Special Report: Mechanics in Yellowstone: Keeping park roads open in extreme conditions

Posted at 6:24 PM, May 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 15:04:22-04

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – Robert Evanoff grunts as he heaves a four foot pry bar against the 3,000 pound track on one side of a snow cat abandoned in a parking area south of Mammoth Hot Springs.

Evanoff is a mechanic for Yellowstone National Park and on a sunny weekday afternoon he has a rare shop day and a chance to catch up on other projects, like getting that snow cat moving again.

Normally in the springtime he’s on the road, chasing and servicing the heavy equipment used to open the snow covered roads for the summer season.

“We do what we can,” he says while walking around a cavernous garage used to service the big rigs that do everything from clear snow to haul garbage in Yellowstone. But the snow crews present a special challenge.

“We fix it fast out in the field. It may not be the best fix, but it’ll keep them running,” said Evanhoff.

That’s because the crews using huge rotary plows and bulldozers to open the roads for eager tourists are working on a tight deadline. The park sets opening dates for sections of the road based on the depth of the snow pack, weather conditions and how the machinery is performing. Those deadlines loom large in the lives of the mechanics, like Evanhoff, and the crews pushing the heavy equipment, especially the big rotary plows, into mountains of snow every day.

“There are a lot of moving parts. A lot of gearboxes. Most contain two engines. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong with them,” says Evanhoff of the huge custom built machines.

The plow crews work almost constantly through the spring. That means the mechanics do too.

“We’ve been out in these trucks for eight weeks, so they’re kind of dirty,” says the mechanic.

The trucks become a sort of a home away from home.

“We live out of them for eight weeks,” says Evanhoff in a matter of fact way that disguises the huge job facing the operators and repair crews that crawl through the snowdrifts each spring.

It’s a far different task than plowing ordinary highways. Winter use in the park makes the spring road clearing a tougher task than most people realize.

Evanoff painted the picture, “We spend three months of the year packing the roads down.”

Doing so helps make the going easier for slowcoaches and snowmobiles in the winter months. But it creates a hard pack of snow and ice that you can’t just drive a snowplow through. Evanoff says, “That snow gets really, really hard.”

Crews literally have to bust up the packed snow and ice, and that busts up the equipment.

“We’re welders at that point,” says Evanoff, “Because the front rotary reels, just break.”

And those big rigs face obstacles most snow plow operators don’t even think of.

“One of our rotaries caught a tree, the bottom of a broken tree,” said Evanhoff.

The tree trunk was swept onto the road by an avalanche, then buried under feet of snow, making it impossible for the equipment operators to spot in advance. It did a lot of damage.

“We welded five hours on that,” explained Evanoff.

Then, there’s the springtime weather.

“You’re in a blizzard, and things are broke and you just gotta suck it up and go do it,” Evanoff said.

He recalled a bitter early spring day near Canyon when the temperature was ten degrees above zero, the wind was howling and he had to crawl under a snowblower and replace a hydraulic pump. He’d work until his fingers got too cold, then jump back in his truck for a few minutes to warm up before going back out again. It took all day.

Plus, anyone working in the high passes with tall mountains towering over them has a constant threat to worry about.

“When we were in the avalanche zone we all got shovels, probe poles, and we all got beacons,” said Evanoff, referring to avalanche beacons which allow rescuers to more easily locate someone buried in the snow.

Asked about bears, Evanoff said that really isn’t much of an issue. He says there are usually several people around for safety, plus the noise of the heavy equipment tends to scare the animals away. But that doesn’t mean the crews never see a bear. Just a week ago Evanoff watched daily as a big grizzly ate on the carcass of a dead bison in a creek, then slept nearby to guard its prize. Evanoff calls such sightings a perk of the job and said he loves it.

In the shop, sophisticated metal working equipment has a space of its own off to one corner. It’s a pretty well equipped machine shop and is vital in remote Yellowstone, where the nearest machine shop is 52 miles away. For the same reason, the shop stocks its own inventory and equipment to make hydraulic hoses. The hoses are used on almost every piece of heavy equipment and it wouldn’t be very efficient for mechanics to have to run to town for a hose every day.

Row upon row of parts are neatly organized on shelves and Evanoff runs down the list, “Screws, lock washers. Bearings for the bigger stuff. We carry starters, alternators. Down this aisle it’s all bulbs for turn signals for trucks. We carry extra drive shafts, Detroit Engine parts, all the Snow Cat parts.”

And there’s something you won’t find in a box.

“Well I think most of the guys here take really good pride in their work,” said Evanoff, “We try not to waste the taxpayers’ money.”

And he doesn’t waste time on pride. Asked if the mechanics are the unsung heroes of the spring snow operations, he demurs.

“I hate that unsung hero thing. We just come and do our job,” he said.

Even though the park sets definite dates for opening the roads, weather still has the final word and roads can close again at any time. At least through May it’s a good idea to check the Yellowstone National Park website to make sure the road you want to take is still open for your visit.

Reporting by John Sherer for MTN News


Robert Evanoff gives a tour of the garage facilities at YNP