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Updated: 06/16/2017 01:19:00AM

Snowbound California roads still getting a major plow job

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In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, a National Park Service snow blower clears the entrance to Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working to clear Highway 120 as summer approaches, the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. Crews used plows, excavators, and massive snow blowers to open the eastern entrance to Yosemite. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, Caltrans maintenance worker Paul Jensen removes snow and dirt that is clogging the rotary blower he is operating to clear snow from Highway 120 near near Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working to clear Highway 120 as summer approaches; the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, a Caltrans rotary blower clears snow from Highway 120 near near Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working to clear Highway 120 as summer approaches, the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, the image of Caltrans maintenance worker Bill Knight is reflected in the mirror of the rotary blower he is operating to clear snow from Highway 120 near Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working to clear Highway 120, the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. Crews are still working to remove snow from roads through two national parks. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, a Caltrans rotary blower clears snow from Highway 120 near Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working to clear Highway 120, the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. Crews are working to remove snow from roads through two national parks as summer approaches. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, a section of the guard rail damaged by this year's snowpack, lies along Highway 120 near Yosemite National Park, Calif. Nearly a 1,000 yards of railing, that serve as the only barrier between he road and precipitous drop that in some places is over 1,000 feet, needs to be replaced before the roadway can be reopened. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working to clear Highway 120 as summer approaches, the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, a National Park Service snow blower clears snow from Highway 120 at the entrance to Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working to clear Highway 120 as summer approaches, the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, a Caltrans excavator removes snow from Highway 120 near Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working to clear Highway 120 as summer approaches; the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, bicyclists will find their journey stopped by snow blocking the roadway, up Highway 120 toward Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working overtime to clear Highway 120 as summer approaches, the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, snow more than six feet deep nearly covers a warning sign alongside Highway 120 near Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has crews working to clear Highway 120 as summer approaches, the only road through Yosemite that connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In this photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017, snow capped mountains are reflected by Ellery Lake near Yosemite National Park, Calif. This year's heavy snowfall has kept Highway 120 closed longer then normal, preventing visitors to the area from taking in the scenery. Crews are working overtime to clear snow from the only road through Yosemite as summer approaches, which connects the Central Valley on the west side with the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, chair of the Senate budget committee, calls on lawmakers to approve the state budget plan, Thursday, June 15, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. The Senate approved the $125 billion general fund spending plan, which was negotiated by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, vice chair of the Senate budget committee, calls on lawmakers to reject the state budget plan, Thursday, June 15, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. Despite Republican opposition, the Senate approved the $125 billion general fund spending plan, which was negotiated by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Democratic state Senators Henry Stern, of Canoga Park, left, and Robert Hertzberg, of Van Nuys confer before the Senate takes up the state budget plan, Thursday, June 15, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. Lawmakers approved the $125 billion general fund spending plan, which was negotiated by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Senate Minority Leader Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, right, and Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, joined other members of the GOP in voting against the state budget plan, Thursday, June 15, 2017,in Sacramento, Calif. Despite Republican opposition,the Senate approved the $125 billion general fund spending plan, which was negotiated by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Senate Minority Leader Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, left, huddles with Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Fountain Valley, as the Senate debates the state budget plan, Thursday, June 15, 2017,in Sacramento, Calif. The Senate approved the $125 billion general fund spending plan, which was negotiated by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

By RICH PEDRONCELLI and BRIAN MELLEY

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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — There may be no more potent reminder of California’s humongous snowfall than the plows still clearing roads that snake across the state’s highest mountains as summer approaches.

Crews have been digging, blowing and blasting for months — and the work is not finished, though an approaching heat wave could speed up the process.

“We’re almost at the middle of June and we still have lots of passes that aren’t open,” said Florene Trainor, a spokesperson for the California Department of Transportation.

Few roads traverse the Sierra Nevada, the rocky spine running 400 miles up the state that is home to Yosemite National Park. Mountain passes are typically open by Memorial Day.

The only road through Yosemite, Highway 120, remained closed this week as crews dig out from snows that topped 20 feet and drifted well-over 50 feet.

On a recent day, the park’s entrance station at 9,945-foot-high Tioga Pass was buried in snow.

But the serenity of the Sierra Nevada, with birds chirping beneath snow-crested peaks that tower above 12,000 feet, was shaken by the roar and beep of plows, excavators and massive machines carving through towering snowbanks and moving giant blocks of snow. Big snow blowers sent plumes arcing through the air and off the side of the road.

As the Caltrans crew dug the entrance out from the east, a crew from the park was working from the west to clear the road that winds its way to Yosemite Valley, the park’s top destination.

Caltrans had begun inching its way up the treacherous road more than two months ago when it seemed more like winter. It snowed on and off throughout the spring, with a late-season storm hitting last weekend.

The air is clean and views are stunning, but working here is not for the faint of heart as drivers maneuver large machines along narrow ribbons that feel suspended above an abyss. Helicopter footage shot this spring for Caltrans showed the small margin for error in places where the road clung to cliffs and then vanished under a white blanket where the path was obscured.

“It’s spooky, it’s nerve-wracking ... especially when you can’t see the road. You’re on a big sled,” said Clint Weier, a maintenance superintendent with Caltrans. “Some of our operators up here have had some wow factors.”

Avalanches stampede down granite walls, taking trees and rocks with them that choke roads. In one section already plowed, tree trunks and branches from a previous slide poked from sheer snowbanks littered with pine needles and other debris from a previous snow slide.

Rockslides pose a threat even after workers use charges and other methods to release snow slides to alleviate the danger. Slides and the crushing weight of the snowpack damaged guardrails in some places that serve as the lone barrier between the road and a precipitous drop that plunges hundreds of feet east of the park entrance.

A Yosemite plow driver was killed by an avalanche in 1995 and now maintenance workers in the park complete avalanche safety courses to work on the road, park spokesperson Scott Gediman said.

The park’s official map notes that the eastern entrance atop the state’s highest automobile pass is typically closed through May, but it usually opens later after a snowy winter, Gediman said Tuesday. There’s no date yet to open the road through the park.

Just to the north of the park, Sonora Pass opened Tuesday. Ebbetts Pass farther north remains closed for repairs. To the south, crews this week plowed the road leading to Devils Postpile National Monument.

In Lassen Volcanic National Park, much farther north, deep snow still buries the road that circles the southernmost peak in the Cascade Range. The road is expected to open in early July — earlier than some previous years.

The snowpack presented an additional challenge this year because it was heavily saturated with water. Dense and frozen snow was harder to cut through, heavier to move and broke equipment, said Paul Jensen, a Caltrans plow driver.

Jensen has been working overtime all spring to get the road into Yosemite open and hasn’t minded working weekends. He considers it a labor of love.

“Twenty years and I’m still not tired of it,” Jensen said. “It’s my favorite time of the year.”


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