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The unsung heroes of the mountain

ODOT crews spend day and night plowing roads to keep traffic moving

Ernie Gasparovich begins his morning at 7 o'clock heading up Timberline Road in a combination snow plow and sander.

It's a loud and sometimes bumpy assignment at the wheel of the massive piece of equipment. POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - An Oregon Department of Transportation snow blower, or rotary snow plow, cleans up the parking lot at White River Sno Park on Mount Hood.

But Gasparovich revels in the fact that he's outside looking at snow-capped trees rather than cooped up inside at a desk.

As he slowly climbs toward Timberline Lodge he knows many of the drivers who pass will only think of his work as a nuisance. Gasparovich says those people are why he has driven snow clearing equipment for more than 12 years.

Gasparovich is part of the crew at the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Government Camp maintenance office. During snowy winters like the current one, Gasparovich drives snow plows, snow blowers and graders to keep the road safer for the thousands of people who daily drive over or to Mount Hood. During his six-mile trek up Timberline Road, he explains the process of “peeling pack” -- moving snow and sanding the road.

“That’s what we’re trying to do so we can avoid accidents,” he said.

ODOT’s Government Camp office has about 25 crew members; there are 25 more farther north in Parkdale. “We’re 50 strong on the whole mountain,” says Jim McNamee, who manages both offices.

The Government Camp district stretches from Lolo Pass to Frog Lake, up to Timberline Lodge and out Oregon 35 to White River. Crews also keep the 12 Sno Parks within their district plowed and accessible.

Crews are finally getting the roads under control after the last heavy storm, McNamee said, and then they will have to do it all over again. POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - Ernie Gasparovich steps out of the 10-foot-tall cab of his snow plow after preparing Timberline Road for travelers on Wednesday, Jan. 6. The road is the highest that the Government Camp crew is responsible for.

“We’re pretty much ready for the next one,” McNamee said. “That’s what happens.”

Heavy snow storms this winter have kept the crews busy this winter — something they did not experience last year.

"We didn’t have anything at this time,” said Gasparovich as he works his way up Timberline Road, which is already boxed in on both sides by five-foot tall snowbanks. “It was all grass up here.”

Terry Kennedy, a supervisor on the Government Camp crew, said last year afforded them different opportunities.

“Last year, we did a lot of summer maintenance work in the winter,” he said, “since we didn’t have the snow to plow.” That included brush and tree trimming, something that can't be done when there is snow on the ground.

But this year there is lots of snow.

On Wednesday, Jan. 6, the day shift crew was down a few workers so Kennedy pitched in by jumping into the cab of a snow blower. “It’s good for a guy to keep his skills sharpened,” Kennedy said with a laugh.POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - Terry Kennedy operates a snow blower along Highway 35.

Kennedy, who lives in Hood River, has been on the crew for 16 years.

“I just really like working up here,” he said. “It’s just a nice place to work. You come up here in the mountains every day and don’t have to deal with all the high-speed life down in the valley.”

All that time on the mountain has led to some interesting experiences.

“I ate up half a Volkswagen one day,” Kennedy throws out with a laugh.

He explained that the car had been left by skiers who started down from Mt. Hood Meadows and decided they had too much to drink and shouldn’t drive. They left their car at the White River Sno Park and hitched a ride home. Heavy snow and wind overnight buried the car until Kennedy's plow found it the next morning.

Gasparovich and Kennedy say dealing with the public is both their favorite and most challenging part of their jobs.

“Nobody wants to sit and wait for the plow because it goes slower,” said Kennedy. “It’s kind of an irritation to the public, for sure.”POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - A snow blower launches snow over the banks built up alongside the road.

A normal day for road crews consists of five or six motor vehicle accidents. Gasparovich said drivers should use common sense, be aware and be prepared.

“I try to keep it as safe as possible,” he said. “I hate seeing accidents. I’ve seen too many working on this job.”

The most common problem is people not putting on their chains soon enough. Gasparovich often sees people parked on Timberline Road, backing up traffic and creating a hazard as they learn to put tire chains on.

"Take the time to be prepared," Kennedy echoes. "Get to know your vehicle, put your tire chains in your vehicle and know how to use them."

In addition to heavy snow, this season has been made more difficult for the road crews by an increase in traffic. McNamee said holiday traffic on Highway 26 was the most he has ever seen, including traffic jams all the way down the mountain to Sandy.POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - Ernie Gasparovich talks about keeping the public safe as he operates a snow plow on Timberline Road.

“The traffic seems to have increased dramatically from years past,” he said. “It was just unbelievable traffic.”

Traffic only makes the crews’ jobs harder.

“It just makes it a lot more difficult,” McNamee said. “We have to work around the traffic. It takes longer, and a lot of times we have to wait. We just do our best to keep the traffic moving through it when it’s really heavy then we do the rest at night.”

POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - From inside the cab of a snow blower, operators watch as snow is launched up a hill along Barlow Trail Road.