On an early April day it’s not uncommon to find Lowell Schierkolk, with his thick white beard, driving a 1976 truck down Teton Park Road at 1 mph. He’s done it for the past 25 years.
The only obstacle for Schierkolk is the 6 feet of firmly packed snow and ice on the road ahead of him.
The snow, however, is no match for his 650 horsepower Idaho Norland truck-mounted snowblower, which can throw plumes of snow — 3,500 tons of snow an hour, to be exact — 40 feet into the air with ease.
Schierkolk is one of a crew of 13 whose job it is to clear the roads in Grand Teton National Park each spring. This spring, given the high moisture content of the snow, has been one of the more difficult ones in his long career.
“This year’s been tough,” Schierkolk said. “It’s harder. The snow’s a lot wetter, and it was a lot wetter all year, so it compacted even where it wasn’t groomed. And the depth is more than we’ve had in several years.”
Schierkolk is well aware of the limits of his machine. After a quarter century with it, he knows it “forward and backward.”
It’s grueling work. Crews start attacking the snow at 4 a.m. and don’t stop until 9 p.m. Drivers must keep a close eye on the road and their machines as they creep along to make sure everything is working according to plan.
“It gets a little monotonous sometimes,” Schierkolk said. “Sometimes you gotta just get out of the cab and stand up and clear your head for a little bit.”
This isn’t the most difficult plowing year Schierkolk can remember, but it’s close. That distinction goes to the spring of 1997 with its “ungodly amount of snow.”
This year the crews are clearing about a mile a day. There are 50 miles of roads, five housing areas, five campgrounds and several concession areas.
The process is going much slower than usual, said Steve Baldock, the south district roads supervisor. In 2013 it took crews two days to get from the south entrance of the park to north Jenny Lake junction. This year it’s taken them eight days.
The heads of the snowblowers are 10 feet wide, so crews have to take four or five passes down each section of road to clear it completely. The person with the hardest job is the one who makes the first pass, because he has to guess where the center line is and then try to follow it to give himself a reference point of where the road is when he makes another pass.
The main reason for the difficulty is that the wet snow was compacted about a dozen times over the winter when the road was groomed for cross-country skiing. As a result, the snowpack is essentially ice all the way down. The fact that this winter’s is the second deepest snowpack on record in recent years didn’t make things easier. In some places — near Lost Creek, for example — there can be 14 feet of hard snow piled up.
“This was the hardest snow I’ve ever been cutting through,” Baldock said. “It’s not like just the top layer is hard — it’s hard all the way through the layers.”
One indication of the hardness of the snow is the number of shear bolts that have broken on the machines this year. It’s more than Baldock has ever seen. Shear bolts play an important role in a snowblower’s anatomy, connecting the auger to the auger shaft. They’re designed with the expectation that they will break if the torque becomes too high. When the auger encounters hard snow that’s difficult to chop and the blades start slowing down, the shear bolts will break, essentially disconnecting the auger from the shaft. That protects the whole mechanism from bending or breaking — a much more expensive repair job.
“I’ve never seen us go through this many,” Baldock said. “I’m sure we’ve gone through at least 200.”
The crews have three machines they use to blow the snow: one that’s mounted on the front end of a front loader and two that, like Schierkolk’s, are mounted on the front of a specially designed truck. The trucks have been in use since 1976, when the park bought them. If purchased new today, they would cost around $800,000.
Through the years crews have collected many stories of interesting items they’ve found stuck in their snowblowers. One machine sucked up a log, which made for a $10,000 repair. One driver found a hockey stick wedged between the blades, which he had to pry out.
Baldock said he’s proud of his crew members and the work they do.
“It’s sometimes surprising, their dedication,” Baldock said. “These guys bust their butts. They’re just cranking on those things all day long. If things break they fix them. They just love taking care of the place. It’s a great place to live and work.
“Tourists have no idea what it takes to get this place up and running.”