There’s no way to drive across Washington state’s mountains until likely Sunday, as the worst combination of snow and rain in many years has closed all four of the state’s winter highway routes between the east and west.
A whiteout snowstorm early Thursday, followed by freezing rain and snow in the forecast, forced the Washington State Department of Transportation to close Snoqualmie, Stevens, White and Blewett passes.
These closures delay freight across the Northwest, while ravaging the plans of travelers on their way back to homes and colleges. Alpine resorts are blanketed in snow, much of it unstable, without the means for skiers to arrive.
“Because of the conditions and the amount of work needed to safely reopen, our passes will likely remain closed until Sunday,” WSDOT announced Thursday evening, after speculating earlier about a Saturday reopening.
It’s been almost three years since a severe 47-hour snow shut down Snoqualmie Pass on Feb. 11, 2019, when a burst of 4 feet of snow in two days brought avalanche risks.
But it’s unusual, and maybe unprecedented, to close all four passes simultaneously for multiple days, effectively splitting the state in half. Snoqualmie Pass alone serves around 28,000 vehicles per day.
“I’ve been with WSDOT for 16 years and don’t recall a time when we had all four passes closed,” regional spokesperson Meagan Lott tweeted. Three passes closed for a day as an avalanche precaution in January 2009, while in early 2008 back-to-back avalanches closed Snoqualmie Pass most of four days.
White Pass rarely closes, but was under extreme avalanche risk. A section of Highway 12 there collapsed in a late-2015 washout and another in fall 2013, reducing travel to one lane during reconstruction.
People desperate to drive can try Interstate 5 south to Vancouver, turn inland at Highway 14 along the north side of the Columbia River Gorge, followed by a north turn at Goldendale over icy Highway 97 across Satus Pass, into the Yakima Valley. Or try Oregon’s Interstate 84 through the Gorge.
The disruptions create havoc for commerce on both sides of the mountains, as agricultural exports from Eastern Washington grind to a halt, and imports going inland from Puget Sound ports must wait.
A big share of Washington state’s average $42 million per day of trucked cargo is stymied, said Sheri Call, president and CEO of the Washington Trucking Association. Typically those include perishable products, such as tankers of raw milk heading for Longview by White Pass, or Issaquah by Snoqualmie Pass, she said.
“I’m kind of likening this to a mini micro supply-chain crisis,” Call said.
Each day Scot Courtright of Moses Lake can’t send his hay over the mountains is a day he’ll never get back.
“It’s not a good thing at all,” he said. “And the unfortunate part with pass closures, when they’re prolonged, is you can’t catch up. These are all lost days.” That’s because, even when the passes reopen, Courtright won’t be able to hire enough extra drivers to move the hay that’s piling up.
This is the second week of shipping headaches for Courtright Enterprises. Each day he can’t send trucks west, he misses the chance to deliver 20-25 container loads of hay. Last week, he missed all but half a day because of snow closures at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. With the passes closed now, he estimates the company operated at 20% to 30% capacity over the previous two weeks.
On Thursday, he said he shut down his plant down halfway through the day.
Melanie Stambaugh, spokesperson for the Northwest Seaport Alliance of Seattle and Tacoma, said any goods arriving off container ships Thursday will likely go to storage in a warehouse, while passes remained closed.
“It’s fairly significant,” Stambaugh said. “These goods, a lot of them go through refrigerated containers, so we’re highly aware that you want to make sure that they get plugged in as soon as possible,” because they can’t be trucked immediately to the customers.
Courtright said that in the long run, his business will be fine. But it’s challenging because demand overseas for hay is so strong, yet the whole industry has struggled to keep up amid shipping disruptions.
“It’s one more delay for customers that are already experiencing significant delays,” he said.
The town of Cle Elum, east of Snoqualmie Pass, declared an emergency based on “an unprecedented amount of snow,” encouraging residents to stay off the roads.
Snoqualmie Pass, the lowest of the four passes at 3,022 feet above sea level, received 236 inches this season as of Jan. 3, the most in 20 years.
WSDOT said trees are falling and avalanches could cover Interstate 90 at any moment. The road-clearing team plowed and removed trees east of Hyak but stayed away from avalanche prone areas to the west, said spokesperson Summer Derrey.
Normally there are between 12 and 20 workers per shift, and the group is down “a couple” under COVID quarantines this week, she said. Some road workers quit last fall rather than obey the governor’s vaccine mandate. But the immediate problem isn’t workforce, but mainly extreme precipitation, that made plowing and avalanche work unsafe Thursday morning, said Derrey.
The National Weather Service reported visibility of only a quarter-mile Thursday morning in heavy snow at Snoqualmie Pass. Forecasts called for freezing rain Thursday night, followed by up to 12 inches of snow Friday and Saturday before the sun appears Sunday.
I-90’s shutdown affects not only the summit, but a full 72 miles between North Bend and Ellensburg. A resident at Snoqualmie Pass tweeted her thanks Thursday to officials who notified neighbors of the coming storm, so they had time to buy groceries and supplies.
WSDOT says an anticipated 4 inches of rainfall by Friday morning “will increase the avalanche issues,” by imposing a heavier top layer on the softer base snow.
Avalanche risks would be more prolonged, if the state hadn’t rebuilt I-90 with tall viaducts in the 2010s just east of Hyak, allowing snowslides to pass beneath into Lake Keechelus. WSDOT posted video of limited plowing Thursday in that safe zone.
After the weather calms, state crews will need hours to cut away downed trees, perform avalanche control work such as bombarding snow with explosives and clear icicles from overhead signs. WSDOT has even used a World War II cannon to blast unstable snow, but couldn’t say whether that’s available and practical this week.
Ski resorts at Crystal Mountain, The Summit at Snoqualmie including Alpental, and Stevens Pass said they’re closed. It’s the latest snafu in a ski season marked by bumpy schedules, as Crystal Mountain has gone back and forth on reservations, and Stevens Pass is beleaguered by customer complaints about staffing.
At I-90’s Exit 34 near North Bend, a pair of state troopers blocked the rainy eastbound freeway. About 30 truckers parked on the shoulder Thursday morning, along with others in the nearby truck stop, but few cars arrived, as WSDOT’s widespread messaging led travelers to turn around sooner, or to stay home.
Pass closures illustrate the need for more truck-parking facilities in Washington state, Call said. Her group advocates a privately operated site on I-90, but those developments provoke community opposition.
Though extreme weather caused this closure, Call said the state shouldn’t have fired highway workers who resisted Gov. Jay Inslee’s Oct. 18 vaccination mandate, a situation she said is partly to blame for some December shutdowns. “Most of those workers, the plow drivers, are in the vehicle by themselves,” she said. The state has blamed blockages largely on bad drivers, and spun-out trucks without chains.
Inslee mentioned in passing “we’ve had challenges with snowplow drivers,” during his routine COVID news conference Wednesday. WSDOT officials say other factors, such as a national shortage of commercially licensed drivers, are more significant, and the agency is training new road workers.
Despite snow and ice east of the mountains, I-82 and I-90 east of Ellensburg remained open, after a few inches of snow in some communities. Drivers should expect stop-and-go conditions, and possible chain requirements.
The BNSF Railway spent Thursday afternoon plowing its Stevens Pass and Stampede Pass trackways with blades attached to locomotives, a spokesperson said. Freight trains were expected to travel the Cascades again on Friday.
Information from Seattle Times staff reporter David Kroman, staff photographer Amanda Snyder and assistant features editor Trevor Lenzmeier is included in this article.