Conquering the Rockies

by Tim Barton

CASTLEGAR, B.C. – Some freight companies, like the fast disappearing swingin’ meat operations or the liquid bulk carriers, require a driving style that is honed to a keener edge and is characterized by a deep respect for the pre-trip, silky smooth shifting, and overall fluid management of the drivetrain and braking systems, among many skills.

It never hurts to understand that your load can move you, instead of you moving it, so that it becomes very important to feel the road under you and see well ahead of yourself, restrict brake use, and maintain proper gear selection as a means of doing so.

The guys who haul swingin’ meat or liquids of various viscosities and weights need to be at the top of their game all the time, the way you do when you get caught on ice and snow and a big wind isn’t helping.

On a recent trip to B.C., I discovered another load that needs the undivided attention of the driver. You wouldn’t think wood chips would be a problem, and they wouldn’t be, except for the fact that there are 160,000 lbs of them on a seven-axle double trailer combination that is 82 feet long.

Certainly doable – if you know the ropes. These guys in the Canadian Rockies do it all the time, pulling their Super-Bs along two lanes with 14% grades.

The roads are snow-packed or covered in loose and granular snow with patches of ice, in effect, some of the worst conditions you can imagine anywhere.

The weekend I spent visiting Mountain Transport Institute in Castlegar, B.C., the road was snow-covered from Kelowna all the way along the 400 kms southeast into Castlegar.

So the chips don’t move, but the truck itself can do some strange things without warning. It is the kind of driving that requires concentration and constant self reminders that conditions change in a heartbeat.

Everything from the temperature of the snow to distant road signs make a considerable difference out here.

Rob Tosh, one of the excellent instructors at Mountain Transport Institute, says, “When I see signs in the distance I am adjusting my driving appropriately before I can actually read them. I know by shape and colour what they say. I don’t wait to read.”

And Mike Boultbee, who drove log trucks in the bush for five years and can throw on a set of chains in no time and finish cleaner than you end up after your bath, says he watches his outside temperature gauge to understand the temp of the road surface and the snow.

“Temperatures below -5 degrees Celsius are better for traction,” Mike says. “Between -5 and five above, you can get ice. If you see frost on your drives you know the tires are tacky and have some grip. That’s one good reason to run with fender mirrors.”

In the Andes, on the other hand, you get a whole different set of circumstances.

The road to Mendoza, Argentina, passes beneath South America’s highest peak, Aconcagua, well over 23,000 feet high. On the road to Mendoza, a series of two dozen switchbacks makes passage practical.

No other kind of road could ever allow trucks to pull these mountains, winter or summer. Drivers there are trained to conserve fuel and conserve braking. Despite the switchbacks the road is steep and there are no runaway ramps.

If you lose it here, you’re lost. Standing beside this road in October of 2004, I did not hear engine brakes, so these guys are managing their drivetrains scrupulously.

Either that, or they didn’t have them.

At any rate, there were no smoking brakes to be smelled in the 12 hours I spent on the mountain. Compare that to running I-79 through West Virginia or Fancy Gap into North Carolina on I-77. You can smell the brakes most any time, one sign arrogant and ignorant drivers are running fast because they’re real smart and think they know the road. Arrogance can be your personal path to an early grave on any mountain road.

The guys who know this drive in the Andes or the Canadian Rockies and could give lessons to America’s big, bad, truck drivers with know-it-all attitudes.

There are similarities and differences between mountains like the Andes and the Canadian Rockies in how a driver ought to manage ascents and descents.

But the mountains must be managed. In Chile, a dozen or more drivers die on the Snail Trail, as they call the hairpin road to Mendoza every year, not from wrecks but from getting caught in a blizzard for days or weeks, running out of fuel, food, time.

When you think about the mountains, think about worst case scenarios. Think about energy and how to conserve it.

Your job is drivetrain management and that means energy management. Brakes, gears, even steering wheel movement all require energy, and the way you conserve and use that energy is what makes you a pro, or not.

One rule is constant: maintain traction and drive so you keep brake use to an absolute minimum on snow and ice, or dry pavement. Remember it’s the length of a grade that will scare you, often more than the steepness of the grade.

“In winter or summer, you have to make your truck flow,” Boultbee notes. “Whether you’re going up or down, your shifts have to be spot on and smooth. Your RPMs have to be where they should be to give you traction and the flexibility to shift when necessary.”

Safety experts say truck drivers make about 100 decisions a mile. Most of these decisions are unconscious.

In the mountains you need to make many decisions consciously, especially in emergencies.

Caught in a bad spot and losing control, you must decide to act and you must do it quickly.

You must have a Plan B ready to use.

But before all that, you must decide to catch equipment failures with a thorough pre-trip.

You must decide to avoid bad weather.

You must decide to gauge your downhill based on your knowledge of your equipment and its capabilities.

You must be prepared for at least a couple of days stuck on a lonely mountainside when weather gets so bad your only choice is to sit.

You may never run the Snail Trail over the Andes, or the road between Kelowna and Castlegar, but if you drive you can learn how to do your job better by knowing how to do it in the mountains.

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