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Run for the hills

CASTLEGAR, B.C. - Like that very first time behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler, most truckers can vividly recall their first run through the mountains. It may conjure up feelings of fear and apprehensi...


CASTLEGAR, B.C. – Like that very first time behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler, most truckers can vividly recall their first run through the mountains. It may conjure up feelings of fear and apprehension or exhilaration and adrenaline, but either way it’s often an unforgettable experience. Nothing matches the feeling of successfully piloting a tractor-trailer through Canada’s Rocky Mountains – or so I’d been told.

When the opportunity arose to experience it myself, I couldn’t resist.

Mountain Transport Institute (MTI) is a Castlegar, B.C.-based truck driver training facility that specializes in teaching the key skills required for running the mountains. MTI owner, Andy Roberts, recently offered me the chance to spend a few days with his team to learn the basic skills necessary to safely run some of the most mountainous terrain in Canada. So when winter released its grip on Western Canada in early May, I enthusiastically headed to Castlegar to find out first-hand what it’s like to drive truck through the mystic Rockies.

MTI’s office is conveniently located halfway up a slope of about a seven per cent grade just outside the city center, so you don’t have to look far to find a challenging hill to run. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a stretch of flat land in the Castlegar region. It’s a scenic Kootenay town plunked right in the middle of some of the most challenging terrain in Canada. As most linehaul truckers know, Hwy. 3 is notorious for its geographical challenges. When I stepped into Roberts’ office at 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday for the first day of my training, he already had the coffee on.

He greeted me with a warm welcome: “Hello flatlander!”

Indeed, anyone who lives east of the Rocky Mountain foothills is a flatlander in Roberts’ books. Instructor Patrick Peters, who spent several years training drivers in Alberta before moving to Castlegar, said he’s been working there for three years now, yet he still has the odd flatlander joke tossed his way. But it’s all in good fun.

Running the mountains without the proper training, however, is no laughing matter. Too often, inexperienced truckers are forced to make that first run to Vancouver without proper training. And even the most seasoned truckers make the odd mistake while navigating the tight mountain passes.

That’s why Roberts invited me to spend three full days learning the ropes with his experienced team of instructors. To the safety-conscious trainer, education is paramount.

Day one

There were two main objectives for my first day in Castlegar. Firstly, to knock the rust off after several months without getting behind the wheel of a truck. Secondly, to become comfortable with the equipment and the terrain.

Both of those objectives were helped along with the use of MTI’s GE Capital I-Sim truck simulator. The simulator is a fascinating piece of equipment. It can be programmed to mirror hundreds of different engines and transmissions. It can also be programmed to simulate sharp inclines or declines, and it provides a constant flow of real-time data that lets you – and your instructor – evaluate your every move.

The one drawback of the simulator is that it doesn’t feature an engine brake – an essential tool for running the mountains. I also found it almost provided too much information to digest.

But it was extremely valuable as a confidence-builder, and it let me get back into the rhythm of double-clutching without stripping the gears of MTI’s well-kept fleet of trucks.

While on the simulator, Peters taught me MTI’s golden rules for running the mountains.

While ascending a major grade:

Upshifts should be done slowly, with a lengthy pause between gears;

While downshifting, reduce the RPM increase between gears by roughly 50 per cent of what you’d normally do, depending on the severity of the incline.

While descending a major grade:

Make the upshifts faster than usual, with very little pause between gears;

Allow for a greater increase in RPMs between gears.

This alteration of shifting techniques helps offset the change in ground speed the truck experiences while on even a subtle incline or decline. Peters also provided a refresher course on the importance of progressive shifting – steadily increasing the RPM at which you upshift as you work your way through the gears.

After successfully getting several simulated runaways under control, it was time to hit the road for real in MTI’s 1990 Freightliner. For this run, we found a relatively smooth section of road on the outskirts of town. Under Peters’ supervision, I did some city driving to further knock the rust off and increase my level of comfort behind the wheel before taking to the hills.

After lunch, it was time to make our first real run. For this trip, I was paired with Earning Your Wheels student, Lorne Haigh, again under the supervision of Peters. Haigh spent most of his life working in a local sawmill, but when it was closed as a result of the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S., he decided to pursue a career in trucking. We piled inside MTI’s ’99 Pete 359 equipped with an Eaton Fuller 13-speed transmission and set out to run some hills. Haigh took to the driver’s seat first and only then did Peters tell us where we were headed.

