Spring Storms Delay Road Opening At Glacier National Park

Crews work to carve out dozens of feet of snow each year, but the task of clearing Going-to-the-Sun Road has been extra daunting this year.
Posted at 8:26 PM, Jul 06, 2022

It’s the height of tourism season in northwest Montana, where the prize is Glacier National Park: the crown of the continent.

The crown jewel is Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile passage carved through the Continental Divide in northwest Montana.

But before the park’s annual 3 million visitors can see these views from the top, crews need to carve out the dozens of feet of snow.

"You get a lot of good operators that can plow dirt really well, and then you get them on the side of a cliff in the snow and everything changes," said Brian Paul, road supervisor at Glacier National Park.

It’s not for the faint of heart.

"They're terrifying," Paul said. "I mean, you just have to be a real level-headed operator to do it and somewhat, you know, thrill seeker, but, like, always tell us if you get somebody up here that's overconfident. You don't want them in a piece of machinery."

"I think it's pretty incredible what the road crew works through to get this road open," said Zachary Miller, U.S. Geological Survey physical scientist.

It seems Mother Nature has her own timeline for Glacier this year.

"Until it stops avalanching, rockfall and all that, then we're kind of stuck," Paul said. "We can remove a lot of snow, but how often do you want to redo it, you know, or put people at risk?"

The latest opening day on record is July 15, 1933, when it first opened. Since then, it’s opened twice on July 13 — once from exceptional snowpack and the other from the pandemic.

This year, drawn-out storms and cooler temperatures delayed progress by two to four weeks. The earliest the road will open is July 13, but some crew members think it could go even later, potentially making it the latest opening day in history. 

"With those small impulses and sustained wintry conditions, it just delays the ability of the working road crew to access parts higher on the road because they're just kind of heightened avalanche conditions throughout longer in the season," Miller said.

There are 70 to 100 observed avalanches in a typical year on more than 40 slide areas on some roads, and there are hazards everywhere, including the dropoff.

"I mean, you listen for a call from your spotter if someone's coming down, but that could be a big ball of ice, could be a rock, could be a bear walking down the road," Paul said.

This year, crews endured frustrating repetition on many stretches as late spring storms and avalanches forced them to re-plow some sections multiple times.

"They make a lot of progress, and then have to back up, and then redo it all again," Paul said. "It's like chasing a 3-year-old."

One spot, known as the Big Drift, can collect upwards of 80 feet of snow in a season.

"The closer you get into the rock, it just builds deeper and deeper and deeper," said Christian Tranel, Glacier National Park road crew lead. "Why it does that is because of the wind that we get here. So when you get snow, the wind is coming up from the valley, and the snow does this all winter long, and it just keeps piling up piling up and piling up layer by layer."

Now that it's punched through, the work starts on re-installing more than 500 guardrails. Plows will widen the roadways for two lanes.

Walkways still need to be cleared, and then they will open facilities like restrooms. 

Visitors are antsy to get to the top.  

"It's frustrating people planning their trips out way ahead of time to try to come up here," Paul said. "When they get up here, the road's not open ... That's what I'm looking for is to try to get it open for them, you know, for the visitor."

Crews can feel the marathon job nearing the end.  

"It's a relief," Tranel said. "I think we're all getting tired of moving snow."

But they know the work, and the views, will be there waiting for them again next spring.