While much of the Beartooth Mountains remained blanketed in record-breaking snow last winter, road crews plowing the final stretches of the Beartooth Highway say the annual undertaking has gone mercifully smoothly, reports the Billings Gazette.
“It’s not an easy year by any means, but it’s not a record,” said Steve Reed, the field maintenance supervisor for the Montana Department of Transportation’s Big Timber section said Thursday during a media tour of the ongoing plowing operations.
The crew typically aim to have the road open on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, after plow crews from the MDT and Yellowstone National Park meet at the Montana-Wyoming state line.
The MDT crew began punching through the final snowdrift before the state line Thursday, less than a half-mile from Wyoming and expects to finish plowing by Monday or Tuesday. After that, they still have to finish repairing guard rails along the switchback portion of the road damaged by avalanches during the winter and replacing others that were removed last fall.
South of the border, the park’s plows had advanced as far as Long Lake, about 11 miles away from the state line, according to an update provided Thursday by park spokesman Jacob Frank.
Reed, who until last year had been the head of MDT’s Red Lodge Section, is a 19-year veteran of the annual plowing operations. He said the weather has largely cooperated this year, with few major snowstorms after their mid-April start, and, surprisingly, no avalanches requiring them to re-plow portions of the road below the Beartooth Plateau.
Crews install poles along the edges of the road each fall as a guide for the following spring when the road is blanketed in up to 30 feet of snow. When they become buried or knocked down during the Beartooths’ harsh winters, divining the location of the roadbed is often a matter of experience.
“This year the snow poles held up pretty well, but I can remember years up here when it was a whiteout and it becomes a ‘feel’ thing,” Reed said.
The dozen or so members of the plowing crew use a snowcat equipped with a plow to “pioneer” the road, shaving down the top layers of snow until the heavier bladers can begin punching through the denser, compacted layers underneath. Behind those massive snowplows, equally massive snowblowers churn through the berms to push the snow off the road.