March 23, 2012
Moving Mountains of Snow
An activity few visitors ever get to see: spring plowing in Yellowstone
March, 2012: The “shoulder” seasons of early-spring and late-fall are rarely, if ever, experienced by Yellowstone’s visitors. On a recent visit, our group picnicked in the brilliant sunshine and 40-degree air. But we weren't in a picnic area; we were in the middle of the road at Norris-Canyon junction.
Our location would cause a major incident in July, but on that particular day, it was the only bare ground to be had. The absolute silence and emptiness of the closed park interior was only interrupted by the occasional din of snow removal equipment operating a few miles up the road.
I was taking a group of our partners from Michelin North America (they donate special, fuel-efficient tires for the park's heavy equipment) to get an up-close view of Yellowstone's version of spring cleaning....the roads, that is.
Each spring, crews begin plowing Yellowstone’s interior roads within hours of the “winter” roads closing to snowcoaches and snowmobiles. This effort involves an entire fleet of heavy equipment ranging from road graders and front-end loaders to more specialized V-plow trucks, and larger still twin-engine rotary plows -- gigantic versions of your typical snow blower.
In an average year, Yellowstone crews will remove more than 2,000 tons of snow from roads during the spring plowing operation.
The crews will plow six days a week from mid-March to Memorial Day weekend. The more than 300 miles of road can offer everything from fluffy snow to snow that resembles frozen concrete. The latter sometimes prevents crews from plowing any more than one mile in a twelve-hour work day!
Along the way, our group was investigated by a seriously curious raven, which represented the only other creature (human or otherwise) we came in near-contact with all day. Most other animals are wisely waiting for the spring thaw, at lower elevations or near geyser basins, before returning to the interior of the park once again.