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Early opening of North Cascades Highway unlikely

NEWHALEM, Wash. – Crews from the Washington State Department of Transportation have been busy in the North Cascades clearing heaps of snow from State Route 20.

Snow clearing can take as long as eight weeks, and WSDOT said this year could be one of the latest openings since the 1970s.

The highway is a vital link between Western and Central Washington. The highway usually reopens by early May, but thanks to the hefty snowpack crews have their work cut out for them.

Crews attacked the project from a couple directions: They are teams on the east and teams on the west. As of early May, they were about 10 miles apart with plans to meet somewhere in the middle when complete.

“We don’t have an official North Cascades clearing start date every year, it just sort of depends on what Mother Nature throws at us throughout the winter,” said Andrea Petrich with WSDOT.

This year, Mother Nature has been tough in the mountain passes and SR 20 through the Cascades, where snow is still several feet deep in areas. One of the biggest dangers for work crews are avalanches.

“Safety of our crews is the number one priority,” said Petrich.

Teams must assess the avalanche danger with careful precision before some work can begin.

The stunning views and blanket of white snow can also hide dangers for both people and equipment. The process is methodical and sometimes slow-going.

“To make sure we’re not ruining equipment by trying to snow blow a tree,” Petrich said.

In lower and warmer elevations, crews were also replacing signage, improving drainage and clearing slides from the roadway.

It’s lonely work and potentially dangerous but the views can’t be beat.

“It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, it’s beautiful, I mean look at this. It’s God’s country,” said WSDOT’s Rod Hayes.

Hayes has been with the agency for more than a decade and said he feels lucky to be able to work in the North Cascades.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said.