“Let’s go to Rossland Hill,” he said with a grin. As a Calgarian, the words meant nothing to me. But I could tell by Haigh’s reaction that we were in for a real test.

To put it in perspective, calling Rossland Hill a hill is like calling a Siberian tiger a pussycat.

It’s a 10-kilometre long stretch of asphalt with a grade as steep as 11 per cent in many places. Talk about cutting to the chase. Haigh was told to get our 18,000-lb Pete to the top of the hill where we’d check our brakes, swap positions and then I would be assigned the responsibility of getting us safely back down.

Sure we were only bobtailing for now, but it was still a significant challenge for a newbie.

“Confidence is a huge part of why we’re doing this,” Peters explained on the way up. “You never know if you can make it over that hill until you’ve done it. Trucks run up and down these hills every day, so it’s all doable as long as we do it right.”

Numerous well-used truck runaway lanes told the tale of those who had gotten it wrong in the past. In fact, just months before my visit, a trucker died on Rossland Hill. Witnesses reported hearing him miss a gear and he was never able to recover. To help build our confidence, Peters put it in perspective and provided some insight that would help us make the trip safely.

“We always run the hills like we don’t have brakes – that way when you need them, they’re there,” he advised. “Then, the worst thing that can happen is if we lose a gear, we come to a stop and do it over.”

If you do have to use your service brakes to bring your truck to a stop on a steep hill, it’s best to pull over afterwards and let them cool down for at least 30 minutes before getting rolling again. In order to maintain your brakes during a mountain run, it’s crucial to keep them cool and let the engine do the work.

“The engine gets you up the hill and the engine gets you down the hill,” explained Peters.

Haigh got us to the top of the hill with relative ease, working his way up and down through the gears en route in order to practice his uphill shifting. At times we followed a loaded chip van that was restricted to about 25 km-h because of the weight of its load. At the top, we swapped positions at the brake checkpoint after examining the Pete to ensure everything was still in working order. What goes up, must come down, and it was my turn to get behind the wheel. First, some more words of wisdom from Peters.

“One of the biggest mysteries for new drivers is what gear to select to go down a hill, and it’s something you only learn from experience,” he said. “It’s better to go down slower than necessary and you have to have a plan in place to set into motion before you ever take it out of gear. You’re not always going to pick the right gear going down a hill but you have to have a plan if it’s not the r
ight one.”

If you miss a gear going down a hill, he explained to reduce RPMs, scratch a higher gear and then increase the RPMs until the transmission catches the gear. While going uphill, you should follow the same procedure, this time scratching a lower gear. The key is not to panic.

As a general rule, Peters advised cresting a hill at about 1,500 RPM with the engine brake activated. It should be enough to allow for a downshift if required.

If you do have to use the service brakes, Peters said to employ a technique called “snubbing.”

Rather than dragging the brakes over a long stretch of downhill highway, snubbing involves several quick depressions of the brake pedal. It prevents overheating while allowing you to reduce your RPMs to a suitable level for a gear change. Snubbing should only be done as necessary, no more than once every five to 10 seconds and no more than two to three snubs of the pedal.

Otherwise, you risk heating up your brakes, causing them to expand and rendering them virtually useless.

On the other hand, if the grade is exceptionally steep, it’s best not to snub the brakes. Short, steep hills are not conducive to snubbing, so you’re better off dragging them if it’s absolutely necessary to apply the service brakes at all. Snubbing on a long downhill grade can cause you to lose too much air pressure, prompting an automatic application of the spring brakes. That’s one way to test the integrity of your seat belts, but it’s certainly not advisable.

With all this in mind, I began our trailer-less descent down the notorious Rossland Hill. Even without a load behind me, the engine brake and I bonded on that run down the hill, which seemed to take an eternity. I managed to commandeer the truck safely to the bottom of the mountain and then proceeded back to Castlegar through the scenic Kootenays. We returned to the MTI shop as the sun began to set behind the towering peaks that surrounded us. Day one was a success. But the warm-up was over. Tomorrow we’d hook up to a fully-loaded trailer and do it all again. I could hardly wait.

– Next month will feature day two of Truck News’ mountain driving experience.


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