BLUE GRASS CHEMICAL ACTIVITY, Ky. - Winters can be brutal at Fort Richardson, Alaska. After being stationed there for two years, however, I thought I could handle just about anything winter could dish out. It took a close call to make me realize we can never become complacent when it comes to winter driving - no matter how familiar you may be with the area.

My platoon leader was fresh out of the Officer Basic Course and wanted to use her Toyota 4Runner to conduct a recon down a tank trail. She told me she had experience driving in the snow. I thought we could go out and be back within an hour. Against my better judgment, I decided to ride with her instead of signing out a HMMWV from the motor pool. It had snowed a few days earlier and the temperature dropped to minus 20 F.

Our recon started out fine, and I was impressed with the 4Runner's handling. However, as we got farther into the training area, I noticed the vehicle had difficulty handling the ruts as they got deeper and deeper. Then it happened - we got stuck.

When I stepped out of the vehicle, I could hardly stand because the snow was so deep. I was a little concerned because no one knew we were out there and we didn't give the unit a map of training areas. To make matters worse, we were quickly running out of daylight and didn't have any survival gear.

I was able to get the vehicle out of the deep ruts, but we were only free for about five minutes before we got stuck again. At this point, our feet and hands were starting to get cold and we couldn't get a cellphone signal to call for recovery. The platoon leader hadn't become acclimated to the Alaskan cold, so I left her at the vehicle to stay warm while I walked up the road to try to find a signal. Eventually, I was able to contact someone, and they came out to recover us. Not surprisingly, my peers, being the gentlemen they are, ridiculed and mocked me with jokes for months.

This incident left me with an important lesson learned: Don't ignore the signs. We ignored all the indicators that taking the 4Runner over the HMMWV was not a good idea. We knew we'd face multiple hazards such as extreme temperatures, snow and ice. Combine the extreme weather hazards with an inexperienced Alaskan driver, inappropriate equipment, a disregard for the time of day and lack of survival gear and you have a recipe for failure.

Don't ignore the signs. Believing your experience can trump hazardous weather conditions could leave you stuck out in the cold.