Now Open: White Pass Closures Cause ‘Hardship’ for Packwood Business Owners

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On Thursday, eastbound and westbound U.S. Highway 12 through White Pass opened after off-and-on closures for the last two weeks. 

Shortly after Christmas, heavy snow in the area created tough driving conditions. As the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) worked to clear the pass, more obstacles have continued to cause closures throughout the new year.

Tweets from “WSDOT Passes” stated that on Jan. 3, White Pass was closed due to hazardous driving conditions. After reopening again on Jan. 4, it was closed through Jan. 10, briefly opened, and then closed again. After the heavy snowfall came hard rain, causing a rockslide and unstable slopes west of the pass summit, according to The Seattle Times. Those conditions also caused high avalanche risk.

For Packwood residents and business owners, the consistent closures have caused effects ranging from inconveniences to an inability to work. 

Blanton’s Market store director Chris Falk said she has worked in the store for 16 years. Before that, she managed a hotel in the town. In all her years, she said she’s “never, never” seen the pass close this many times in such a short time-span.

“I’ve spoken with other business owners, and it’s a hardship, I can tell you that,” Falk said. 

Likewise, Gene Seiber, a staffer at the Packwood Visitor’s Center, said this was a unique situation he’d not seen in over 60 years of being a resident in the East Lewis County community.

Though, the results seen from the market and the visitor’s center are nearly opposite. 

On the one hand, Falk said, “(At Blanton’s), we do not have the foot traffic, we do not have the skiers. The skiers come here. And also we don’t have the workers. They get off the hill, they come down here for their beer and their dinner.”

But as folks with Airbnb reservations have rolled into town only to be shut off from downhill skiing or snowboarding, the visitor’s center has seen a huge spike in guests. Groups of up to 10 people are coming in at a time, Seiber said, looking for other activities to do near town, such as cross country skiing or sledding. Normal days at the center see about 2 or 3 people, Seiber said.

“We had a heavy amount of snow come in a real hurry,” he said. “I probably have about 2 feet of packed snow in my yard. It started building up and then it got real wet. It’s been cold too so we’re not getting a lot of melt off.”

Neither Seiber nor Falk knew of any folks who were living on one side of the pass and working on the other, but both noted seasonal ski area workers had been cut off from getting to or from their jobs. According to the ski area’s Facebook page, at least 4 employees were stuck at work during one closure.

Falk also said she had employees at Blanton’s that were unable to make it to work through the snow even if they did live west of the pass.

Though the closures have been unprecedented, residents will seek to get Packwood right back to a bustling tourist town once the highway remains open.

“It is opening back up today,” Falk said on Thursday. “I believe it will pick back up. … People like to ski, they bring their money into this town.”