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Sales down after mudslides on North Cascades Highway

A massive mud and rock slide blocks Highway 20 near the Easy Pass trail head. (Associated Press)
A massive mud and rock slide blocks Highway 20 near the Easy Pass trail head. (Associated Press)

Slide-covered highway’s closure hurting merchants

Sales are down dramatically in tourist-dependent towns on the North Cascades Highway following a series of huge rock and mudslides that closed the scenic route at Rainy Pass last weekend.

The Washington State Department of Transportation on Thursday said that reopening Highway 20 could come as early as Sunday, but more likely on Monday or Tuesday.

“It’s been slow here all week,” said Kelsey Bourne, manager of the popular Duck Brand restaurant in Winthrop, where sales are down about 70 percent this week.

At the nearby Winthrop Inn, office manager Sonia Perrow said she has had 35 cancellations in three days at a facility with 30 rooms.

Some 40 miles to the northwest, at least two dozen workers are using heavy equipment to clear an estimated 30,000 cubic yards of rock, mud and broken trees from a 7-mile section of highway northwest of Rainy Pass.

Those huge hunks of earth crashed onto the highway after a series of thunderstorms pounded the mountains starting Saturday night.

One meteorologist in Seattle estimated that rainfall in the area ranged from 4 to 6 inches.

Witnesses described violent storms with hail blowing sideways and winds whipping to 60 mph, said Jeff Adamson, spokesman for the Department of Transportation in Wenatchee.

Boulders the size of passenger cars fell onto the highway in the largest of the eight separate slides, Adamson said. That slide was a quarter-mile long and 25 feet high, about 7 miles northwest of Rainy Pass.

The Department of Transportation hired a logging company and its large Caterpillar tractor to remove some of the heaviest debris. Also working to clear the slides are two dozen maintenance workers operating four loaders, three excavators, a bulldozer, a road grader, sweeper, water truck and 10 dump trucks.

Nearly 2,000 vehicles cross the North Cascades every day at the peak of the summer tourist season to see the premier mountain vistas in North Cascades National Park.

The slides couldn’t have come at a worse time for merchants, whose sales peak in August and September.

“Already the town feels like it’s been turned to winter,” said Bourne, at the Duck Brand.

Travelers from the east are still gaining access to some of the best vistas at Liberty Bell Mountain and Washington Pass, which are to the east of the closed section. Numerous trailheads and camping areas are still accessible on both sides of the closure.

Once the road is cleared, crews will have to repair guardrails, re-establish drainage ways and repair gouges in the pavement, Adamson said.

To complicate matters, a slow-moving cold front was expected to linger over the North Cascades through early Saturday, raising the risk of more rain and thunderstorms.

If it rains, crews will have to stay away from unstable slopes as a safety precaution, Adamson said.

He and other officials said it is fortunate that no one was caught in the slides.