Tuesday, May 19, 2009

angeles crest

New bridge on Highway 2, slides still threaten road

By Guy McCarthy

VINCENT GAP - Rock slides and snow avalanches tore up a stretch of the Angeles Crest Highway so bad in 2004, 2005 and 2006, a section of the region's most sinuous road has been closed for several years.

Thanks to $10.5 million in repairs, including a centerpiece bridge west of Vincent Gap, Caltrans plans to re-open about nine miles of the Angeles Crest tomorrow at noon - restoring a legendary motorcycle route that connects La CaƱada Flintridge with Wrightwood and the Cajon Pass.

The new bridge is slickly designed, to allow future slides to pass under the roadway. But it's only 208 feet long, according to Caltrans, so most of the road remains vulnerable to erosion.

Caltrans photo March 2006

Regardless, bikers and other mountain curve enthusiasts are psyched the Angeles Crest is about to re-open.

Caltrans workers like Barry Morrison did the dirty work to make it possible.

"We had to clear five-and-a-half years of debris in seven weeks," said Morrison, a Caltrans equipment operator based near Mormon Rocks in the Cajon Pass. "In places there was snow 16 feet deep, 200 to 300 foot across.

"We had rocks weighing up to 14 tons," said Morrison. "Took two loaders to move that one. We started earlier this year than ever before, in March, because the road was closed so long."

Caltrans photo January 2005

The Angeles Crest remains vulnerable for obvious reasons. Formed by tectonic lurching and grinding where two continental plates meet, the San Gabriel Mountains are rising and falling at an impressive pace, according to geologists.

"The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth," author John McPhee wrote in "Los Angeles Against the Mountains," a section of his 1989 book "The Control of Nature."

"Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world," wrote McPhee, who spent much of 20 years with geologists to complete his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Annals of the Former World."

Reporters above Vincent Gap March 2007

For the time-being, firefighters in Wrightwood are pleased residents have another way out of the mountain town in the event of an emergency.

"It's never been a main route out of town during wintertime because it's always closed due to snow," said San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Darrayl Felgar, based at Station 101 in Wrightwood. "But it's always good to have another avenue, another option.

"For sure we'll see an increase in over-the-side accidents and rescues," Felgar said. "Definitely an increase in motorcycle accidents. But we're trained for low-angle rescue. L.A. County has high-angle rescue coming out of Station 79 over by Palmdale.

"As far as fire aspects, with that road open we have better access if there's fires over there," Felgar said. "And anytime we have an additional road it gives us another avenue to get our people to safety if we have a fire here. It's good to have another way out too because of the mudflows on Sheep Creek. We get those nearly every year."

Sarah Barras outside the Racoon Saloon

Some business owners in Wrightwood are looking forward to more travellers coming from the Los Angeles side of the Angeles Crest. A bartender at the Yodeler on Park Drive said he expects to see more bikers on the outdoor deck on weekends. Across the street at the Racoon Saloon, employee Sarah Barras said she hopes to see more visitors too.

"It should be good for business," said Barras, who grew up in Wrightwood. "The people from the other side used to come up here a lot. They'll be up here again. We can use the extra traffic."

Rattler at Vincent Gap

Visitors to the San Gabriel Mountains and the Angeles Crest Highway right now should keep an eye and ear out for rattlesnakes. The one pictured was resting under a bush next to the locked gate at Vincent Gap today, then coiled to strike and made a lot of noise with its tail when an intruder approached.

Islip Saddle March 2007

For a thorough "Throttle Jockey" perspective and more history, see Susan Carpenter's Column One in today's Los Angeles Times. She took an escorted ride on the closed section recently and the video is worth watching.


Caltrans images provided by Armand Silva.

All others by Guy McCarthy.

Slide show here.

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