Three hours in, and we’d moved maybe a hundred metres. The freezing slush pelted down on the hood of our car, the endless semi-trailer trucks belched out fumes, and five thousand cars remained frozen on the Coquihalla highway. It was Friday of the Family Day long weekend. My family and I were on our way to Big White, a ski resort forty-five minutes outside of Kelowna. We’d taken a risk getting on the Coquihalla, hoping to avoid the extra three hours that Highway Three would require. We regretted our decision. The harsh, bitter, stony mountains glared down from the sides of the pass, ready to trap us in an avalanche if they desired.
It was mildly unpleasant.
This was the second day in a row that weather had forced traffic through the pass to a standstill. The massive winter storm that hit Vancouver had also swept through the interior mountains, blanketing the ever-treacherous highway with a deadly layer-cake of black ice, snow, slush and freezing rain. It took until two o’clock the following day, just as we were pulling into Chilliwack on the first leg of our drive, before the highway reopened after its first closure.
The Coquihalla is no stranger to atrocious conditions. The busiest mountain pass in the province, it can see up to thirty thousand passengers a day during its busiest weeks in August. Almost one-quarter of these are shipping trucks. The massive truck traffic and high-altitude, unstable weather has led to its status as the third-most dangerous highway in the province. It suffers an average of thirty-two fatal crashes every year. This is no fault of its construction; like many BC interior highways, it’s the brutal alpine conditions that are deadly.
My family experienced these conditions firsthand just over three years ago. We were driving back along the Coquihalla’s southern cousin, Highway Three, after a day of skiing in Manning Park. It had rained earlier that day, and we were driving at dusk in an economy car with all-season tires. We were tired and not paying attention to the road. Coming round a corner, our tires slipped on black ice. We whirled helter-skelter across the road in a wide arc. Our attempts to regain control were useless. Shouting and swearing, we spun fully around twice, before smashing sideways into a snowbank. We rolled, once, twice, skis and poles flung against the window from the back seat, halting — crash — upside down.
Crawling through a broken window, we were amazingly unharmed. If this was a movie, I’d have felt ‘thankful for the wonder of life’ or some such cliché. In the moment, huddled in the snow, I felt shocked, shiver and scared.
We escaped our accident with nothing more than a few cuts and some minor head injuries. Our car was totalled. Somehow, our ski gear survived intact. Had we crashed one hundred metres further along the road in either direction the story would have been vastly different. A crash almost anywhere else along the road would have sent us spinning engine-first into the frozen Similkameen River. Never again would we underestimate the dangers of winter roads. We would also never go another winter without snow tires.
Even before getting stuck on the Coquihalla that Friday of the Family Day long weekend, our drive encountered obstacles. About to leave home, we discovered our emergency brake was stuck, unable to release. We got the car down to a nearby auto-mechanic who freed the brake. However, its spring was broken, meaning it would stick again if the driver activated it. We left on our trip at one forty-five, forty-five minutes behind schedule.
Cautiously, we turned the corner onto Highway Five at three o’clock. Conditions were cold, frozen and mountainous, but the road itself seemed fine. The highway had only reopened to oncoming traffic an hour earlier, but showed no signs of its earlier clot. Except for an absurd number of shipping trucks, the highway seemed clear.
This situation had drastically reversed by three-thirty. A sprawling avalanche of trucks sprinkled with the flashing lights of long-weekend travellers stretched into the clouds before us. More slotted into place behind as we squatted, idling. We grumbled, groaned and groused, stretched and sighed, wondering how long the holdup would take to clear. After an hour, an ambulance drove up the middle of the two lanes, the first sign that this was more serious than we’d anticipated. Finally, at six-thirty, three hours after stopping, traffic began to inch up the mountain once more. The freezing rain had turned to snow, the light was nearly gone, and thousands of vehicles grumbled their drivers’ irritation. However, we were moving. Salvation was at hand.
Half an hour later, we stopped. At seven forty-five, a macho, possibly intoxicated road-worker screamed through his snow-filled beard to “Pull over! You’re not going anywhere! For hours! You’re stuck! Take a goddamn nap!” Thankfully, we’d packed blankets, water and food in light of the previous night’s closure. Nonetheless, the next few hours would severely test our patience.
The hardest part was the lack of washrooms. There was only so long any of us could hold it in, but we did so with good reason. When my bladder finally forced me out of the car, I had no option but to clamber between trucks and over the lane divider, before parkouring over massive puddles and up the roadside snow bank. My boots were soaked by the time I made it over the ridge. The journey back proved even worse when I accidentally landed in a puddle. I was left shivering, with soaked shoes, socks and pants. It was an uncomfortable expedition that I can’t soon forget.
I finished the remaining half of an eight-hundred-page book I’d brought. I spent forty-five minutes scrawling out poetry. I searched through our SUV for fifteen minutes, attempting to scrounge something more than bananas, hard-boiled eggs and granola bars for dinner. I attempted to make crackers and cheese using a David’s Tea card as a knife. I half-dozed, listening to music. I watched an episode of Lemony Snicket on my computer. The minutes ticked into hours, the snow blanketed our hood, and the light vanished. I braved the outside once again for the ‘washroom.’ We waited, not knowing whether we’d be spending the night on this god-forsaken road.
Then, at ten o’clock: movement! The geniuses running this mess had finally communicated the surprisingly useful idea to let those willing to turn around drive up the middle of the lanes to a turn around. We nipped into the train of cars, creeping along the snow, mirrors inches from our fellow travellers. At last, hope!
By ten-fifteen we were again stuck. Whatever spark of genius had let us move had been snuffed out. Despite this, we’d gained a taste of liberation. At last, cell reception! Not wasting a moment, we sent an indiscriminate mass of texts to find out if Highway Three was open, and if we could take it to get to Big White. Luck was with us. It was open! All that remained was to get out of this snarl of traffic.
At ten-forty, we started to inch forward, working our way up the line in fits and spurts. At last, seven and a half hellish hours after we’d first stopped, we made it to the turnaround. Driving down the southbound side, we saw how inexhaustibly far the exhaust-filled line of cars and trucks stretched. It took us thirty minutes of driving to reach its other end. Finally, at eleven-forty-five, we turned off the Coquihalla and onto Highway Three. At long last, we were free of the highway from hell.
I slept through most of the remaining five hours of driving. Snow dusted the roads with white, but they remained passable. Other cars were almost nonexistent, having stopped for the night, or still hunkered down on the Coquihalla. After fifteen hours on the road, we arrived at the ski resort, half-asleep and drunk with tiredness. We carried up the bare minimum of supplies from our car and collapsed into bed.
Ultimately, the only consequence of our extended road trip was exhaustion the next day. Those involved in the highway-closing crash earlier in the day were not so lucky. A semi-truck lost its breaks around the top of Box Canyon, careening down the hill. Swerving across lanes, smoke pluming from its wheels, it slammed sideways into thirteen cars. These spun off the round, striking more vehicles on their way out. Seven people were sent to hospital.
This happened about forty-five minutes before we got on the highway. Had our parking brake not failed, we might have been one of those thirteen cars. Tiny chance encounters determine so much of our lives: a broken parking brake, a few hundred metres on a highway. We can never predict how dramatically different our lives might have been but for the location of a stray thumbtack or water drop. Instead, we must aim for the ski hill, judge the roads with what information we have, and hope fate is on our side today.