Troopers and road crews work hard to keep U.S. 2 safe

STEVENS PASS — Head east from Everett, and the world changes.

Along U.S. 2, urban becomes rural becomes mountainous. In winter, everything turns white, with glimpses of green and gray.

The snow coats and clings. It sheathes road signs and markings. At the guardrails, it piles and leans, perpetually spilling down the mountainside and over the asphalt.

About 5,000 drivers head over Stevens Pass every day.

A handful of folks with the Washington State Patrol and the state Department of Transportation — many of them from Snohomish County — work to keep them safe.

On winter days, the temperature drops as much as 20 degrees as U.S. 2 winds through the lowlands of east Snohomish County and up to Stevens Pass.

Four Washington State Patrol troopers from Snohomish County are assigned to the pass full-time.

Technically, they work the west side, and Wenatchee-based troopers work the east side, but everyone helps out as needed, pass Trooper Alex Keltz said.

They do the usual trooper stuff: ticketing speeders, arresting drunken drivers and reporting abandoned vehicles so they can be towed off the roadway.

However, at this time of year, they also help a lot of stranded drivers, Keltz said.

He calls it “community care-taking.”

“A lot of times they’re stuck in a snowbank, a little embarrassed, and cold and wet,” he said.

Many people struggle with getting chains on their tires, he said.

“I’m not the quickest at it, but I’ll get them on and get them moving,” he said.

Most drivers who end up needing help on the pass aren’t prepared for conditions, he said. Many forget they don’t have cellphone service. Plenty have four-wheel-drive vehicles but are going too fast and lose control.

“The least we can do is get a tow going for them,” give them a ride down to cellphone service, or get them some help from friends or family, said Mark Francis, another trooper and the regional State Patrol spokesman.

Before Keltz headed up to the pass Jan. 8, he filled the gas tank in his state-issued Ford Expedition. He made sure everyone with him had an avalanche beacon. He checked his traction tires.

There was no accompanying safety lecture: It was, clearly, just something he does.

Inside the bright lemongrass-colored snowplow it’s warm and a little smelly — of mud and fuel.

Dirty snow, ice and slush sprays and arcs from the plow blade, angled away from oncoming traffic.

Plow driver Dan Farmer, 62, of Wenatchee, keeps the heat cranked up and the windows cracked.

“We’ve got a good looking road there,” he said. “Don’t turn your back on it.”

The voices from all the pass crews crackle over Farmer’s radio. An on-board computer lets him decide when to lower the plow blade, or when to apply salt or de-icer. A green beam of light shines a few yards ahead, warning him where the plow blade is aimed next.

Icicles hang from the plow’s front side mirrors, twisted back by the wind.

In his red flannel shirt, knee-high boots and heavy-duty vest, Farmer keeps the plow steady.

He paces the pass, back and forth. Occasionally, he pulls up alongside another rig to chat. The crews make sure everyone knows when avalanche control is planned, where the highway is closed, where everyone else is. They share plenty of those two-hands-on-the-steering-wheel-style waves — just raising their fingers.

In warmer months, Farmer flies a private helicopter in the Wenatchee area, mostly for agricultural operations with a little law enforcement work on the side.

On Jan. 7, his plow shift started at 2 a.m., though most days it starts later. Traffic picks up after 6 a.m.

Farmer likes the challenge of the mountains and the organization of the machines working together.

“In the mornings, it’s spectacular up here when it’s clear,” he said. “I flew for years in Southeast Alaska, and this country is just as dynamic as that.”

He sees about a half-dozen spinouts a day while driving the plow.

In a typical snowfall, within 10 minutes of plowing, the road turns “totally white,” he said.

On the afternoon of Jan. 8, about a half-inch piled up between plow trips.

“For some folks, this road condition is a tremendous challenge,” he said. “You can’t (stop) plowing otherwise the road will keep getting closed.”

On his way home, back west, Trooper Francis suddenly flipped on his red-and-blue lights.

A bedraggled woman was waving at drivers, somewhere near Skykomish. She was cold. Her car was stuck.

Francis and others tried to push her car from a snowy side road. The trooper offered to drive her to a safe place, where she could meet up with family or friends.

She directed him back down to Index, and a cabin about a mile down a gravel road.

The woman climbed out of the Expedition and walked toward the home overlooking the Skykomish River.

“Thank you, sir,” she said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com

Troopers help

The Washington State Patrol tracks how often troopers stop to help people. Here are the numbers for southeast Snohomish County up to Stevens Pass, between October and April. “Disabled vehicles” means stuck, stranded or broken down. The numbers don’t include arrests, traffic stops or abandoned vehicles.

2010 season

1,229 disabled vehicles

1,876 calls for help, including collisions

2011 season

1,220 disabled vehicles

1,855 calls for help, including collisions

2012 season (Ongoing)

470 disabled

777 calls for help, including collisions

Pass tips

• Check weather conditions before you leave.

• Have a full tank of gas.

• Pack food, water and blankets.

• Drive slowly. Brake slowly.

• Stay further behind other cars.

• Except in emergencies, don’t park on the shoulder. You could get clipped by another driver, and you’ll block the plows.

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