While skiers at Lookout Pass Ski Area were enjoying nearly 50 inches of new snow last week, emergency crews were kept busy dealing with a series of avalanches along Interstate 90. The first two snow slides occurred on Wednesday, Feb. 13 — both in the westbound lanes. One was a mile east of the Montana/Idaho border and the other was at Mile Marker 33.5 around 2:40 p.m. By 4:30 p.m., Interstate 90 was closed at St. Regis, which stranded hundreds of vehicles.
Traffic on the pass was stalled for nearly seven hours before vehicles could be turned around and detoured through St. Regis. One semi-truck was partially buried in the slide and a few cars were surrounded by snow near Mile Marker 1. No injuries were reported.
Father Patrick Beretta recalled in a report last week that he didn’t know what was happening. “It was a vibrating sound, and the whole car started shaking. Then it was as if the whole mountain was falling on top of us,” he said.
The snow slid the Catholic Butte Priest’s Jeep into the median. His Jeep and the car behind him were surrounded by drifts up to 25 feet high. Emergency crews had to dig out a quarter-mile of snow to rescue the vehicles. Back in St. Regis, traffic was detoured up Highway 135 to Highway 200 through Thompson Falls and on to Sandpoint, Idaho. Truckers who opted out of the detour lined the streets and parking lots of St. Regis overnight, waiting for the pass to reopen.
That didn’t happen until around 6 p.m. on Thursday. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) brought in avalanche experts to assess the safety of the road conditions before the roads were reopened. The eastbound lane was not affected by the slides but snowy conditions caused a semi-truck to crash on Thursday around 12:30 p.m. which blocked one lane of traffic on the pass with minor injuries reported. That put tired crews, already stretched thin, into overdrive.
On Saturday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. traffic on I-90 was to be delayed as explosives were dropped by helicopter to trigger slides that were potentially dangerous. Traffic was planned to be stopped between the Taft Exit 5 and Haugan Exit 16 with approximate half-hour wait times. Once the explosives were dropped, snowplows and trucks were on hand to clean up the results.
The area in between Taft and Saltese has a history of both snow and rock slides. It is wedged in between a steep mountainside and the St. Regis River and is 500 feet wide and 1,000 feet high, and is called the 400 Cut. In 1996, an avalanche covered both eastbound and westbound lanes in that area, and threats of slides occurred in 2008 and 2014.
However, the area where the avalanches took place last week took road crews by surprise, “I don’t remember any issues in that area,” said Ed Toavs, administrator for the MDT Missoula District.
For now, Steve Felix, maintenance chief for MDT, said they don’t expect much more activity on the pass unless they see a lot more snow.
On Thursday, the Idaho side of Lookout Pass also was the scene of multiple wrecks which caused both eastbound and westbound lanes to crawl to a standstill. A semi-truck blocked the eastbound lane and a bus blocked the westbound lane.
Meanwhile, further west, the Washington Department of Transportation reported a large avalanche closed I-90 from Ellensburg to North Bend. It occurred on Monday, Feb. 11. Some 250 vehicles were trapped at the summit and highway patrol drove many of the stranded travelers off the mountain in a convoy on Wednesday. Snoqualmie Pass over the Cascade Mountain Range was reopened on Thursday morning, according to news reports.