Saturday, December 24, 2005
Living between two mountain ranges delivers one undeniable fact of life: If you want to go anywhere outside the valley, you have to drive over at least one range. Mountain driving has its own special set of challenges under normal circumstances. Doing it during the winter just seems to add to the excitement.
Preparing a vehicle for winter mountain driving shouldn’t be taken lightly. Almost all Canadians and most Americans living in the northern US are very familiar with winter driving. Mountain driving isn’t all that much more difficult except for the landslides, avalanches, lack of road shoulder, sheer drops and, of course, whatever nature placed on the road to make things more fun.
You may notice other drivers tend to have a “death-grip” on their steering wheels. They’ve done this before.
Drivers from the Canadian southwest coast have a tendency to forget the necessities of winter mountain driving. The first thing that slips the mind is the things that meet the road; the tires. All Season tires are great, if you don’t plan on driving on snowy, icy roads. For that you need grippers, and in this environment, ice grippers are a really good plan, particularly when the overhead road condition marquee says, Highway open. Compact snow, ice, slippery and slushy. Conditions good. (Good, is relative. It’s better than a white-out.) Watching a brand new Jaguar come out of the snow tunnels with its All Season tires spinning as it tries to climb an icy 8% grade is….well, entertaining at least.
It is just good policy to make sure your vehicle is well maintained. It’s a matter of survival to make sure the maintenance is done before driving the mountains during winter. Little things like oil, coolant, belts, hoses and fuel turn into big problems when the temperature dips below zero, the air gets thin and snow is building on the road. And there is one other thing which drivers have a tendency to forget: Windshield washer fluid – lots of it. It also helps to have a shovel, a candle, a few blankets, some sort of food, water, flashlight, flares, a book to read, deck of cards, jumper cables and chains. If there’s any room left, a passenger is always handy. You may also want to take some hot coffee, tea or soup.
Now, as for driving… If the speed limit is 100 kmh (60 mph), it means that on a good day, when the road is in excellent condition, the highest speed you are allowed to go 100. Note the word Maximum on the sign. That is not a suggestion. If the road has snow, ice, slush or other winter water product on the surface, go slower; much slower. Trying to do the maximum on an icy piece of highway in the Fraser Canyon, when the right shoulder of the road is non-existent, the drop is 1000 feet straight down and the landing spot is a westbound freight train is (how do I put this gently?), unbelievably insane.
The Department of Transportation has a unique way of adding traction to slippery, icy roads. Add sand, you say? No no no. Gravel, rocks and small boulders! It actually works quite well, until you pass an 18-wheeler. This is the time to use some of your washer fluid. Highway tractor trailers passing in either direction will deposit several pounds of slush, ice, rocks and mud right in your field of view. It’s a good idea to remove all that quickly so you can see through the new cracks in your windshield.
If you encounter a sign that says Carry chains beyond this point, think for a minute. Note the sign does not say everyone except you. You need to have them. You should also have an idea how to put them on. Helpful hint – they go on the drive wheels.
If you see a sign that says Avalanche area. No stopping. Ignore the photo opportunity to your right. Take note of the snow pack up and to your left. Keep going. Do not stop. If there is a big horn sheep on the road, go around it and keep moving. If there a pair of wolf pups are playing on the side of the road, ignore them and keep moving. If this picture is not clear, no one can help you. Stopping in an avalanche zone is suicide.
As you reach the peak and start the journey downward into the coastal zone, you will probably breathe a sigh of relief. Only one problem – it’s too early. Ahead of you is something familiar. Ah, yes! You saw one of these at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics; a bobsled run!
Downhill off the mountains to the coast is perhaps the most fun you will ever have. An 8% grade that seemingly goes forever, hairpin turns, snow built up along the side barriers and a solid sheet of icy compact snow – all the way to the bottom. Where there are normally two or three lanes in your direction there is now a single track and you need to stay in it. Resist the urge to speed up. If you meet up with a group of people crouched over, zipping down the hill ahead you, don’t worry. It’s just the Austrian downhill ski team practicing for the World Cup. Just slow right down and never, ever slam on your brakes. (Unless you get a kick out of going down the mountain backwards.)
If you reach the coast, you are pretty much home free. You may encounter other who have made the same trip. It’s a good idea to share your experience. This will help you recover and make the return trip possible. And if you have to take a ferry, well that’s a different part of your winter adventure.