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Blasting winter away at Yosemite

Yosemite National Park's avalanche control team has a particularly big job this year, blowing up mountains of snow along Tioga Road to clear the way for summer tourists.

June 09, 2011|By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times
  • Tim Esquivel, a member of the Yosemite National Park avalanche control team, tosses a rope down a rock face at Olmsted Point in May so he and other team members can rappel down the mountain to plant explosives to help make Tioga Road drivable.
Tim Esquivel, a member of the Yosemite National Park avalanche control… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Yosemite National Park -- It's nearly summer, and swarms of cars, buses and RVs breeze through Yosemite Valley as if on conveyor belts of asphalt. But up here at 8,400 feet, along the snowbound solitude of Tioga Road, winter is still in control.

Three members of a National Park Service avalanche control team move out from their camp near Olmsted Point. They are here to bend nature's timetable and help clear the highest automobile route across the Sierra.

From a distance, they are ephemeral figures dwarfed by the eternal landscape — a steep, treeless mountainside loaded with tons of ice and snow just waiting for a trigger.

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It is shortly after 5 a.m. The temperature is in the mid-20s, and a blue dawn signals the sun's arrival. Time is short.

Tim Esquivel and Steve Lynds stop to load their backpacks from a sled laden with supplies — explosives, a spool of detonator cord, bags of charcoal, shovels. Both are in their mid-40s with ponytails and earrings, both strong as climbing rope.

Edward Canapary, 44, has climbed above them and is whaling on the frozen snow with a pick-ax. Ching-ka! Ching-ka! Chunks skitter down the hill and into the valley below.

He works fast. Spring in the mountains is a violent alchemy of hydraulics and gravity. Snowfields benignantly frozen at night awaken to the sun's heat. This windless morning's silence will soon be replaced by the ominous gurgle of percolating water lubricating the rock underneath.

Ching-ka! Ching-ka! The minutes tick by. The sky brightens imperceptibly.

When the holes are dug, Canapary calls to the men below on his radio.

"Bring the bombs up."

From the nearest patch of dry road, it's more than an hour by snowmobile to Olmsted Point, a sublime stage from which to view the grandeur of Yosemite National Park. It's also the most unpredictable and dangerous avalanche zone on Tioga Road, which bisects the park from east to west.

Each fall the road closes for the winter. Each spring the National Park Service, Caltrans and Mono County launch a monumental effort to clear it, more than 50 miles blocked by towering snowdrifts, uprooted trees and fallen rock.

Letting it melt at its own pace isn't considered an option.

Tioga Road — also known as California Highway 120 — is critical to the small-town tourism economies on both sides of the Sierra. Opening it as soon as possible is important to park managers, too. Most of Yosemite's 4 million annual visitors come between Memorial Day and Labor Day; without access to facilities and trails along Tioga Road, the tourist hub in Yosemite Valley would resemble the 405 during a SigAlert.

The contours of today's Tioga Road and its promise of a path through the Sierra's inhospitable maze has attracted travelers for millenniums.

Native Americans hunted along well-worn game tracks. John Muir herded sheep through the area in 1869. Chinese laborers came next, building a wagon road to service mines that didn't pan out. Then came stockmen and, eventually, tourists in horse-drawn wagons.

Finally, Stephen Mather, industrialist, conservationist and the first head of the National Park Service, arranged for the right-of-way's purchase, repaired the road and had it donated to the government. In so doing, he gave the road its modern mission — and changed Yosemite forever. A dirt throughway opened in July 1915 and 190 cars crossed over that year. Five years later, more than 1,000 cars a week did.

Early on, Tioga Road's opening and the steadily growing traffic counts garnered bold headlines in The Times. The newspaper teamed with automakers to sponsor "scout cars," whose drivers reported on early season conditions.

"In conquering the Tioga Pass," read a dispatch from 1922, "the Buick crew … negotiated forty-nine snowdrifts, and sawed their way through twenty-one trees which blocked the road. Once the Buick lost its moorings on an artificial roadbed and sank in to the masts, it required three days to bring the ship to the surface."

Tioga Road and its later paving and modernization would come to embody one of the competing pressures on Yosemite: the desire for convenient visitor access. Last year, 211,993 vehicles plied the route.

Plowing typically begins in mid-April with an eye toward opening the road before Memorial Day. This year, the work has been particularly daunting, and the route isn't expected to be fully open for at least another week.

A wild winter left Yosemite with nearly twice its average snowpack — as much as 18 feet along Tioga Road, the most since 1995. Spring blizzards knocked out power to the park and surrounding towns and delayed the start of plowing. By the second week of May, much of Tioga Road inside the park remained entombed in wet, compacted snow.

"It's like plowing cement," said bulldozer operator Ed Appling, who was still miles — and weeks — away from where the avalanche team was working to tame Olmsted Point in early May.

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