Update 2:45 p.m.:  Highway 4 Ebbetts Pass has also been reopened by Caltrans. Motorists were allowed to travel the roadway beginning at 2 p.m. Caltrans spokesperson Rick Estrada says, “If a storm was to come through — or a risk of a good amount of snow falling — the roadway could be closed again.”

Tuolumne CountyMotorists can travel Highway 108 Sonora Pass once again. Caltrans opened the roadway at noon Friday (today). Crews have cleared the winter snow, debris and finished road repairs. Caltrans touts it is just in time for the trout fishing season, which begins Saturday, April 25. As for Highway 4 Ebbetts Pass, Caltrans spokesperson Rick Estrada says, “We are awaiting word from road crews as to the condition of the pass and when it can be reopened.”

Highway 120 Tioga Pass remains closed. Yosemite National Park spokesperson Scott Gediman explains, “There is a fair amount of snow at the real high elevations and we are still seeing freezing conditions at night…there is still snow showers predicted at the end of next week, so we are just going to monitor it for the next couple of weeks and continue to plow it.” Gediman reports there is no anticipated date for the highway to reopen.


By Guy McCarthy, The Union Democrat April 14, 2015 01:00 am

On the switchbacking section of Highway 108 that climbs from Kennedy Meadows to Sonora Pass, wet winters can stack the snowpack 25 feet deep and deeper by early April.

This year, with a record-warm, dry winter season coming to an end, early April below Sonora Pass means a thin, melting snowpack of 6 inches or less.

But getting the pass open to the public for spring, summer and fall involves more than just clearing snow off the road, people who work for Caltrans District 10 say.

Last week, obstacles to getting the high road open included a car-sized boulder weighing 20 tons or more. Before it was discovered, the boulder fell, bounced, rolled and came to a stop blocking the westbound lane of 108 between 7,000 feet and 9,000 feet elevation.

20 ton boulder on Hwy 108 btwn 7-9,000 ft elevation

On Thursday, several Caltrans crew members used fuse-ignited explosives to blast the boulder into fragments small enough for a dozer driver to shove off the road.

“We found it about two weeks ago,” said Tony Lertora, Caltrans District 10 maintenance supervisor for 108 and the Long Barn Yard. “There was no snow up here then. You could see big divots where it hit the ground. It took out a 100-foot-tall, 2-foot-diameter tree. Like a toothpick.”

Caltrans workers drilled holes in the boulder with a pressure-driven tool similar to a jackhammer. They rigged sticks of fast-accelerating explosive with plastic wires, tamped the charges into the holes and backed them up with crushed rock.

Then they connected the wires, spooled out more than 100 yards of cable to connect to a detonator, and commenced countdown.

At the moment of detonation, the boulder split into particles from as small as dust to bigger than pianos. Some large chunks flew more than 30 feet in the air. Chunks that hit the road came down so hard the road cracked in places.

Workers picked through the debris field of sharp-edged boulder shards to gather detonator wire, and a worker in a bulldozer pushed most of the rock off the 108. Some gathered little pieces as souvenirs.

‘Worst winter’

“This is the worst winter I’ve ever seen for snow,” Lertora said. He and his crews cover about 60 miles from the bottom of Twain Harte Grade to the top of Sonora Pass.

“In normal years, we’d start snow-blowing right at the gate at Sno Park,” Lertora said, referring to the permit lot set aside for snowmobilers 7 miles east of Strawberry. “This year, we had to go all the way to post mile 62 to start blowing. That’s four miles east of Kennedy Meadows.”

Lertora said there’s usually 10 feet of snow on the highway between Eagle Meadow and Donnell Vista. This year, there’s no snow on the road whatsoever.

Farther up the highway, there are snow poles spaced at intervals. The poles are up to 15 feet high and are intended to guide snow-removal-equipment drivers along the road when the snowpack gets deep.

“Some years there can be 20 feet to 30 feet of snow up here,” Lertora said of the 9,000-foot elevation, more than 600 feet below the top of Sonora Pass. “When it’s like that, you cannot even see the road. As bad as last winter was, we still had 8 feet of snow right here.”

Debra “Sam” Haack, deputy director of maintenance and operations for Caltrans District 10, came out to the highway to learn more about what workers are dealing with as they prepare to open Sonora Pass.

“I hope people realize there’s still a lot of work to get this road open,” Haack said. “Even though it’s a light winter, there’s plenty of work to do. It’s not just clearing the snow. It’s clearing culverts, clearing hazard trees, crack sealing, striping the road. It’s the one opportunity to do maintenance before the road opens.”

Haack and a snow-blower operator cleared one lane clear to the top of Sonora Pass and encountered Marines with skis and snowshoes from the Mountain Warfare Training Center at Pickel Meadow.

“A lot of people think we just open the gate and that’s it,” Lertora said. “Even with a drought winter season, we have trees in the road, rocks in the road. We’ve been up here the last two weeks cleaning up 12 to 13 lane miles and roadside ditches. All this maintenance has to be done before we open the road.”

Lertora said Caltrans hopes to have 108 open to Kennedy Meadows in time for the start of trout season later this month.

“I think we have good rapport with the residents and businesses up here,” Lertora said. “We try to do what we can do. You’re not always going to make everybody happy. We strive to do the best we can. Safety is our number one concern.”

The average annual cost to open 108 over Sonora Pass in Tuolumne County is $346,000, said Caltrans District 10 spokesperson Angela DaPrato. The estimate does not include the cost of opening 108 east of Sonora Pass in Mono County.

The total average annual cost for Caltrans maintenance on 108 in Tuolumne County is $1.3 million, based on the last four fiscal years ending with 2013-14, DaPrato said.

As of Monday afternoon, Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4 and Tioga Pass on Highway 120 remained closed for the season.

DaPrato said District 10 officials hope to have Sonora Pass and Ebbetts Pass open by April 25.

“They could open earlier if crews can ensure conditions are safe for motorists,” DaPrato said. “They could open later if the weather changes.”

As you know, from the article which appears first in today’s post, Sonora and Ebbetts passes are both open.

Have a great, safe weekend.

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