LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Tim Miranda drove the rotary plow through 15 feet of snow, clearing a path as the translucent ice crystals were blown blizzard-like through the top of the monster machine at the rate of 1,500 tons an hour.
For the past seven weeks, a five-man Park Service heavy equipment crew has worked from dawn to dusk pushing a staggering amount of snow out of the way to open the 30-mile transpark road on the shoulders of the 10,457-foot Lassen Peak.
Drifts are as deep as 37 feet. The average snow depth is 20 feet.
Still, all of the men insist they love being up in the High Country and really get a kick out of pushing aside the mountains of snow covering the road. They hope to have the road open by June 11.
"Year in and year out the Lassen Park Road gets more snow than any other road in California so far as we know," said Bob Lake, 54, maintenance chief for the national park.
"It's a constant struggle to push the road through. Most of the time the weather is miserable, zero-zero visibility in low hanging clouds. Last week it was 4 (degrees) above with 80-m.p.h. winds. And you never know when a bulldozer is going over the edge."
"My Cat slid over the edge at the Emerald Lake Drift a couple of weeks ago," recalled Miranda, 29, in his ninth year on the crew. "But it just hung there, teetering dangerously. I lucked out."
Lassen Park Road is perched precariously above steep cliffs that drop off 1,000 to 2,000 feet in many places. An avalanche wiped out half the road in a 600-foot stretch in February.
The narrow two-lane road varies in elevation from 6,500 to 8,512 feet as it winds around three sides of Lassen Peak cutting through the 160-square-mile park dotted with 50 frozen wilderness lakes and almost as many snow-covered mountains. Lassen Volcanic National Park--created in large part by major eruptions on Lassen Peak in 1914 and 1915--will be 70 years old this summer.
Heavy snows closed the road last October. Normally the road is open by Memorial Day, but this year the job has been prolonged by more snow than usual, colder weather, the loss of part of the road by avalanche and cutbacks in funding.
Bulldozers have slid down the mountain numerous times in snow removal accidents since the road was completed in 1931, but none of the workers has ever been killed.
John Janc, a member of the park's snow removal crew for 19 years, said the operators are strapped in their rigs and ride the bulldozers down the cliffs. "We keep track of how far the dozer falls. The record so far is 900 feet," he noted. "I have been over the side four times but have never been seriously hurt."
When a bulldozer goes over the side it is wenched back up the mountain by a second bulldozer working at the top of the cliff. The operators live in fear of being carried off the mountain in a sudden avalanche.
For Ed Uptain, 47, this is his second year removing snow at Lassen. He came from Yellowstone, where he was also on the snow removal crew. He said the snow in Lassen is much deeper than the snow that closes the road in Yellowstone.
"We've got to be on our toes every minute on the job," allowed Dennis Haag, 45, the crew foreman, who is in his 14th year of removing snow from the park road. "We worry about going over the edge, about avalanches and about cross-country skiers who hole up in snow caves."
He told of spotting a cross-country skier recently who stuck his head out of a snow cave in the path of snow removal equipment and added, "If a rotary blower would ever hit someone it would make mince meat out of that person."
Snow removal crews find the roadbed with sensing devices that pick up responses from a live wire buried under the snow in the road shoulder. One of the crew, walking or using a snowmobile to locate the road beneath the snow, stakes the route of the 20-foot-wide road. Bulldozers are used to skim the top with the rotary plow finishing off the last four to seven feet of snow.
"All sorts of things happen on this job," said Miranda. "Like the 200-pound chains wrapped around the five-foot-high wheels on the rotary plow. Now and then they fly off.
"Try putting one of them suckers back on one of these wheels," he laughed, adding: "It really isn't too bad if you've had a good breakfast."