By Risk Management MagazineJanuary 9, 2019
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (January 9, 2018) - Between growing up in the Northeast and serving in the military for nearly 20 years, I have quite a bit of experience driving in different weather conditions. I thought I knew everything about operating a vehicle during winter. Nothing, however, could prepare me for high-altitude mountain driving.
Every year from August to March, my time off from work consists of waking up early, driving to some cold arena and watching my son play hockey. Hockey has been his passion since he was 6 years old, and I can't seem to get him to play any other sport. When we moved to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, he was selected to join the Bantam AA travel team. "Great, another travel team," I thought. Of course, as a parent, you want to support your child's passion for something no matter the time investment and cost. Plus, by this point I was used to the road trips, hotels and tournaments. What I was not prepared for was the endless traffic and mountain passes I'd have to traverse for those tournaments thanks to now being stationed at JBLM.
The Pacific Northwest is well known for its majestic mountain ranges lined with dormant volcanoes for hundreds of miles. The capstone of those ranges is mighty Mount Rainier, which reaches more than 14,000 feet toward the heavens. This area of the country is also known for its adverse weather conditions that can change quickly during the winter months. You may leave the house on the west side of the mountains with rain and low cloud cover. Just an hour later, you may run in to blizzard conditions and inexperienced drivers.
I'd heard stories about how the mountain passes get real sketchy during the winter months. When Soldiers first arrive at JBLM, they are briefed about winter driving and how traveling the passes can be dangerous during that time of year. Until you experience it firsthand, however, you can't fully comprehend it.
On this particular weekend, we left early in the morning for a hockey tournament in Spokane, which was about a five-hour drive from JBLM. During the second hour of our trip, we began the slow climb toward the summit pass about 4,000 feet above sea level. I was surprised by the number of blinking signs that dotted this stretch of road, alerting motorists to put on their vehicle's snow chains. The chains are mandatory for all non-four-wheel-drive or non-all-wheel-drive vehicles, including large tractor trailers. There's even a designated area along the road for motorists to pull off to put on their chains. Very few heeded the warning, though.
I was driving my four-wheel-drive truck, which was a great call. Being from the Northeast, I figured all I'd need to do was slow down and pay attention to the road. However, the road wasn't the big problem; it was the inexperienced drivers! There were vehicles traveling from 20-50 mph, hazard lights flashing, sliding all over the road. Occasionally I'd see a motorist on the side of the road, wearing a lightweight jacket and no gloves, trying to put on tire chains. Because they'd failed to stop at one of the many "chain-up" lanes back down the mountain, they now risked being hit by an out-of-control driver.
We safely crested the mountain range and began our journey down the other side on the slippery road. In the opposite direction, vehicles were lined up for miles due to an accident on top of the mountain that closed the pass. Those people were stranded because they had no way to turn around. I knew we'd have to come back this way in two days, so I vowed to be prepared.
Before we left Spokane, I looked at numerous Department of Transportation websites to see if there were any delays on our route back home. There were none, so we packed up and hit the road. Along the way, I had my wife check whether the pass was open, which is was. Everything was looking good and there was only one other thing I needed to do: top off our gas tank.
Before we go through any major city, we always stop and fill our gas tank. It's my cardinal rule for the road. Large cities are unpredictable and you never know what can happen. I've been stuck in traffic jams for hours, idling in the hot sun. After we got gas and our lickies and chewies, we made our way toward the mountain pass.
As expected (because were constantly monitoring conditions), the weather worsened as we climbed the mountain. Once again, traffic came to a complete stop and there was nowhere to turn around. My wife rechecked the DOT website, which stated there was an accident on the mountain and the pass would be closed for at least a few hours. I know all too well a few hours can turn into six, but at least we were prepared. We all were wearing warm clothes and I had packed extra blankets, food and water just in case we were stranded overnight.
Since I had no idea how long we'd be stuck, every hour I turned off the vehicle for 30 minutes to conserve gas. After nearly four hours, we got a sign of hope as cars started slowly rolling forward on the snow-covered road. The mountain pass that normally took one hour to cross would now take two as we inched along bumper to bumper
Fortunately, we made it home safely that evening. The first thing out of my children's mouths was, "Dad, you aren't kidding when you constantly remind us to come prepared and get gas before going into a danger area." It's an important lesson I learned early on and one that I'm happy to pass on to my children. Always be prepared.
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