Unearthing Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road

The Going to the Sun Road opened June 19 this year

By Marcie Hahn-Knoff Explorebigsky.com Contributor

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Soft rain patters against the window. A glance outside reveals darkness, streaked by beads of water.

Cloaked in thermals and Gore-Tex, the avalanche forecasters walk to the office. There is a heavy, ancient feeling to the pre-dawn air. Thick coffee offers warmth and a tether of friendly comfort.

Once inside the computer is fired up and the data gathering commences. Rain continues to knock against the roof of the tiny cottage turned research facility. Weather at this low elevation rarely mimics what’s happening 4,000 feet higher, and the remote weather station gauges show temperatures cooling steadily in the peaks, but still hovering above freezing at 6,600 foot Logan Pass.

Rain on snow: This is Glacier National Park in the springtime.

Avalanche forecasting for the Going to the Sun Road plow crew is a unique seasonal Montana occupation. The GTSR roadway, a feat of early 20th century engineering, cuts across numerous avalanche paths and is closed during winter. Each spring the crews start a pilgrimage toward Logan Pass, clearing a winter’s worth of snow from the narrow and winding roadbed. The operation takes months to complete, with two plow crews, one from the east and one from the west, attacking snow drifts up to 70 feet thick. The avalanche forecasters are responsible for issuing a daily forecast for the crews and other park employees traveling along the road.

Compiling current weather data and observations from the previous day’s mission, the team assembles the forecast for the day. It’s looking like the snow should stay put as long as the sun stays at bay and the temperatures remain cool.

Ski gear, rain jacket and extra layers at the ready, fresh coffee brewed and dawn breaking, it’s time to meet the road crew and begin the trek up the roadway.

Lake MacDonald, already free of ice, mirrors the hanging clouds that continue to spit alternating soft and drenching rounds of rain. The team snakes through the gated closure at Avalanche Lake, which is as far as the public may drive until the whole road is open.

Cedars line the road, rooted amid dense velvet carpets of moss. The rain turns to mist, lifting occasionally to reveal glimpses of the rock sentinels looming above. A moose wanders along the edge of MacDonald Creek, its large body and spindly legs somehow awkward and graceful all at once. A grizzly bear family was seen in this same area yesterday.

Past the creek the road begins to climb. Water streams down the cliff walls and along the sides of the road, through culverts and drainage channels. The plow crew was attacking this section only a few weeks ago, and already the snowline has receded 1,000 feet higher.

Ahead, the black asphalt disappears under a cocoon of white. The plow machinery is parked here, at the snow’s edge. The road crew climbs into their equipment and, avalanche spotter in place, begin attacking the layers of snow that encase the roadway.

Skis on, the forecast team climbs above the roadway, headed 3,000 vertical feet into the clouds. Tracks of rabbits, mountain goats and the lone wolverine that’s been frequenting the area scatter the skin track. At higher elevations, the precipitation has manifested as a layer of thick new snow that’s adhering nicely to the yesterday’s sun crust. The forecasters radio the plow crew to let them know it looks like a good day to make headway.

Climbing higher, the clouds begin to break. Patchy views open up across the Garden Wall, showing that the glide avalanche cracks haven’t moved significantly since yesterday—another good sign.

Rays of light illuminate Heaven’s Peak, which dominates the views to the west. The 20-foot crown lines above glide avalanches that failed there during last week’s rain event bend the sunlight and garner respect.

Reaching a sub-ridge, they strip their skins from their skis and begin the descent. Light snow falls as the machinery comes into view—the yellow equipment scooping, pushing and digesting last winter’s snow one bite at a time.

Writer Marcie Hahn-Knoff is married to a GTSR avalanche forecaster and has had a 20-year love affair with Glacier National Park. A real estate broker by trade for almost a decade, she has recently signed with Winter and Company Real Estate, based in Big Sky. Find her at mtwinter.com