Pioneering the Road to the Sun

For more than eight decades, an elite force of Glacier National Park employees has assumed the perilous task of clearing Going-to-the-Sun Road of a winter’s worth of snow

By Tristan Scott
Cars travel along Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1934. Courtesy Glacier National Park

In the 83 years since Going-to-the-Sun Road’s dedication, the thrill of driving Glacier National Park’s scenic byway has not diminished. As one of the world’s most dramatic roadways, it entices millions of motorists to queue up annually at the entrance gates and venture into the park’s wild interior, transported on a two-lane portal of pavement to an otherworldly landscape.

The majority of visitors to the Sun Road observe the spectacular transmountain expanse during the busy summer months, often clinically, through their windshields and on dry pavement. But a small, hardscrabble tribe of park personnel knows it far more intimately – inch by inch, stone by stone, by the grit of the sedimentary cliffs, the abrupt drop-offs, and the glide cracks in its massive overhanging snowfields and avalanche paths.

They know the fragrant smell of splintered pine trees packed tight in an avalanche run more than 50 feet deep and the sight of toppled lodgepole jackstrawed across the snow-entombed roadway, striking haphazard poses like pick-up sticks. They know how to set to work clearing these obstacles, negotiating the road’s precipitous oxbow turns that define the vertigo-inducing traverse, and they know how to do it right, with a measure of safety and success that ensures they arrive home in one piece.

They are the intrepid park employees who each spring pioneer the route to Logan Pass, hewing a path through heavy, avalanche-prone snowpack, which can tower 80 feet above the roadbed in places, obscuring all but the faintest impression of the white ribbon of asphalt etched into the corridor face. At Glacier, crews face a challenging combination of deep, wind-packed snow, avalanches, rockfall, and steep drop-offs alongside the numerous turns on the narrow road.

“These guys know the lay of the terrain, they know where the road drops off when they do their pioneering run,” said Jim Foster, Glacier Park’s chief of facility management. “That’s where the experience comes in. They know where they can plow safely and without danger. They know where they can plow so they’re not hanging out over thin air.”

Plowing operations along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in 2014. Courtesy Glacier National Park
Plowing operations along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in 2014. Courtesy Glacier National Park

Each spring, separate road crews assemble on the park’s east-and-west boundaries, working in tandem on either side of Logan Pass until they reach the road’s high point and the final obstacle that awaits them – The Big Drift, a massive, windswept deposit of snow just east of Logan Pass that can loom upwards of 80-feet high and expose crews to steep avalanche paths.

The Sun Road corridor bristles with more than 40 major avalanche paths that can release destructive snow slides onto the road without a moment’s notice, and road-crew members know them all by name – names like The Grizzly, Swede Point, Weeping Wall, Alps of America, and Haystack Creek – as well as the safety zones nearby refuges.

This knowledge has been amassed through experience, but their safety was significantly bolstered by the advent of an avalanche-forecasting program in 2002, which is facilitated by the U.S. Geological Survey in partnership with the National Park Service.

Today, avalanche technicians and snow scientists provide sophisticated forecast reports to determine when it is safe for the crews to work, and when it is best to pull back and wait. The experts ski above trigger zones to perform tests, and determine the snow stability and potential for avalanche.

These advances are a far cry from the safeguards of the 1930s through the 1950s, when an avalanche lookout used hand signals, flags or threw snowballs to alert the operator if an avalanche was approaching, according to the 2002 Going-to-the-Sun Road Cultural Landscape Report, which was compiled to inform planning, design and management of the famed road.

In the 1960s, the park experimented with enlisting U.S. Air Force jet planes to fly past the Garden Wall and break the sound barrier in order to set off avalanches, reducing the number of delayed slides that the road crews might encounter.

At ski resorts like Alta and Snowbird in Utah, plow crews and snow scientists work year-round to keep the roads clear of snow, using explosives and artillery cannons to trigger avalanches, but Foster said his crew doesn’t have that luxury in a national park.

“We use passive avalanche control, meaning we let nature release them,” he said. “We can’t be blowing up grizzly dens using avalanche bombs, so instead we send snow scientists up there on skis.”

Even with the new safety measures in place, the monumental task of clearing the Sun Road each spring is daunting and perilous, particularly because 35 miles of it remain closed throughout the entire winter, meaning that each spring plow crews encounter an unknown labyrinth of avalanche runs, debris and heavy snowfall that has accumulated for months.

