North Cascades Highway opens in record time

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By Ian Ferguson

The hiking, skiing and climbing season in the North Cascades mountains along Highway 20 will get off to an early start as the North Cascades Highway opened to traffic in record time due to low snowpack.

Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) crews began clearing snow March 16 and opened the gates April 3. Although communities on the east side of the highway such as Winthrop and Mazama can still be accessed from the east and south during winter months, Highway 20 provides a more direct connection for coastal communities on the west side of the North Cascades.

“We all live up here and know it’s important for local businesses to have the highway open for Easter, the lowland fishing season and ’49er Days Festival in Winthrop,” said Don Becker, highway maintenance supervisor.

It took workers six weeks to clear the highway in 2014, but this year the clearing process took only three weeks due to low snowpack. According to the WSDOT, this year’s reopening effort was the shortest in the highway’s 42-year history.

During the few days before the opening, crews saw a foot of snowfall at some locations and performed avalanche control to clear the chutes so the highway could be safely opened. After opening the highway mid-morning April 3, crews swept the entire 37-mile winter closure zone for sand, rocks and debris, cleared any snow from below avalanche chutes and applied sand or deicer as needed.

After the highway opened on Friday, scores of recreational enthusiasts took advantage of sunny weather and headed to Washington Pass for hiking and backcountry skiing. Radka Chapin, from Redmond, said skiing conditions were good in Washington Pass over the weekend, with 1–2 inches of new powder on top of a firm base.

“The opening weekend was like a party, and everyone seemed to have a good time,”
Chapin said. “It was super fun, enjoyable skiing. The south facing aspects softened by noon and skied very smoothly. The scenery at Washington Pass is hard to beat.”

The highway has only been open through the winter one year, 1977, due to a drought. The earliest opening was March 10, 2005, but two weeks later snow closed the highway for another 10 days and didn’t reopen again until April 4.

The annual reopening of Highway 20 requires a monumental effort from WSDOT crews. For a history of opening and closing dates, maps, photos and progress reports on the 2015 opening, visit wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/passes/northcascades.

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