have lots of passes that aren’t open,” said Florene Trainor, a spokes­woman for the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion, known as Cal­trans.

Few roads tra­verse the Sierra Ne­vada, the rocky spine run­ning 400 miles up the state that is home to Yosemite Na­tional Park. Moun­tain passes are typ­i­cally open by Me­mo­rial Day.

The only road through Yosemite, High­way 120, re­mained closed this week as crews dig out from snows that topped 20 feet and drifted well over 50 feet.

On a re­cent day, the park’s en­trance sta­tion at 9,945foot high Tioga Pass was buried in snow.

But the seren­ity of the Sierra Ne­vada, with birds chirp­ing be­neath snow-crested peaks that tower above 12,000 feet, was shaken by the roar and beep of plows, ex­ca­va­tors and mas­sive ma­chines carv­ing through 15-foot snow­banks and mov­ing gi­ant blocks of snow. Big snow blow­ers sent plumes arc­ing through the air and off the side of the road.

As the Cal­trans crew dug the en­trance out from the east, a crew from the park was work­ing from the west to clear the road that winds its way to Yosemite Val­ley, the park’s top des­ti­na­tion.

Cal­trans had be­gun inch­ing its way up the road more than two months ago when it seemed more like win­ter. It snowed on and off through­out the spring, with a late-sea­son storm hit­ting last week­end.

The air is clean and views are stun­ning, but work­ing here is not for the faint of heart as driv­ers ma­neu­ver large ma­chines along nar­row rib­bons that feel sus­pended above an abyss. He­li­copter footage shot this spring for Cal­trans showed the small mar­gin for er­ror in places where the road clung to cliffs and then van­ished un­der a white blan­ket where the path was ob­scured.

“It’s spooky, it’s nerve-wrack­ing … es­pe­cially when you can’t see the road. You’re on a big sled,” said Clint Weier, a main­te­nance su­per­in­ten­dent with Cal­trans. “Some of our op­er­a­tors up here have had some wow fac­tors.”

Avalanches stam­pede down gran­ite walls, tak­ing trees and rocks with them that choke roads. In one sec­tion, tree trunks and branches from a pre­vi­ous slide poked from sheer snow­banks lit­tered with pine nee­dles and other de­bris from a pre­vi­ous snow slide.

Rock­slides pose a threat even after work­ers use charges and other meth­ods to re­lease snow slides to al­le­vi­ate the dan­ger. Slides and the crush­ing weight of the snow­pack dam­aged guardrails in some places that serve as the lone bar­rier be­tween the road and a pre­cip­i­tous drop that plunges hun­dreds of feet east of the park en­trance.

A Yosemite plow driver was killed by an avalanche in 1995 and now main­te­nance work­ers in the park com­plete avalanche safety courses to work on the road, park spokesman Scott Ged­i­man said.

The park’s of­fi­cial map notes that the east­ern en­trance atop the state’s high­est au­to­mo­bile pass is typ­i­cally closed through May, but it usu­ally opens later after a snowy win­ter, Mr. Ged­i­man said Tues­day. There’s no date yet to open the road through the park.

Just to the north of the park, Sonora Pass opened Tues­day. Eb­betts Pass far­ther north re­mains closed, said Skip Al­lum, a Cal­trans spokesman. To the south, crews plowed the road over Minaret Sum­mit near Mam­moth Moun­tain ski area.

In Lassen Vol­canic Na­tional Park, much far­ther north, deep snow still buries the road that cir­cles the south­ern­most peak in the Cas­cade Range. The road is ex­pected to open in early July.


A Cal­trans ro­tary blower clears snow from near Yosemite Na­tional Park, Cal­i­for­nia. This year’s heavy snow­fall has crews work­ing to clear High­way 120.

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