Work begins on Tioga Pass but opening day is still uncertain

The big winter has Mammoth celebrating, but Lee Vining residents are getting worried.

The record-breaking winter raises a worrisome question – when will Tioga Pass open?

More snow means more snow to plow, and the cool April so far isn’t helping much, either.

But all is not lost. On Tuesday, April 12, Mono County found out that Mammoth Mountain will be donating some plow equipment to the cause, said county officials.

And, a new park superintendent has helped, too, according to Mono County supervisor Vikki Bauer, who said that relations between the county and Yosemite National Park have continued to improve in the last few years. This is good news for Lee Vining and June Lake, which both depend heavily on cross-Sierra traffic in the spring, summer and fall.

In fact, the park has begun plowing from the west side. In addition, Mono County and Caltrans started on the east side of the pass last week.

Bauer lives in June Lake and is a longtime veteran of the yearly fight to open Tioga Pass as early as possible.

This year, she sees signs of hope, given the park’s increased emphasis on working with the county, and help from the Mountain.

But she also sees reason for caution.

“It’s all about April,” she said. “The weather in April can make or break the snowpack up there. We have had normal snow years with a cold April and had trouble getting through, and we have had heavy snow years where April is hot and the snowpack disappears.

She said that snow has a temperature threshold and can react in a big way to differing temperatures.
“It can swing dramatically in either direction,” she said.

“Along with that, add the unpredictable factors like ‘how many trees do they find in the roadway, are there any equipment failures and what is the avalanche danger’ that also factor in,” she said.

“It has been my experience over 30 years that it is a very difficult process to predict. You can only forge ahead and do your best to influence the things that come at you.”

Yosemite park officials back Bauer’s assertion that what happens in April is more critical than the snowpack depth.

In an e-mail sent to Bauer, then to the Mammoth Times, Marty Nielson, Chief, Division of Business and Revenue Management at Yosemite National Park, had this to say.

‘Overall, the Tuolumne drainage is 178 percent of average water content and the Merced Drainage is 172 percent of average. These results are similar to 1995, which is generally considered to be the third or fourth largest snowpack on record.

"Keep in mind that opening dates of park facilities, including the Tioga Road, are generally more dependent on April and May temperatures than on the April 1 snowpack.”

Given April’s cold, record breaking temperatures and several feet of new snow already, given predictions of more of the same for the next week or two, it’s not wonder Eastside communities are beginning to worry, watch – and hope.