A worker pushes snow off Going-to-the-Sun Road as his spotter watches in Glacier National Park in 2011. Beacon File Photo
A worker pushes snow off Going-to-the-Sun Road as his spotter watches in Glacier National Park in 2011. Beacon File Photo

“The biggest challenge is that when we start working in April, we are plowing for the first time,” Foster said. “These guys might be plowing 40 or 50 feet above the roadbed. They understand the snow and the terrain, they understand the nature of it, but every single year is a little bit different. It throws a curveball at you. But the knowledge they have accrued can pretty much be applied to any obstacle.”

In order to relocate the road each spring, a dozer establishes a level roadbed for the equipment that follows, and each successive cut comes down closer to the roadbed. When the crews reach a point several feet above the roadbed, rubber-tired equipment moves in to finish the job, which rotary snow plows and end-loaders dispatch without damaging the road’s surface or its iconic guardrails.

This technique was established in 1989, when road-crew member Gerald Yates formally suggested that end loaders rather than dozers remove the final “lift” of snow along the guardwalls, resulting in immediate savings in the cost of repairing dozer damage. In the late 1990s, a charged cable tracing system was installed along the shoulder of the road between Logan Pass and Rimrock, allowing road-crew members to detect the guardwalls and safely guide the dozers along the precipitous stretch.

Obstacles and logistical challenges like this have characterized the Sun Road since 1910, when it was a mere twinkle in Park Superintendent William Logan’s eye, and they have persisted ever since.

Plowing operations along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in 2014. Courtesy Glacier National Park
Plowing operations along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in 2014. Courtesy Glacier National Park

The earliest plowing efforts date back to 1929, when the Sun Road was first opened to Logan Pass on the west side. The park received funds to purchase a 3/4-yard gasoline shovel, which was used for three weeks for snow removal in order to have the road open by June 15, according to the Cultural Landscape Report. That year, a crew of six men worked 10-hour shifts. In 1933, the year the road was officially dedicated, the crews worked the gasoline shovel in double shifts in order to clear the snow and slides in time for the targeted June 15 opening, removing approximately 15,000 cubic yards of snow and encountering drifts of snow 30 feet high.

Inscribing the 52-mile road onto the natural masonry of Glacier Park’s rocky cliffs was an engineering marvel, dismissed by many as an impossible feat, and every year throngs of visitors wonder in astonishment how the road was etched into these mountains.

Between 1921 and 1933, when the entire length of Going-to-the-Sun Road was opened to the public, it cost $2.5 million, 490,000 pounds of explosives and three lives to build – built by men armed with shovels, hammers, hemp climbing ropes and explosives, according to the April 1937 issue of Pacific Builder and Engineer.

They constructed scaffolding and trestles that hung out into space, hauled supplies on horseback and scaled 100-foot ladders, blasting through mountain sides at a rate of 100 feet a day.

Technology has changed since those early years, but in many ways, work on the Sun Road has never ceased.

Road crews install removable guard rails along Going-to-the-Sun Road near Haystack Creek in 2015. Beacon File Photo
Road crews install removable guard rails along Going-to-the-Sun Road near Haystack Creek in 2015. Beacon File Photo

That much is apparent to summertime visitors who for the past decade have observed work crews reconstructing history on the Sun Road, repaving its surface and restoring and rebuilding the miles of stone guardrails that edge the highway, walls that for more than eight decades have suffered the crush of winter and wind, the pounding of avalanches and spring torrent.

But during Glacier Park’s silent season, beginning April 1 and generally running 10 weeks – an average that is entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature – the snow-removal crews converge on the road to begin an annual chore that harkens summer.

Anticipation of the iconic highway’s seasonal opening to the public is a spring refrain, and local residents guess aloud at the date they might be able to drive the full length of the Sun Road. Some years, the work is completed in May; others, not until mid-July.

Meanwhile, business owners have historically pressured park administration for an early opening of the Sun Road, which unleashes a floodgate of visitors into Glacier’s gateway communities.

“By the 1950s, local businesspeople increasingly pressured the NPS administration to open the Sun Road early,” according to the Cultural Landscape Report. “Until at least the 1950s, the Road was opened as soon as one 8-foot wide cut had been made. Then the policy changed, and both lanes had to be open the length of the Road before it could open to the public.”

Just as the guessing rises to a crescendo and spring teeters on the brink of summer, the opening arrives and Glacier National Park opens in earnest.

But few of the visitors guessing in the valley below understand the perilous work of the elite force perched high on the icy cliffs above, scouring the Sun Road corridor face and carving a precipitous path as the weight of winter overhangs their wild and vertical office.

