Going to the Snow 

With its earliest clearing in years, Going-to-the-Sun Road opens a window \non wildlife, and winter.

Lined-up pre-dawn and full of giddy anticipation, carloads of intrepid snow-lovers, having driven from Quebec and Kalispell, Missoula and Minnesota, queued up behind a long-locked gate low on Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road on Sunday, May 22. Despite announcements that the road wouldn’t open until “mid-day,” cross-country skiers, snowboarders, telemarkers, snowshoers and other snow junkies arrived early in a chilling rain to chase one more dose of a winter that barely materialized for much of the state.

After removing the several inches of snow left on the road by an overnight storm, park rangers opened their showcase highway mid-morning to visitors eager to take advantage of the road connecting the east and west sides of the park, and well known for providing quality winter experiences—any day of the year.

This year’s mid-May opening is the road’s second-earliest clearing ever—the earliest was May 16, 1987. It also comes on the heels of the park’s recent commitment to keeping the road open as long as possible, a response to the lengthy closures experienced during the fires of 2003. (The year prior a storm clogged the pass with eight feet of snow in three weeks and the road didn’t open until June 28, the latest opening date since 1943.)

Aggressive snow removal with explosives, bulldozers and plows combined with minimal snow to permit this year’s early opening, although the crew’s swift movements caused the cancellation of last month’s “Show Me Day,” a popular annual public plow-watching event.

Despite cresting the Continental Divide at a relatively low 6,646 feet, Going-to-the-Sun Road has few peers anywhere providing roadside accessibility to such dramatic alpine country. Hailed as an engineering feat when it opened in 1932, the road is no less spectacular today, and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark—as well as the only way to traverse the park or get into high country by automobile. Two million visitors are expected to motor up the road in half a million vehicles this year.

But it’s the park’s alpine foot trails that draw the masses to the pass, and the trails branching out from Logan Pass are currently buried under many feet of snow, protecting the landscape from boot traffic but closing the upper four miles of the ever-popular Highline Trail until the snow melts off.

But for hundreds of snow-lovers making the annual opening-week pilgrimage to the pass, the seemingly endless snowfields, steep chutes and dramatic snow features provide endless opportunities for fun. Even a brief weekend in a mid-May winter wonderland can make Montana’s recent underwhelming winter feel a world away. And while many of Montana’s other high alpine areas are similarly holding on to the white season, nowhere else can it be so easily accessed, thanks entirely to the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Yet with only one short exception, the upper reaches of the road have seen almost no significant repairs since construction and are in desperate need of difficult and costly rehabilitation. (A short stretch near Oberlin Bend was repaired in the mid-1990s.) As in years past, visitors to the park should expect short construction delays as rock walls crumble, roads slough and slides hammer at the guardrails.

While much road damage occurs as a result of the throughway’s unique position—drilled into mountainsides and cemented onto cliffs through a tremendously weathered landscape—it’s the larger, heavier and increasingly numerous cars that are really pounding the pavement. In its first year, Going-to-the-Sun Road handled fewer than 40,000 cars; this year, 12 times that many will likely ply the route.

And while the road is now officially open for the season, park administrators are quick to note that anyone heading to the park should check in before setting out. The park’s endless list of variables—avalanches, grizzly bears, rock slides, summer snow storms, and the like—can alter vacation plans and occasionally make visitors’ lives miserable.

But while climactic misery is rare, it’s also impressive. The access granted by a road passing through the soon-to-be fragile meadows of Logan Pass gives us the bizarre but fantastic opportunity to experience a full-blown Montana blizzard—in summer, and without breaking a sweat.

A route as beautiful and unlikely as the one exploited by Going-to-the-Sun Road places responsibility on anyone stepping out of a car at the pass. But it’s the wild, variable personality of the alpine world that so effectively grants us insight into our own humanness and our place in this fragile, but imminently powerful, world.

What better window on our world could we ask?

To contact the park, logon to www.nps.gov/glac/home.htm or call park headquarters at 406-888-7800 to get the latest on roads, campgrounds, trails and other park information.

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