Extreme snow in Washington's mountain passes
Extreme snow in Washington's mountain passes (WSDOT)

The low­land snow that fell across much of West­ern Wash­ing­ton between Christ­mas and New Year’s Day may have melt­ed, but up in the Cas­cade Moun­tains, it’s a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sto­ry, as Mike Lind­blom reports:

There’s no way to dri­ve across Wash­ing­ton state’s moun­tains until some­time this week­end, as the worst com­bi­na­tion of snow and rain in many years has closed all four of the state’s win­ter high­way routes between east and west.

A white­out snow­storm ear­ly Thurs­day, fol­lowed by freez­ing rain and a half-foot or more of snow in the fore­cast, forced the Wash­ing­ton State Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion to close Sno­qualmie, Stevens, White and Blewett passes.

Some of Wash­ing­ton’s moun­tain pass­es — for instance, Wash­ing­ton, Cayuse, and Chi­nook — are always closed dur­ing the win­ter sea­son. But Sno­qualmie (which I‑90 pass­es over), Stevens (which U.S. 2 pass­es over) and White (which U.S. 12 pass­es over) are kept open, at least to the extent that’s feasible.

Today, WSDOT con­clud­ed that it would nei­ther be safe nor sen­si­ble to try to open any of those pass­es (which have seen inter­mit­tent clo­sures over the last few weeks) to auto and freight traf­fic any­time soon. The weath­er is just that bad.

The depart­ment explained its posi­tion to the trav­el­ing pub­lic in a series of tweets:

Evening update: Sno­qualmie, Stevens, White & Blewett pass­es remain closed. 

Because of the con­di­tions and amount of work need­ed to safe­ly re-open, our pass­es will like­ly remain closed until Sunday.

Con­di­tions are too dan­ger­ous for crews to be in the pass areas. Snow & debris con­tin­ue to slide onto the high­ways. Crews are work­ing in areas where it is safe to plow, clear catch basins & do oth­er work to have those areas ready when we can reopen.

More snow and pos­si­bly rain is in the fore­cast for the pass­es tonight. This will only increase the avalanche danger.

If it is safe to do so, we will spend all day Fri­day address­ing avalanche issues to cre­ate a safe work zone. Once avalanche work is done, we will spend Sat­ur­day clear­ing the areas, includ­ing plow­ing and treat­ing roads, remov­ing snow/ice from signs, clear­ing trees & debris from the road and clear­ing catch basins for drainage.

In low­lands, heavy rain in sev­er­al areas of the state will increase flood & washout dan­ger. Sev­er­al rivers are under advi­sories with risks to increase as snow melt con­tin­ues. There is high dan­ger of downed trees due to sat­u­rat­ed soil, heavy snow & rain.

In East­ern WA, rain/flooding is a con­cern as is snow and strong winds, includ­ing in the Palouse.

Blow­ing and drift­ing snow pro­duce low vis­i­bil­i­ty and chal­leng­ing con­di­tions lead­ing to road clo­sures and pos­si­bly pow­er outages.

We rec­og­nize the impor­tance of these cor­ri­dors but noth­ing is more impor­tant than the safe­ty of our crews and the public.

We are pre­pared to move in once it is safe, and we appre­ci­ate your patience dur­ing this chal­leng­ing situation.

To the south, ODOT was forced to tem­porar­i­ly close Inter­state 84 to all traf­fic through the Colum­bia Riv­er Gorge. The depart­ment reopened the high­way after clear­ing a debris slide, at around 7:30 PM Pacif­ic, but advised that unsafe con­di­tions could prompt anoth­er clo­sure at any time.

Sno­qualmie Pass has seen more snow in recent days than at any time in the past few decades. While it’s nice to have a robust snow­pack ear­ly in the sea­son, it seems that late­ly, we’re get­ting too much of every­thing. Too many dry stretch­es that yield con­di­tions ripe for fires to spread. Too many rainy spells that result in flood­ing. And now too many snow­storms that make trav­el difficult.

Sci­en­tists have warned for years that more extreme weath­er (of all sorts and in all sea­sons) would be a con­se­quence of cli­mate dam­age. And that is pre­cise­ly what we are see­ing now. This mul­ti-day shut­down of the pass­es will impede mobil­i­ty, freight, and com­merce, but it can’t be helped. Allow­ing peo­ple to attempt a jour­ney over any of the pass­es would be a recipe for disaster.

Safe­ty comes first, as WSDOT said. The depart­ment can’t wave a mag­ic wand and make the avalanche threat go away, nor can its crews snap their fin­gers and turn off the snow from the skies above. Those need­ing to get across the moun­tains will either have to wait or book a flight. (Alaska/Horizon offers mul­ti­ple dai­ly cross state flights, includ­ing Seat­tle <> Spokane and Seat­tle <> Yakima.)

Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which makes use of the Cas­cade Tun­nel oper­at­ed by BNSF Rail­way, was also can­celed today, although tomor­row’s depar­ture to Spokane and points east is list­ed as “On Time.” The sec­ond Cas­cade Tun­nel, built near­ly one hun­dred years ago, allows trains to tra­verse the snowy Cas­cades even in extreme­ly win­try con­di­tions such as those we have seen lately.

In hap­pi­er news, WSDOT report­ed that it has cleared a long stretch of U.S. 101 between Hood­sport and State Route 104, reopen­ing that route to traf­fic. A block­age on State Route 510 at Mud Moun­tain Road has also been cleared.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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