Avalanche dangers is the No. 1 threat, followed closely by sliding over the ledge on “borrowed snow,” or recently moved snow that sits deceptively on the edge, according to the Cultural Landscape Report.

Workers dig around a hole where Jean Sullivan was found during a May 1953 avalanche rescue operation along Going-to-the-Sun Road between the Loop and Logan Pass. Courtesy Glacier National Park
Workers dig around a hole where Jean Sullivan was found during a May 1953 avalanche rescue operation along Going-to-the-Sun Road between the Loop and Logan Pass. Courtesy Glacier National Park

In May 1953, crews encountered the heaviest snowpack on record at the time, and the constant specter of danger turned into disaster when a slide caught four employees who were working to clear snow after a storm, retracing their progress as the road was repeatedly buried by fresh snowfall and new slides.

Around 10:30 a.m., and without warning, a massive bank of snow broke loose in the funnel above the roadway, in the Alps of America, about one mile above Haystack Creek. Two men died, while another was partially buried and a fourth, Jean Sullivan, was completely buried for more than seven hours. The following month, he returned to the Sun Road and resumed his snow-clearing duties.

Sullivan recalled the incident in Dave Walters’ Montana Campfire Tales: “I had asked Bill [Whitford], who had his head stuck out of the cab window, and George [Beaton] if they felt it was safe. George said, ‘Hell yes, Jean. Let’s blow it out and we’ll be out of here in thirty minutes.’ He just got the words out of his mouth when I heard a little s-w-i-s-h. We call this kind of a quiet slide a ‘sneaker.’ I looked up and the snow slide was coming – no more than eighty feet above us – and I hollered.”

Reflecting on the near-death experience more than a decade later, Sullivan’s wife, May, summarized the effect that the avalanche had on her husband.

According to Walters, May explained: “Before ’53, there were times when Jean was just absolute hell to live with. But after he’d been buried for seven hours on Going-to-the-Sun Road he became a dear.”

At the time, crews worked the heavy plowing equipment in double shifts, from 4 a.m. until noon, and then noon to 8 p.m. Despite the long days, they fell behind schedule to open the road prior to the unwritten deadline.

Former Glacier Superintendent Jack W. Emmert noted, “Each year I have insisted that, during snow-removal operations, the men are to give safety first consideration. But it is almost a case of tradition that all of the park is open to visitors by June 15.”

Avalanche paths along the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor. Courtesy USGS
Avalanche paths along the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor. Courtesy USGS

Other accidents have occurred throughout the years, but none have been fatal.

In 1964, a bulldozer and operator triggered a wet slab that carried both off the road. The driver was injured but survived. Other incidents and close calls have resulted in buried machinery or costly damage to infrastructure. Slides in April 1991 caused $150,000 damage to the Sun Road.

This year, the crew on the park’s west side includes five permanent employees, two seasonal employees, and two contract avalanche technicians, according to Glacier Park spokesperson Margie Steigerwald. Of these, four are operating equipment, one is a supervisor and the others are helping out in multiple ways. On the east side there are three permanent and two seasonal employees.

They work on a fleet of safety-yellow rotary plows, excavators and bulldozers, which anchor to the snowpack with spiked cleats, seeking purchase on rock-laced ice masses atop sheer vertical banks above the McDonald Creek Valley.

The half-million dollar machines are capable of clearing 4,000 tons of snow an hour, and the crews will remove up to 140,000 tons of snow from the Sun Road by the time the road opens.

Plowing operations along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in 2014. Courtesy Glacier National Park
Plowing operations along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in 2014. Courtesy Glacier National Park

Steigerwald said pressure to open early from the business community has eased, due in part to the park’s efforts to be more transparent with the plowing status, which is regularly updated on an interactive online map.

Foster, chief of facility management, said employee safety is the top priority, and the decision to wait until April 1 to start plowing allows bears and other animals a chance to emerge from hibernation in peace.

“We have really reached out in a pretty aggressive campaign to let the general public and business community know what we do and why we do it, and that has paid dividends,” Foster said. “We are not just twiddling our thumbs up here.”

The crews employ an operational risk management model that analyzes every possible scenario, as well as a Green, Amber, Red (GAR) analysis to determine whether the job can be done safely.

“We are not going to take any unnecessary risks. We are all about getting our people home safely,” Foster said.

“In a way it’s a dance with nature, and we take it seriously.”

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