150 inches of snow this month — and falling

The heavy snowfall that hit the Cascades this month has Jim Ziolkowski slamming doors.

When he leaves the facilities maintenance office at Longmire at the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, he gives the door a swing that shakes the old wooden building to its frame.

When he comes back in, he slams it again.

It’s not that Ziolkowski is frustrated by the amount of snow that’s fallen on the park in the past three weeks — although as he’s acting facilities manager, one might forgive him for that.

Ziolkowski’s routine with the doors is avalanche control.

As of Friday, Paradise had received 150 inches of snow in just three weeks. That’s more than 12 feet. At Longmire, roofs are covered with such towering heaps of snow that people entering or leaving risk being buried in sudden slides.

“It can really nail you,” Ziolkowski said. “I’m just trying to stay standing up.”

Heavy winter snowfall at Mount Rainier is nothing unusual. The state’s tallest mountain is a magnet for water in its solid state, receiving an average of 53.4 feet of it a year.

What is unusual this year is the suddenness with which it’s happened.

At the end of January, the snowpack at Rainier, like most of Washington’s Cascade Range, was running about 50 percent of normal for that time of year. A series of winter storms, the latest of which blew through Thursday and Friday, pushed the mountain snowpack up to nearly normal.

That’s a big relief to skiers, power companies that rely on hydroelectric power, farmers who irrigate, and fisheries managers who rely on stream flow to support migrating salmon.

But it also has created challenges and hazards, ranging from slick roads and increased avalanche danger to collapsed roofs.

Four skiers and snowboarders died in avalanches in Washington last week, and on Wednesday a Seattle man suffocated after falling into a tree well while skiing on Crystal Mountain.

“I love snow,” Ziolkowski said, hustling from building to building at Longmire as he dealt with snow-related crises. “But it makes a completely different world for us up here.”

Snowfall so fast and heavy — especially when accompanied by relatively warm weather — can build such mounds on vehicles that the roofs cave in, he said.

“Tree bombs,” National Park Service slang for the loads of snow that can suddenly and silently drop from tree limbs far above, can knock people to their knees. Snow drifts against the sides of buildings can break windows as the weight of falling snow pushes the sides of the pile outward.

Longview employees have slid off the road on their way to work and landed on their keisters in the parking lot.

Stefan Lofgren, one of the park’s climbing rangers, was walking more erect than usual Thursday after falling and hurting his back on a slippery road.

“There’s nothing unusual about getting 4 or 5 feet of snow at Paradise,” Lofgren said. “That can happen any time. What was unusual was going from 60 percent of normal to 110 percent of normal in a two-week period.”

By far the biggest logistical challenge facing park employees, though, is keeping open the 11 miles of road from Longmire to Paradise. That responsibility lies with Ziolkowski, who directs the park’s five-member snow-removal crew.

They are overwhelmed.

“There’s a whole lot more to getting this road opened up than most people understand,” Ziolkowski said. “Snowplows on Snoqualmie Pass can go 60 miles an hour.

“Here, we’re going maybe 15.”

Also, he said, road crews elsewhere can use salt or chemicals to melt the ice on roadways. This being a national park, that’s not allowed.

This month’s sudden, heavy snowfall has put sections of the road in deep trenches, with cliffs of snow as high as 15 feet on either side. Twice this week, avalanches swept over the road, forcing snowplows and blowers to dig their way through.

Paradise is such a popular winter playground, Ziolkowski said, that he and other park employees are determined to keep it open as much as possible for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and tubing.

“It’s a matter of pride for a lot of us,” he said.

The road has been closed to the public since Valentine’s Day, much of that time even for park employees considered most essential, Ziolkowski said.

Will the road to Paradise be open this weekend?

“We’re still going day to day as far as decisions on opening the road to the public,” said Chuck Young, the park’s chief ranger.

“If the weather stays as forecast for Saturday, and the avalanche danger remains considerable or less, we are hopeful that the road can be opened tomorrow,” Young said Friday. “We now have standing snow depth such that it has overtopped natural anchors such as trees and terrain in our most likely avalanche zones, so the danger of slides becomes more likely.”

An avalanche warning was in effect Friday. The Northwest Avalanche Center rated the risk as “considerable” in the Olympics and the western slopes of the Cascades. The risk was considered “high” — the second highest level and one level higher than “considerable” — on the eastern slopes.

The recent snowstorms that increased snowfall at Paradise to 110 percent of normal have eased fears of a shortage of water next summer.

But the nervousness is not gone completely. Meteorologists say that even with the recent storms, precipitation still is slightly lower than average for many parts of the Cascades.

Northwest power managers are studying snow-water equivalent graphs, concerned that even February’s heavy snowfall might not make up for a near-historic precipitation deficit throughout the Cascades, said Chris Gleason, a spokeswoman for Tacoma Pubic Utilities.

“While conditions at Paradise have improved significantly in the past week,” she said, “we’re still significantly below average at June Lake and Mount Craig.”

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest River Forecast Center put precipitation at June Lake in Skamania County at just 59 percent of average Friday. Precipitation at Mount Craig, in Jefferson County, was standing at 64 percent of average Friday, according to NOAA.

Farther south, NOAA’s water supply forecast for the Columbia River at the Dalles Dam is 88 percent of normal.

In the near term, the National Weather Service says more snow is on the way. On Friday, the Weather Service was predicting several inches of snow Sunday night.


Updated reports on road conditions at Mount Rainier are available on Twitter at @MountRainierNPS.