Snowbound California roads are still getting a great team job

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California. – There can be no more powerful reminder of California’s giant snow than the crews are still clearing roads that snake over the state of the highest mountains, as the summer is approaching.

The crews are digging, blowing and blasting for months and the work is not yet complete, but an approaching heat wave can speed up the process.

“We are almost in the middle of June and we still have many of the passes that are not open,” said Florene Trainor, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Transportation.

Some of the roads crossing the Sierra Nevada, the rocky spine of 400 km in the state, which is home to Yosemite National Park. Passes are usually open by Memorial Day.

The only way through Yosemite, Highway 120, remained closed this week as crews dig out from the snows that topped 20 feet and drifted more than 50 metres.

On a recent day, the entrance of the park drive on the 9,945-foot-high Tioga Pass was buried in the snow.

But the serenity of the Sierra Nevada, with birds chirping, snow-crested peaks that tower above 12,000 feet, was shaken by the roar and the sound of the plows, excavators, and huge machines carving up and with 15-foot snowbanks and moving giant blocks of snow. Large snow blowers, sent plumes with an arch through the air and out of the side of the road.

If the Caltrans crew dug the entrance from the east, a crew of the park was the work from the west to clear the road that winds its way to Yosemite Valley, the park is a top destination.

Caltrans had begun inching his way on the road more than two months ago, when it seemed more like winter. It snowed on and off in the spring, with a late season storm hit last weekend.

The air is clean and the views are beautiful, but working here is not for the faint of heart, such as driver’s maneuvering of large machinery along the narrow ribbons that are suspended above an abyss. Helicopter footage shot this spring for Caltrans showed the small margin for error in the places where the road clung to cliffs and then disappeared under a white blanket, where the path was obscured.

“It’s creepy, it’s nerve-wracking … especially if you can’t see the road. You’re on a large sleigh,” said Clint Weier, a maintenance superintendent with Caltrans. “Some of our operators here have a number of wow factors.”

Avalanches stampede down granite walls, taking trees and rocks with them that choke roads. In a section, tree trunks and branches from a previous slide poked out of pure snowbanks dotted with pine needles and other remnants of a previous snow slide.

Rockslides are a threat, even after the employees make use of cost and other methods to promote the release of snow slides reduce the danger. Slides and the crushing weight of the snowpack are damaged that in some places serve as the only barrier between the road and a steep drop which plunges hundreds of metres to the east of the entrance of the park.

A Yosemite plow driver was killed by an avalanche in 1995 and now maintenance workers in the park complete avalanche safety courses for working on the road, a park spokesman Scott Gediman said.

The park’s official map notes that the east entrance on the top is the highest auto pass is usually closed until May, but it usually opens later after a snowy winter, Gediman said Tuesday. There is no date that has yet to open the road through the park.

Just north of the park, the Sonora Pass opened Tuesday. Ebbetts Pass further to the north remains closed, said Skip Allum, a Caltrans spokesman. To the south, the crews plowed the road over Minaret Summit near Mammoth Mountain ski area.

In Lassen Volcanic National Park, much farther to the north, through the deep snow still at the tomb of the road that circles the southern most peak in the Cascade Range. The road is expected to open in the beginning of July.

The snowpack presented an extra challenge this year, because it was heavily saturated with water. The dense and frozen snow, it was more difficult to penetrate, heavier to move and broke equipment, Paul Jensen, a Caltrans plow driver, said.

Jensen has been working overtime all spring to get the road to Yosemite is open and not yet minded to work in the weekend. He considers it a work of love.

“Twenty years and I’m still not tired of it,” Jensen said. “It is my favorite time of the year.”


Melley reported from Los Angeles.

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