Historic records for the opening of Ebbetts Pass, 8,736 feet elevation, date back to 1941 and this year will likely be the first time Mother Nature has cracked down so hard in winter that Caltrans will be unable to open this National Scenic Byway before July.
“In the past 40 years we’ve had it open by Memorial Day every year but three times,” Warren Alford, a native of Angels Camp and Arnold and spokesman for Caltrans District 10, said Wednesday driving Highway 4 east past Bear Valley in Alpine County.
“This is the latest opening for Ebbetts Pass in history,” Alford said. “It’s unprecedented.”
The recent near-record wet winter brought more than 180 percent of average precipitation to the area that includes Ebbetts Pass, the Upper Mokelumne River and the North Fork Stanislaus, a few inches shy of the region’s wettest water year on record, 1982-83.
But clearing prodigious snows off the venerable, vulnerable road has been the easy part for Caltrans.
After five consecutive dry winters, the most recent wet season has unleashed so much runoff into a series of switchbacks on a steep mountainside it’s destabilized the entire roadbed and opened up cracks in the pavement on about a mile-long section of the highway.
Beyond the locked gates
Alford met other Caltrans workers Wednesday who unlocked a gate east of Lake Alpine, a gate that’s intended to keep the motoring public out.
He drove about an hour east to reach the work zone in a massive watershed that’s tributary to the East Fork Carson River, where more than a dozen truckers and heavy equipment operators are working in tight, steep quarters and corners to remove, rebuild and replace two segments of Highway 4 that are one-third of a mile long each.
“There’s water flowing everywhere right now, on the road, under the road, over the road in places,” Alford said. “But before this winter, everything dried out. This section is cut into the mountain and it’s mostly fill on the downhill slope. All the aggregate material that binds the roadbed together for a solid foundation, tiny spaces opened up in the dry years and runoff this year saturated it. Under the cracked pavement it was mush.”
Workers cleared snow off that section of Highway 4 bck in May. That’s when they found cracks in the pavement and that’s when they knew they would have to tear out the old road and build new segments.
The contractor on the emergency project is George Reed Inc., which has an asphalt plant on O’Byrnes Ferry Road outside Jamestown, the same contractor that fixed the undermined section of Big Oak Flat Road this spring to re-connect Highway 120 with Yosemite Valley.
No estimate for the total cost of opening Ebbetts Pass this summer was available Wednesday. Alford said workers still have weeks to go before the road is safe to open for the public.
‘One mistake, they’re off the cliff’
Meanwhile the safety of workers at a challenging, isolated emergency work site is the top priority for Caltrans.
“Some contractors turned down the chance to do this when they saw it,” said Mehdi Ziglari, a Caltrans engineer and emergency project inspector. “It’s so steep it’s tough for these trucks. One smallest mistake and they’re off the cliff. One wrong move and it would be a disaster, as far as fatality.”
No serious work-related accidents, injuries or fatalities have been reported this spring and summer, according to Caltrans.
On Wednesday, dump truck drivers and loader operators placed material on one rebuilt section of roadbed. Another section had one lane built up next to the cliffside while the outside lane lay several feet lower, in need of more foundation and fill. Neither section was anywhere near ready for paving Wednesday.
“Right now we’re almost halfway done,” Ziglari said. “We’ve got 12 trucks running material from Jackson in shifts, plus 20 to 25 workers in rigs and machines out here. It’s tight. Not much room for equipment.”
Workers have plenty of other unfinished repairs and maintenance to do along miles of Highway 4 between the locked gate east of Lake Alpine and the emergency work site. Culverts and other drainage pipes need to be cleared out. Digout sections of bad pavement still need to be repaved. Signs need to be replaced or restored and guardrails need fixing.
Ebbetts Pass and the steep canyons that lead to it from the east and west sides of the Central Sierra Nevada were likely trade routes used by Mi-Wuk and other Native American people for thousands of years before the first non-native, Euro-American explored the route.
Historians say Jedediah Strong Smith, a frontiersman, trapper and pathfinder, may have been the first Euro-American to cross the Sierra Nevada. He did it from west to east, near Ebbetts Pass, back in 1827.
By the 1850s, a wagon road toll route was established through the pass, and the Big Tree Road became the father of today’s Highway 4, connecting Calaveras County with the steep eastside Sierra.
Recent history on the road includes local stories about Cadillac Corner, a tight curve just down the hill on the east side of the emergency work site above rushing creeks and waterfalls that lead to the East Fork Carson River.
It’s one of the hardest uphill turns of the eastbound climb to Ebbetts Pass, in part because it requires truckers to shift mid-curve, Alford said. Trucks can stall there, get stuck or lose control backing out and end up going over a hundred-foot vertical cliff.
“A Cadillac went off the edge here in the 1960s,” Alford said, pointing to white-painted, crumpled, rusted metal about 100 feet below. “Popular lore is three people all walked away from it.”
About 10 years ago a truck driver delivering ice cream supplies, including gummy bears and peanut butter cups, stalled climbing Cadillac Corner, lost control as gravity pulled the truck backward toward the cliff, and leaped out of the truck to save his life, Alford said.
“It was pitch-dark at two in the morning,” Alford said. “It was late summer and all that fall real bears dined on gummies and peanut butter cups out of the truck.”
Asked if the story is true, Alford said he verified details a decade ago by climbing down to the truck and seeing the gummy bear boxes and peanut butter cup wrappers and bear scat. He said he did so before he came to work for Caltrans.
Ebbetts Pass was designated a California State Scenic Highway in 1971 and received National Scenic Byway status from the U.S. Department of Transportation in September 2005, according to historians. It is one of seven nationally designated byways in the Golden State.
“We’re cognizant of how important this road is to businesses on both sides of the pass, and how vital these passes are to all Californians,” Alford said. “We recognize everyone who buys gas is helping support our work. We’re trying to be good stewards of the roads and we’re working as efficiently as we can to get these important routes open.”
Regardless of when Caltrans opens Ebbetts Pass this summer, nature is still taking care of business all along Highway 4. Storm cells built up all Wednesday afternoon, and while a heatwave baked most of the Mother Lode in triple-digit temperatures, big fat raindrops 50 degrees Fahrenheit and cooler fell on sundrenched, wind-whipped sections of the road.