Thursday, April 23, 2015

Are you ready for Artist Point – in early spring?

By Tom Pearce

You know it’s been a weird winter when people call in early February asking if we’re going to open the road to Artist Point early. Not just one call, but three in one week, and they’ve become more frequent as spring continues to blossom. The earliest we’ve recorded opening State Route 542 all the way to Artist Point is June 29, 2005. It looks like that record will fall, and soon.

A bulldozer and snow blower are clearing SR 542 to Artist Point.

Our crews began bulldozing about 15 feet of snow in the upper lot about a week ago, and Monday, April 20, they went to work on the road with a plow and our snow blower. We expect to complete clearing and preparing the highway in a week or so, then we’ll open the gate and let you enjoy an early spring at Artist Point.

On April 20, the snow started a few hundred feet beyond the winter gate.
Most years our crews will encounter 30 to 50 feet of snow along the 2.7-mile road from our winter gate to the parking lot at the top. Last year when we opened the road on July 1, drivers went through a canyon of snow walls up to 40 feet tall and the parking lot was surrounded by about 30 feet of snow. For much of the past month there was been no snow at the gate, two to four feet going up the road and about 10 feet in the parking lot.

The bulldozer (upper right) starts clearing the path, followed by the snow
blower (lower left). To give you an idea of the lack of snow,
most years at this time all that bare rock would be covered
with 10 to 20 feet of snow.
We began to seriously consider an early opening several weeks ago. Even with the low snow totals in February, we’ve seen cases like last year where hundreds of inches of snow fell in March. We didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves this year. As it became obvious the big snow dump wasn’t coming, we stepped up our planning. Once the Mount Baker Ski Area – which has a ski run that crosses the highway – called it a winter, we were ready to move.

The road to Artist Point is bordered by steep slopes in several places,
including this area that is a section of one of Mount Baker Ski Area’s
runs that cross the highway.
The early opening you’ve been clamoring for will bring more tourists to the area, which could help businesses along the highway that were hit hard by the shortened ski and snowboard season. The early opening also comes with a qualification: Once the road’s open, if we get more snow beyond the winter gate, we’ll close that section of highway again and re-evaluate the highway conditions. We’ll reopen the road as soon as conditions allow. There are steep grades and sharp corners without guardrails. Why no guardrails? The usual winter’s 30 to 50 feet of compacted snow would crush them. That’s not a problem this year.

Once we open the road have fun, but plan ahead and be careful. Weather conditions in the mountains can change quickly, so pay attention. If you go, take tire chains, food, water, warm clothes, blankets, etc., just like you would crossing a pass in mid-winter. Like I tell my kids, it’s better to take it and not need it than to leave it at home then wish you had it.

It looks like we’ll have a long season for Artist Point this year. Enjoy!