Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rites of Spring: Mountain Highway Openings

Clearing Liberty Bell chute #1 along the North Cascades Highway.
Source: Washington State Department of Transportation.
One of the great rites of spring in the American West is the opening of mountain highways that have been buried under a deep blanket of snow during the winter.  You have to love the deep snowpack, but more importantly, the resulting access to spectacular scenery and great skiing.

The classics are probably in the national parks including the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, The Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park, and the North Cascades Highway (pictured above) in North Cascades National Park.  There are many others, including the Mirror Lake Highway through the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah.

The Washington State Department of Transportation has some great photos of this year's snow clearing efforts along the North Cascades Highway.  The challenge is greatest near Rainy Pass (Thumbnail A, 4875 ft) and Washington Pass (Thumbnail B, 5477 ft) where the road is highest and bisects a number of major slide paths.

Source: Google/AcmeMapper
Although these passes are high by Cascade standards, as can be seen in the image above, they lie east (climatologically downstream) of some very high topography.  As a result, they are snowy, but not as snowy was the Cascades further to the west.  SNOTEL data for Rainy Pass shows an average peak snowpack snow water equivalent (SWE) of about 41 inches, with a peak this year of about 55 inches.

For comparison, the Mount Nooksack SNOTEL at 4980 ft near Mount Baker in the western Cascades peaked at a snowpack SWE of about 96".

Nevertheless, the terrain around Rainy and Washington Passes is spectacular.  I'll date and embarrass myself, but twenty years ago this Memorial Day Weekend, I skied the area around Washington Pass with the future Mrs. Steenburgh and a good friend, Santo Criscuolo.

Before making fun of those neon pink rain pants, check out the shorts I was wearing.  Yeah, that's me on the right in the photo below with a pair of neon pink shorts.  On the plus side, I'm tattoo free, so other than this photo (and perhaps a few others), and the need to replace a few components, I have no permanent record of such youthful indiscretions.

Skis?  How about 203 cm K2 UVOs.  If you want a pair, this guy will sell you some for $5.

The turns?  Fantastic.  There's nothing like Cascade corn.  

Yours Truly
Santo Criscuolo
So, keep an eye out for highway openings.  This year, it looks like the North Cascades and Going to the Sun Highways might be the best call.   

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