Monday, January 11, 2010

More Park Ranger Winter Driving

There were always challenges to getting around in the mountains during the winter. On the Blue Ridge Parkway those areas that did not contain accesses for residents are not plowed and are closed with gates once the road becomes hazardous for vehicle traffic. Often times the road will be closed prior to a predicted storm so Park Rangers and other employees do not have to risk their necks to close the road to traffic. Our society has become so accustomed to roads being plowed that when they see an open road they assume it is safe to drive. Consequently, the gating of un-plowed stretches of the Parkway for public safety.

In 1993 one such closed and gated area stretched across Humpback Mountain in Virginia. The road through this section had been closed for several weeks due to snow and ice. There had been some thawing and then refreezing at night. We received a telephone report from a neighbor that from his house at the foot of the mountain he could see a vehicle over the side of the road along this section of the Parkway. We could not ignore this information since it was not uncommon for people to break open the gates or drive around them.

I found the southern gate to this section at Reeds Gap closed and locked with no indications that anyone had gone around the gate. The road surface was clear and dry at this point, so I opened the gate deciding to drive through to make sure someone had not come through from the other end or even weeks before the gates were closed and were stranded.

As the road surface increased in elevation the snow and ice built up under my wheels. It got so bad that I had my SUV in 4 wheel drive and eventually had to resort to the old Ranger trick of riding with my two right tires in the ditch line to maintain some control and traction. As I crossed the highest point of elevation the road was completely covered with solid ice several inches thick. Even with my right wheels in the ditch the going was slick.

I was doing fine until I reached the entrance to the Humpback Rocks Picnic Area which was on my right with its entrance gate closed and locked. Before me was a skating rink of ice going up to the gate and beyond. There was no way I could turn around. I was going to have to leave the ditch and cross the picnic area entrance road to get to the other side. I turned my vehicle slowly to the right inching toward the picnic area entrance gate attempting to get to the shortest distance across the ice to the ditch line on the other side. As soon as my right rear tire left the ditch for my dash across the ice, the vehicle lost all traction and immediately began sliding sideways to the left. All four wheels were spinning with no purchase. The ice was so solid they could not break through the ice to the road surface.

The vehicle continued to slide to the left and I felt it bump over a small traffic island (luckily the post for the stop sigh that normally stood in this island was gone)and entered the northbound lane of the Parkway. The road surface is canted at an angle for this curve in the road and my leftward sliding speed increased the wheels still spinning. I crossed the southbound lane and then felt the vehicle angle off the side of the mountain to my left. The SUV was now sitting at an almost 40 degree angle and still moving down an increasingly steep incline. I knew I would keep sliding picking up more speed until I was smashed against either rocks or a tree.

Suddenly I felt the vehicle jar as it came to an abrupt stop jerking me in my seat. The vehicle then slowly started to lean further to my left increasing the angle toward a impending flip down the mountain side as my right side wheels lifted into the air. The motion suddenly stopped and I felt I was hanging in mid air as on some higher plain a decision was in the making about my fate. Then slowly the vehicle creaked and slowly dropped to my right coming to rest on all four wheels.

It took a moment for me to let the air I was holding in my lungs release. Then I had to calm down my heart rate and remove the tunnel vision that a moment ago was focused on my demise. I was safe, uninjured, and the vehicle appeared to have survived. There was no way I was going to get the SUV back to the road. The nearest fellow Park Ranger was 70 miles away and only had a two wheel drive sedan to drive. Others offered to help, but did not know how to get near my location with our gates closed and side roads so complex you could not give directions by radio.

The temperatures were in the single digits with the windchill sending it below zero. I ended up putting on about every stitch of clothing I had in my vehicle and walking out 8 miles to Rockfish Gap. At one point the ice was so solid across the road with rock faces on both sides that I sat down and slid on my butt down the road.

As for the reported vehicle off the road. We never found one. It may have been reflections off the ice that the neighbor had seen. It took almost a week for the ice to bread up enough to get a wrecker in to pull my vehicle out. Believe it or not, it did not even have a scratch on it.

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