Glacier Park

Avalanches Trap Bikers on Going-to-the-Sun Road

Park officials urge visitors to proceed with caution as avalanches and other hazards lurk in Glacier National Park's high country

By Tristan Scott

A party of cyclists from Bigfork became trapped between two avalanches that buried portions of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road Thursday evening, prompting rangers to successfully execute a roped rescue operation and belay the bikers to safety.

According to a press release, which a park spokesperson sent out late Friday afternoon, three bikers — a husband and wife along with a friend — were traveling up the road when the trio encountered an avalanche path across the Sun Road near Triple Arches, forcing them to turn around. Soon after starting back down, they encountered a second avalanche in progress, the press release states. 

“The wife was ahead of her husband and friend and heard the avalanche. She warned her husband and friend to stop. The avalanche came down between them, trapping the woman’s husband and friend on the uphill side,” according to the release. 

The wife biked down to summon help from park rangers, who arrived at the site of the avalanche around 7:30 p.m.  

However, park officials determined it was safer to allow the sun-warmed slope to stabilize above the road before beginning the rescue attempt, decreasing the chances of further wet slides.

“The sudden onset of sunny and warm weather on Thursday afternoon, combined with recent new snow from the previous weekend, created unstable surface snow conditions,” said USGS snow scientist Erich Peitzsch, who assists the National Park Service with avalanche forecasting. “These conditions resulted in a wet, loose avalanche originating above the road in Triple Arches that deposited debris on the road.”   

The rescue began in earnest around 9:30 p.m., with rangers belaying one another across the avalanche chute, then belaying the bikers back across individually. No injuries were sustained by the bikers, according to the release, all three of whom are from Bigfork.

The incident occurred on the same day that park officials lifted restrictions on motorized traffic to Avalanche Creek, allowing visitors to drive more than 15 miles of the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road on the park’s west side before encountering the gated closure. Prior to Thursday, the vehicle closure stopped motorists at Lake McDonald Lodge.

Hikers and bikers may venture past the closure at Avalanche, climbing to The Loop and beyond, so long as their explorations don’t interfere with springtime plowing operations. Hikers and bikers should be vigilant for avalanches and other hazards, and should be prepared for cold temperatures.

Plowing crews are making quick passage on the alpine highway’s upper reaches, and as of May 14 were just two miles shy of Logan Pass atop the Continental Divide.

Beginning May 28, visitors who want to access the park via the Sun Road will need to purchase a ticket through a new online reservation system. Here’s additional information on how to make a reservation under the new ticketed entry system.

Road plowing began the first week of April and will continue until Going-to-the-Sun Road opens over Logan Pass, typically between mid-June and mid-July.

According to Gina Kerzman, Glacier’s public information officer, road crews are reporting average snow depths at higher elevations.

Despite the progress of the plows, however, typical years see snowstorms and avalanches continuing through May, making it impossible to predict an opening date, Kerzman noted. 

Plow crews had cleared the road to Rimrock on May 14 before knocking off for the weekend, leaving the blacktop to legions of cyclists and hikers eager to explore Glacier’s scenic byway without the disturbance of summertime traffic. On the east side, vehicles can travel from the St. Mary Entrance to Rising Sun.

For up-to-date information on the status of roads within Glacier National Park, visit the park’s current road status page here.

Two Medicine Road is closed at the park boundary, but hikers and bikers may travel farther into the Two Medicine valley. However, Many Glacier Road is closed to all public access due to road construction and will not reopen for the season until May 28, with road construction necessitating possible 40-minute delays in both directions.  

The Inside North Fork Road remains closed between the Polebridge Ranger Station and Fish Creek, while motorized access to Bowman and Kintla Lakes has not yet opened for the season. These dirt roads will open when conditions allow but are prone to intermittent closure in the spring due to muddy conditions. 

The Camas Road is open for the season, although road construction on the Camas Road will require 30-minute delays in both directions beginning mid-May. Check the Glacier National Park website for additional information on construction in and around the park.

Quarter Circle Bridge Road, accessing the Apgar Lookout trail, is also open for the season, allowing early-season hikes along the trail as it melts out.

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