Northern Nevada’s Indispensable Icebreakers

Snowplow drivers work day and night to keep roads clear

Elko County Road Department Employees Bill Hylton, Dell “Dugan” Sorenson and Gary Pollock with their snow plows. Photos by Carollee Egbert.

By Dianna Troyer

Sometimes without warning, snowplow drivers in Northern Nevada confront near zero visibility. The road disappears as the ground and sky blur into an indistinct wall of whiteness.

“When you can’t see the road, you look to hazy shapes that you know are sagebrush growing on either side of the road, so you know where to drive,” says Bill Hylton, an Elko County Road Department employee based in Wells. “It helps that we’re familiar with the roads from working on them during summer.”

To relieve tension while driving, he thinks about a humorous catchphrase coined by the crew he leads: “Keep it upright.”

Bill and his three co-workers tease and remind each other to keep their trucks and road graders–equipped with massive plows–upright whenever they head out to clear snow on more than 150 miles of slick road in Northeast Elko County.

Snowplow drivers work day and night—whether for Elko County on mostly gravel and dirt roads or the Nevada Department of Transportation on paved roads—and are invaluable to those living in remote areas, such as Contact, Ruby Valley, Emigrant Pass and O’Neil Basin.

County residents—especially ranchers with their nearest neighbors several miles away—ambulance drivers, linemen and school bus drivers depend on them to keep roads open during the winter through early spring when storms can dump a heavy snowpack.

“Some years, spring is worse than winter,” says Terry Lister, the county’s road department supervisor. “If we have a rough winter, sometimes we’ll have a mild spring and vice versa. From working here 21 years, people ask me what kind of winter to expect. I tell them, I’ll let them know at the end of spring.”

Dell “Dugan” Sorenson positions chains on a snow plow’s tire.

County road department employees have a daunting mission: maintaining 1,100 miles of roads, of which only 42 are paved. During winter, only the most frequently used roads are plowed.

“Roads in Wells are spread out, so it’s really time- consuming for the crew to keep them open,” Terry says.

In the area surrounding Wells, Bill plows roads for the state and county. While working for NDOT for seven years, he was assigned the graveyard shift from midnight to 6 a.m. during the winter. Five years ago, he started working for the county in Wells, where he grew up.

“Driving for the state has its own challenges because there’s more traffic on the paved roads than there is with the county’s backroads,” he says.

Whatever the challenges, it is reassuring to know “we have each other’s backs,” Bill says of himself and co-workers Dell Sorenson, Gary Pollock and Andy Stewart.

“Doing what we do in all kinds of weather, we’ve become like family,” Bill says. “In the really remote areas, we go out in pairs with someone in a pickup, driving behind with tools in case of a breakdown.”

They never know what they will encounter and have rescued stranded motorists and even Wells Rural Electric Co. lineworkers. The lineworker’s snow track vehicle had broken down while they were fixing an outage in the O’Neil Basin 70 miles north of Wells.

“I felt bad that we couldn’t get to them at night because of high winds, and they had to spend the night in their vehicle,” Bill says. “We got them the next morning.”

When a storm strikes, Bill’s crew heads out at 6 a.m. to plow school bus routes near Metropolis northwest of Wells, Starr Valley to the west and Pilot Valley to the east. By the time the bus drivers leave school at 7 a.m., the roads are passable.

“Sometimes the superintendent calls us to see if school should be canceled,” he says.

Next, they focus on roads leading to remote ranches, many of them 70 miles north of Wells.

“With some routes, it takes most of the day to get out and back,” Bill says. “We’ll get some roads cleared so ranchers can get to town for supplies, then they blow shut again.”

One of the most challenging areas is O’Neil Basin, where the wind often blows snow into solidly compacted 8- to 10-foot-tall drifts.

“It takes a while to bust through those with the grader,” Bill says.

To gain better traction driving the massive grader, Bill chains its 4-foot-tall tires.

During winter, snow is not the only precipitation the Wells crew confronts.

“I’ll never forget three years ago when there was flooding in February,” says Dell, who is starting his 13th season with the department.

A freak rainstorm pounded Northeast Nevada for several days. With the ground still frozen, floods began washing away paved and graveled roads and even railroad tracks.

“As best we could, we diverted water, hauled gravel to rebuild roads and made sandbags available,” Dell says. “It took everybody—crews from the county, city and state—to get the roads in shape again.”

The Wells crew accepts the unpredictability of their jobs.

“I’ve lived here most of my life,” Bill says. “And every winter is different. Whatever happens, we’re ready to deal with it.”