Hundreds of travelers were temporarily stranded Friday after an avalanche closed Interstate 90 eight miles east of Lookout Pass.
No one was injured in the 11:30 a.m. slide. Crews cleared the 12-foot-deep debris within three hours.
The snow crashed down where the freeway makes a cut alongside a steep mountainside, creating a 400-foot cliff.
“It was absolutely insane,” said driver Mark Thompson, who slammed on his brakes to avoid the crushing snow. “It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
The 38-year-old Polson, Mont., resident was eastbound from Spokane when his 1984 Toyota pickup rammed through a thick white cloud of snow.
“It was a great big plume, like after an explosion,” he said. “At first I thought it was from a snowplow, but then I saw this mound 100 feet in front of me.”
Thompson hit the brakes and jammed his truck into reverse. He made a James Bond U-turn, blowing out his truck’s drivetrain. He landed in a snowbank - safe, but stranded.
“I knew there were winter storm warnings and stuff, but I thought ‘Ah, hell, I can drive through that,”’ he said late Friday from a Montana motel room. “I never thought about avalanches.”
The slide was the first to close all four lanes of I-90 over the pass, said Dennis Unsworth, spokesman for the Montana Department of Transportation.
“I checked with one of the oldtimers,” Unsworth said. “We have had one lane closed at a time.”
Snowslides between Powell and Lowell, Idaho, had already closed another main route into Montana - U.S. Highway 12 over Lolo Pass. That was shut down indefinitely on Thursday afternoon, transportation officials said. Until midafternoon Friday, transportation crews were uncertain whether anyone was caught in the I-90 slide, which covered an 80-foot wide swath.
Initially, plows made one cut through the slide path as an access route for an ambulance in the event trapped motorists were found underneath, Unsworth said.
Crews first estimated it would take six to eight hours to clear I-90, so travelers settled in for the day in St. Regis, Mont., where westbound traffic was stopped.
“It’s crazy,” said a waitress at Jasper’s Restaurant in St. Regis. “The restaurant and the bar and all the rooms in town are full.”
In Idaho, eastbound holiday drivers were turned back at Mullan. Many holed up at the tiny Mullan Cafe.
Moscow resident Rob Macy and his three kids sat there nearly three hours, stalled on their way to Helena for a nephew’s hockey game.
“All we’ve done is eat,” Macy said, laughing.
Owner Lydia Lane said business at the cramped eatery was up by “more than 100 percent.” The cafe was so full a 23-year-old stranded stranger from Missoula volunteered to help wash dishes.
“She didn’t believe I was serious,” said apron-clad samaritan Matt Ball, casting a soapy thumb toward Lane. “But I’m a cook at home and I know how much it sucks to have dirty dishes piling up. And it’s not like I have something better to do.”
A harried Lane shouted from the kitchen: “I just knew he didn’t know what he was getting into!”
A block away at Tammy Polla’s Mullan convenience store, drivers waited in line for the telephone and wandered restlessly through aisles packed with candy and gum.
“It’s been a zoo in here all afternoon,” she said. “Most folks seem to be taking it pretty well, but some turned around and went all the way up to Sandpoint just to cross into Montana.”
Larry Blocker’s family was headed home to Missoula after celebrating the holidays in Lewiston. They already had been turned back from Lolo Pass.
“Oh, I suppose if we knew it would be like this, we would have stayed in Montana,” he said, smiling but clearly tired. “Now we just want to be home.”
Keith Knittle, a Kellogg respiratory therapist, said his family almost enjoyed the delay.
They were headed to Quinn’s Hot Springs north of St. Regis for a weekend retreat. They’d been eating lunch at Lookout Pass Ski Area when the slide hit. Already inside the roadblock, they went to watch the giant snowblowers gobble avalanche debris and spit it over the guardrail.
“I’ve been stuck by a mudslide before, but never an avalanche,” Knittle said. “This is a lot cleaner.”
His kids preferred the wait to the alternative: Going home.
The cleanup went quickly in part because luck was on the workers’ side.
Two plowing crews were in the vicinity when the slide hit. One was a private contractor, whose wife feared he was caught in the slide, Unsworth said.
Transportation crews located him by radio and enlisted his help to clear the freeway. Another state crew was summoned, making a total of six front-end loaders and two snowblowers working the slide.
“It’s great that it’s open,” Unsworth said. “The downside is the weather conditions are still so bad that travel between Superior and Missoula is not advised.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map: Large avalanche closes interstate