How to drive in the winter? "Just don't get overly confident. Carl's constant advice was be prepared, be preventative." - My Mother
|Dark clouds seen while entering a Mountainous Highway|
The thing about weather is … it can be unpredictable (see Chaos Theory). Except when you’re caught off guard by weather, it’s more like diarrhea-unpredictable than, say, winning-the-lottery-unpredictable. You might have seen the storm coming, but thought, “We’ll get out early enough and I’ll miss the bad stuff.” And you might be right. Or your boss can be a total d-bag and keep you until its dark and there’s six inches on the ground and the governor has declared a state of emergency. You’re probably S.O.L. but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The prior description isn’t my most recent experience, but it’s not far from reality. Thankfully I was prepared and my car preformed well. I’ll try to write this PSA loosely using my experiences for example and only as sparsely as I quote my mother from an email she recently wrote in response to my experience. And which she strictly forbade me to share in my writing. Sorry, Ma.
|Day Pack Essentials for any day in Colorado (they forgot sun screen and lip balm)|
One thing that I took away from camp is that there’s no need to know what the weather will do, if you are prepared for whatever the weather can do. In other words, if it went from sunny to rainy and the temperature dropped 30 degrees – not an unlikely scenario in the Rockies in the summer or El Nino spring – you’re fine if you have a rain jacket and a warm layer. Any outdoor enthusiast will tell you about their gear and how it takes the unpleasantness out of the unforeseen circumstances that inevitably arise during any adventure. But how many of us take care in our daily circumstances well enough to insure a worst case scenario danger is taken out of a miserable, wintry commute.
|This is our Interstate System that we all complain about.|
The following is a quote from my mother describing how my grandfather, Carl Mershon, would prepare his 1950’s GMC Suburban when he drove to Vermont in the winter to hunt and adventure. This was a time before the Eisenhower Interstate System, so the trek to Vermont included a few hundred miles on two-lane, dark, country road. Also, a time before high tech Doppler RADAR, satellite, iphone weather app prediction. He probably read the weather in the same newspaper sitting next to him in the truck.My mother is loving and caring and simply trying to remind me of the wonderful things Carl taught us. If it sounds like I’m a little preachy about this Carl guy, it’s probably because he’s the guy who drove to Vermont and built the house that is now my family cabin. He did it on the weekends with his buddy throughout the summer of 1979. And proceeded to take me there for the first 17 years of my life and was the man who introduced me to nature. This man was the definition of wisdom and I will be sure to have other writings on his bad ass knowledge, but for now he can remain our model.
This is what I was taught by my father about travel and winter, i.e., Vermont.
Always have the following in your vehicle:
Extra pair of pants
Snacks [Carl was a diabetic]
Salt and Sand [both for weight and use]
|Vermont in Autumn|
U.S. Road Atlas
So, anyway, I’m driving from Denver to Vail on Monday, November, 23rd and it’s a beautiful blue ski day. Colorado: 300 days of sunshine! It snowed the entire previous week to the point that Vail opened on Friday with the most acres (1000+) in decades. But it hadn’t snowed since Friday.
I sleep in late, about seven, because Dr. Wang and I climbed, or attempted to climb Longs Peak the day prior and I was tired as hell. This way I would miss the Denver traffic. I was on I-70 by 9:30 and Denver was clear. But of course Google maps showed plenty of red before the Loveland Pass. More traffic; typical I-70 through theRockies. Google then re routes my trip off I-70 and around the mess and says I can make Vail (about 100 miles) in two hours. That's good time! The sunny slopes are calling!
The first indication that something was amiss with the route occurred as the Computer Lady instructed me to turn on Squaw Pass Road and proceed for nine miles. But I was in a caravan of half a dozen cars clearly all following the voice of the almighty Google God. We climbed the pass, covering switch backs that kept our speed below 20 mph on roads that were questionable, yet still passable. Then at the top of the Pass, CDOT work trucks and a road closed sign.
|One more look at Squaw Pass. Note: Somewhere west of Squaw Mt. we left CO-103|
The delivery truck two cars ahead of me stops while rounding a bend moments after I hit the brakes and slid for the first time. I only slid for a split second, but it was enough of a siren to alert me that this situation was very unexpected and the outcome was no longer clear.
I put my truck in park and engaged the emergency brake. It felt like I was on level ground compared to the last hairpin turn, but there’s no need to take a chance. The truck wasn’t moving and it was time to see what the hell was up. A quick look behind me showed a Subaru Forester and two sedans, one of which was wedged against the snow bank like he just barely made it around the turn.
The man in the Honda Pilot (large, AWD SUV) got out and agreed to go see what was going on down below. I put work gloves on and prepared to put my chains on. See I drive a FWD vehicle, that handles fine in the snow until it slips. Then it stops or doesn’t stop at all.
Mr. Honda returns to inform me that there’s a sedan equipped with summer tires, turned sideways below and another commercial van between the truck and it. No one has a shovel, which brings me to my first amendment to Carl’s Laws of Winter Travel:
Carry a Shovel in your vehicle.
I keep my backcountry avalanche shovel in my truck. It’s about a square foot and the handle (only another foot long at best) retracts. This is the shovel which I handed to Mr. Honda and instructed him to give to Mr. Stuckinthesnow. I have also dug cars out that were blocking traffic back east on Roosevelt Boulevard and a minivan full of maids on an I-70 entrance ramp on my first day in Vail Valley. A shovel, and one that is particularly sturdy with which you can break ice, can be a practical item to keep in your car during the winter months. Remember you are probably not shoveling snow so much with this shovel as you are clearing hard packed banks and chipping away road ice in case of an emergency.
So Mr. Stuckinthesnow digs his way out and scoots down the hill and in the mean time the Forester backed its way up the hill and retreated back to I-70 to sit in park. The truck in front doesn’t want to move. The hairpin turn he stopped in the midst of is tight and the next turn is the steepest of them all. By the looks maybe 40 feet over 200 feet. I have only one way out and that’s down. FWD cars don’t climb as well as they descend. The truck driver moves over as far as he can and Mr. Honda agrees to squeeze around and try his luck first. He’s successful and with my chains this drive is cake.
But what about the sedan behind me stuck in a snow bank? His tires are bald and I’m not even sure if the car is recent enough to have ABS. However, Mr. Brokeasscar has several valuable items. For one he has two 50 lbs bags of sand and stone mix. He also has a massive car blanket. Together with Mr. Civicwithnewtires, the sedans decide they will spread the sand and bumper-car-slide (see :56) down the hill. With the blanket quandrupled over the Civic’s bumper, Mr. Brokeasscar tail gates the civic down the hill, occasionally sliding and striking the bumper, causing both cars to momentarily slide before equalizing the direction of their momentum. They did this through the next three turns and disappeared down the road.
Extra pair of pants, socks, gloves, hat, jacket
Water (Keep a gallon of water in your car. Even if it freezes, you can always thaw it using your car.)
Salt, Sand, and/or Kitty Litter (for weight and use)
Fluids: Windshield, Anti-freeze, Oil
U.S. Road Atlas
Full tank of gas
First Aid Kit
Fuel? Stove Kit? (If you're stranded on the side of the road with a stove and a back country meal or two, you are probably going to be the most popular guy after a few hours).
Anything else that makes the back country more comfortable will more than likely make a stranded front country emergency more comfortable.
"You never know ... Just think about if you'd gotten stuck yesterday. And keep your gas tank full!"
|Vermont in the Summer|
|This is Carl. And that's me standing on the tailgate of his truck|