The Battle of Carson Pass

When winter comes, and avalanches threaten to hurtle down the slopes, a 26-member crew works around the clock to keep this California highway open

This past New Year's, along Route 88 in the Sierra Nevada, Joel Allen and his winter maintenance crew worked through the night and into New Year's Day, clearing the pavement at Carson Pass, the highway's summit. It was a mild storm--a mere "road whitener," Allen had sniffed--but soon enough, it would turn to much more. By 4 A.M. on January 2, that modest snowfall had become a full-fledged winter storm, and Allen's crew went into high gear--as avalanche control specialists.

From the first flurries to the storm's last gasp, author Ed Kiester accompanies Allen and his crew in their round-the-clock effort to keep open a 14-mile stretch of highway--a job made more difficult, and more exciting, by the presence of two natural avalanche zones: the two-mile-long Carson Pass, at 8,574 feet, and the mile-long Carson Spur. These steep-sided roadways run beneath 22 natural avalanche chutes--ready to send down, at any moment, a "cascade of white death." Those chutes would be a constant source of danger were it not for the preventive measures taken by Allen's avalanche control team--led by "avalanche king" Al Schindler.

When snow builds up at Carson Pass and Carson Spur, Schindler and his team use artillery, hand charges and other explosive devices (after temporarily closing the road) to create small slides and thereby prevent major disasters. With our author in tow, Schindler makes his way up the mountain above Carson Spur, and choreographs a cannonade of explosions that send piles of snow plummeting down to the road below, where heavy equipment operators are at the ready to clean up the mess. "Unless we do something about it," he explains, "it's going to wind up in somebody's lap." And clearly--as he knows far too well--it could wind up doing much, much worse.

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