▶️ Meet the crew that moves tons of snow, trees and rocks to open McKenzie Pass


McKenzie Pass, outside of Sisters, opened for the 2023 season Monday. The scenic highway closes every winter before the snow flies.

To get it open, it takes a lot of work from an Oregon Department of Transportation crew that has to push and throw a lot of snow while also moving new fallen trees and rocks.

“In the winter months we don’t maintain it because we have a better route through the mountains. But in the summer time we do open in up so people can enjoy the recreation and the historical aspects of the pass,” said ODOT spokesperson Kacey Davey.

The process starts with Russ Bentley, taking the lead in his John Deere loader.

“Call it pioneering. We’re breaking trail. The yellow line down the road is my buddy. I find that and stick with it,” said Russ.

George Ormsbee is behind him in a 1991 Schmidt snow blower.

“This thing’s powerful enough to chew up the asphalt and spit it out,” said George.

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It’s not just the snow that made this year’s clearing job a slow go.

“When you think it’s only going to take three or four days to blow through to the end of our section, it takes a lot more time because you have this to take care of,” said ODOT crew coordinator Stacey Robinson.

“This has been the worst year for trees I’ve seen. It’s the little trees that take all our time. The little trees they break and snap up,” said Russ.

“On top of that all these trees from the Mili Fire are rotten, so they’re breaking up on the snow and they’re hard to find,” Russ added.

The 2017 Mill Fire also altered where the snow drifts.

“Since the fire came through all those places have changed,” said Russ.

Then there are human obstacles — bicyclists who use the road before they are technically allowed to.

“It is a common misconception we open that road early just for cyclists and hikers,” said Davey.

ODOT used to announce when they would start clearing.

“But we’ve had so many close calls with our crews when they’re working up there pre-season with cyclists and people trying to enjoy the area that we ask that everybody waits until the road is open to everyone.” said Davey.

From the eastside snow gate to the summit, this crew’s section is only 7.4 miles. It costs $20,000-$25,000 per year to get ready — blowing snow, clearing rocks and trees and cleaning culverts out.

It’s a fun gig.

“Oh, it’s very nice to work when the roads closed. It’s a nice break and the scenery is great,” said George.

But it comes with risks.

“There’s places that if you don’t know this road you’ll get lost,” said Russ.

Enjoy the pass while you can. The earliest closing date for winter snows came on Oct. 18, 1996.

The eastside of the road is scheduled for paving next summer, but ODOT doesn’t have a specific timeline for the project.


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