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Snoqualmie Pass likely won’t open for days

Post by News Tribune Staff on Jan. 31, 2008 at 6:38 pm with No Comments »
January 31, 2008 6:38 pm

Click below to read an early edition of my Snoqualmie Pass story:

SNOQUALMIE PASS – Blasts echoed throughout this area of the Cascades on Thursday as crews set off controlled avalanches in a bid to reopen the vital mountain pass after five days of heavy snowfall closed Interstate 90.

Plows cleared the roadways, and Washington State Patrol troopers escorted the region’s residents up and down the pass. Still, with thick waves of snow descending and more predicted this week, it’s far from certain when the east-west freeway will reopen.

It could be days.

"We’ll be doing more avalanche control tonight, but our avalanche hazard remains high," Don Whitehouse, regional administrator of the state Department of Transportation, said Thursday. "This warmer weather isn’t good. It increases our risks.

"Our avalanche experts are punching all these numbers into computers and keeping an eye on it every hour and giving us updates. But right now, it doesn’t look good."

That’s because there seems to be little letup in the snow.

Five feet of snow blanketed the area since Sunday, prompting the shutdown of the pass on Tuesday. A natural avalanche about 50 miles east of Seattle that measured 300 feet across and 25 feet deep added to the problems Wednesday. More than a foot of snow is predicted today and Saturday.

The Transportation Department also closed Highway 2 over Stevens Pass, another vital mountain pass, on Thursday to remove two tractor-trailers that slid off the slick road and perform avalanche control. It was reopened later in the day.

For eastbound travelers, the agency suggested a detour route of Interstate 5 to Portland, Interstate 84 to Umatilla, Ore., and then I-90 to Ellensburg – a route of more than 500 miles.

Transportation Department crews performed 20 controlled avalanches Thursday and had detonated 12 charges by nightfall Thursday. There were plans to continue the blasts throughout the night, and Whitehouse said the department would assess the status of the pass this morning.

He didn’t sound optimistic, and the pass didn’t appear remotely close to being reopened Thursday afternoon. Plows struggled to keep up with the heavy snowfall, and the entire westbound lane of the interstate was closed under several feet of snow.

More than 120 inches of snow has fallen on Snoqualmie Pass this year, said meteorologist Dennis D’Amico of the National Weather Service. The recent storms prompted Gov. Chris Gregoire to declare a state of emergency in the area.

Crews have cleared a path on eastbound I-90 so people trapped near the summit could get down and those living in the closed areas can travel to their homes. State Patrol cars led convoys of vehicles on the slick roadways.

"We have close to 10 to 15 troopers intermittently working the pass during the closure, during the evacuation, helping people off the summit and back down the west and east side," trooper Jeff Merrill said.

"We’re trying to keep the disruption to a minimum for those who live and work here, even though it is a huge inconvenience to the public who can’t commute east to west over the summit."

But continued severe weather might make the roads impassable because of deep snow, Whitehouse said.

"We’re trying to keep it off the roadways, but with the quantity of snow we’re getting, the roadways are getting narrower and narrower," he said. "Even our snowblowers can’t keep up, and neither can our plows."

Many businesses in the small town of Snoqualmie Pass – many of which serve the visitors to the nearby ski resort – are closed, but a few remain open and cater to the influx of state workers and troopers.

One shop, Red Mountain Coffee, is catering to residents whose food at home is running low.

"Business has been a little bit slower, and it’s just kind of different here," said barista Sarrah Powers, a 16-year-old student at Mount Si High School. "We’ve been getting a lot more locals in here because their food is running out. And there are a lot more police officers and DOT workers – people who are trying to keep the road open."

The initial closure left dozens of people stranded in the restaurant. Owner Terri Harcus said she couldn’t just turn them away, so many stayed for hours until they could get an escort down the mountain.

"Every foot of space was taken up by somebody," she said. "Most people were sitting on the floor, just waiting."

The restaurant ran out of food Wednesday night, but Harcus said the distributor showed up a few hours later – driving a tractor-trailer up the treacherous pass – and resupplied them. Still, the crunch of employees who couldn’t make it meant the store’s owner was helping in the kitchen Friday.

And a few items have become best-sellers with the new customers.

"We’ve been selling lots of pizza and coffee," Powers said. "Basically, lots of hot stuff."

Farther afield
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