BURGESS JUNCTION — Outside it is 18 degrees, and though it is not currently snowing, the wind gusts grab powder loosened by the crew chipping away at the 12-foot high mounds and create blizzard-like conditions.
Inside the cab of the Kodiak Loader Mounted Rotary Snow Blower, it is just another comfortable day of work for operator Dave Johnson.
Though this may sound like a Christmas tale, Johnson was facing this manufactured blizzard Monday of last week as the population of Sheridan County at the base of the mountains gazed up at the snowcapped Bighorns with the sun on their faces and spring in the air.
Last week, the mountain crews from the Wyoming Department of Transportation gathered at the Burgess Junction camp to begin pushing through the closed pass on Highway 14A.
Some of the WYDOT crew live at the mountain camp all year — plowing nine or 10 of the months and doing road repairs the rest of the time — and others came in from neighboring camps to assist with the tedious task.
Though there are only three state highways in Wyoming that experience seasonal closures — Snowy Range and Battle Pass, both in Laramie, and this 14A pass in Dayton — unexpected spring storms and the need for specialized equipment make the process of opening these roads a long and unpredictable one.
Johnson, now in his 29th year in the mountains and 32nd year with the department, said every year is different and every day is unpredictable.
“We’ve had years where we’ve had equipment break down and we had to borrow others and the daily progress depends on the snow,” he said. “Sometimes you can cut through four miles in a day, sometimes only a quarter mile.”
The task calls for a minimum of three rotaries and one plow but crews also use motor graders and bulldozers.
Rotary snow blowers are equipped with rotating teeth at the front that can chip away and suck in up to 11,000 tons of snow per hour, blowing it out a faucet aimed over the edge of the mountain.
Two rotaries brought in — one from Sundance and one from the Pole Creek mountain camp above Buffalo — join the one housed at the Burgess Junction mountain camp.
Temporary teams of specialty operators most familiar with the equipment join the full-time camp crews and get to work as soon as weather, and snowmobilers, allow.
“A lot of the timing depends on when the snowmobile trail groomers are done,” said Tom Anderson, crew leader at Burgess Junction. “They use the highway as a trail in the winter, through a state and Forest Service contract, and are usually done grooming in early May.”
This year, the crews started preparing to plow early but were delayed due to snowfall.
Once the process began, the motor grader paved the way.
“We made it four miles with our motor grader from the first gate without needing the rotaries,” Anderson said. “If it’s shallow snow, they breeze right through, but we needed to add the rotaries the second day.”
A standard plow is used to clear fresh snow to get the rotaries back to where they left off and also to remove top layers of snow to make the drifts a height manageable by the bigger machines.
“Friday we went through a drift that was 12 feet deep and we’re probably running steady throughout the rest of the road at four feet deep,” he said.
As the Sheridan crew pushed through from this side of the mountain, the crew from Lovell cleared from that side, attempting to meet halfway.
By Monday last week, the Lovell crew was at mile marker 79.5 and the Sheridan crew was at post 85.
With just more than five miles between the crews, it took them the week to meet and yesterday the teams officially punched through.
At 9,000 feet elevation at Observation Point where the crews were working, the weather is unpredictable and cleanup and maintenance of the path is ongoing.
“It’s possible to have to reopen the highway a second time,” Anderson said. “If we get a late spring storm with high winds we basically start over.”
Highway 14A — one of the most commonly used routes to access Yellowstone National Park from Sheridan County — is set to officially open by this weekend, just in time for Memorial Day weekend travel.
While the pass is closed, the alternate route to Yellowstone takes travelers through Billings, Montana, and adds nearly 60 miles to the journey.
Johnson hopes travelers remember the mountain crews on their travels and have patience with the process.
“This time of year is the hardest because we have a house in Dayton and when we go home for the weekend we do yard work and join in the summer fun around town,” he said, “And then we come back up here, and it’s back to the snow and cold. It might not be much but some years it’s enough to plow year-round and it’s looking like it’s going to be one of those years.”