Wyoming drivers generally know that when winter weather hits, it’s time to hunker down and wait for the roads to open.
But there was a lot more waiting this usual this past winter, especially for drivers attempting to cross the center of the state either on U.S. Highway 287 via Muddy Gap or Wyoming Highway 28 over South Pass.
Between Jan. 1 and March 31, the two highways were closed 16 times for 42 days overall because of winter conditions and crashes.
Cody Beers with the Wyoming Department of Transportation said in his 20 years with WYDOT, he’s never seen anything like it.
“We had four or five snowstorms stacked on top of each other,” Beers told Cowboy State Daily. “And then every time it snowed, we spent all of our time plowing it because it was blowing the road shut. You had drifts from 4 to 12 feet deep across the highway.”
And Beers clarified that WYDOT reports listing the closures did not include times that the roads were closed to light and high-profile vehicles because of wind.
“These were winter weather closures. There were probably another 10 wind closures to high profile vehicles on each route,” he said. “We had such high winds up there that literally vehicles were blown off the road.”
Not A Normal Winter
Beers said that in a “normal” winter, South Pass might be closed four or five times. But this winter was anything but normal.
“Between Lander and Muddy Gap, that road over about a six-week period was probably closed more than it was open,” Beers said.
Winds made it difficult to keep the roads open, even once the snow had stopped falling.
“If we would have just had the snow, we would have been able to deal with it,” Beers said. “But we were dealing with hurricane force winds, you know, 50-60 miles an hour.”
In addition to the snow and wind, bitter cold temperatures caused mechanical problems for snowplows.
“Our trucks run on diesel fuel, and you have to put additives in that diesel fuel — called def — for environmental reasons,” Beers said. “The def fluid was freezing up like a rock, and when the def fluid freezes, those big trucks literally just stop running.”
Beers said during one particularly cold snap in March, three WYDOT vehicles became inoperable because of the bitter temperatures.
“We had three trucks in a pullout on top of the mountain that were just stranded. We couldn't do anything with them,” he said. “We had a tow plow out west of Riverton that quit working, and it sat out there in the snow for two weeks until it finally warmed up and we could work on it. We had to walk away from some equipment because it just quit.”
A shortage of drivers made it difficult to keep the road near Muddy Gap open, Beers said.
“Our Lander and Riverton crews were plowing all the way to Muddy Gap because our Muddy Gap crew right there at the junction went through this winter with only two guys,” he said. “Those two guys, they would go out and plow for 16 hours, and if the road was still in bad shape, they would just close it so they could go home and sleep for eight hours.”
‘Going To War Against Mother Nature’
But it wasn’t just the drivers who worked overtime to keep highways open. Beers said that if it weren’t for dedicated mechanics who kept the equipment functional, the closures might have lasted even longer.
“We had a lot of breakdowns,” he said. “Our mechanics were really our superheroes to keep that equipment running.”
Beers had high praise for all the WYDOT crews across the state who had to work extra hours and days to keep the highways open for travelers.
“Everybody teamed up if we needed help in other districts,” Beers said. “We put a lot of emphasis on what we call the WYDOT family. When the chips are down, that's when your family comes together.
“And in a winter like this, it makes you very proud to work where you work, because our guys were out there every day. I mean, they were battling snow up to their ear lobes. They were going to war against Mother Nature.”
Now that the temperatures are increasing across the state, Beers said WYDOT crews are breathing a sigh of relief.
“I think we're all thankful for the sunshine and it's warmer,” he said. “We needed a break. Our guys were pretty pretty crispy by the end of winter.”
But remnants of the winter of 2022-23 are still visible.
“I was just down in Rawlins Sunday, and we've still got some of the biggest, most impressive snowdrifts you've ever seen alongside the highway,” he said.
And by the time next winter rolls around, Beers said he hopes more people might sign on to join the WYDOT team.
“We've got a lot of maintenance job openings, we've got mechanic job openings, and we would love to share the excitement of Wyoming with people who are interested in the Wyoming lifestyle,” he said. “We'd love to be at 100% (staffing) heading into this upcoming winter, which will be here before we know it.”