Crews hope to open North Cascades Highway on Thursday

SEATTLE — Washington state road crews using heavy-duty snow blowers and bulldozers are close to reopening three highways through the Cascades that were closed by deep winter snow and avalanche dangers.

The Transportation Department expects to reopen Cayuse Pass on Tuesday, the North Cascades Highway on Thursday, and Chinook Pass by May 25, in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

Cayuse and Chinook passes are on the east side of Mount Rainier, where up to a foot of new snow fell as recently as Thursday.

The North Cascades Highway is the state’s northernmost route across the Cascades.

The North Cascades crews have been working toward each other since late March from the east and west sides of a 37-mile stretch of Highway 20. They were a mile-and-a-half apart on Friday, said DOT spokesman Jeff Adamson in Wenatchee.

A bulldozer is helping each snow blower because the snow is so deep and dense, he said.

“The consistency of the snow is like concrete, so you can put a D6 Caterpillar on top of it and it doesn’t sink” Adamson said.

The crews are expected to meet Monday and widen their path on Tuesday. On Wednesday crews plan to use explosives to bring down the snow in avalanche chutes. The next day drivers could be wowing at the snow banks and circling the 440-mile Cascade Loop scenic byway.

It will take about seven weeks to open the North Cascades Highway this year, compared to six weeks last year.

The snowpack has been above-average the past two La Nina winters. Snow was 60 feet deep at Liberty Bell near 5,477-foot Washington Pass. That compares with past averages of 35 to 40 feet.

“Sixty feet is huge,” Adamson said.

DOT crews also are in deep snow as they work on Cayuse and Chinook passes, said DOT spokeswoman Meagan McFadden in Yakima. Chinook Pass is at 5,430 feet on Highway 410, and Cayuse Pass is five miles away at 4,675 feet at the junction of Highway 410 and Highway 123.

The passes are part of the east entry to Mount Rainier National Park and an alternate for east-west travel through the state.

“A lot of people look forward to it because of the scenic views,” McFadden said. “It’s gorgeous, especially right around fall because of all the colors.”

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