When in extreme weather, we very much experience our cab/sleeper as if it where a space capsul. Without this mechanical bubble, sheltering us from the Arctic conditions, our life could literally only last minutes.
The national headlines from the Great Falls, Montana’s, Thanksgiving winter storm read, “There was one storm related death”. We delivered a load of explosives to Great Falls during the storm and the low was -15 degrees with a wind chill of -25 due to constant 30 mph winds. The local news described the fatal incident.
It was early evening and the height of the winter’s first cold Arctic blast. A woman was driving her car on a rural road when the car slides off the road into a shallow ditch. When she got out of the car to check her situation, the car door locked behind her. She never got back in. At -15, anything that could have been used to break a window was frozen fast to the ground. What she was wearing at the time, determined how long before hypothermia set in. Her frozen body was found along side of the road a distance from the car indicating that she was trying to walk her way out. Having been in that weather myself, I figured even with normal winter jacket she had about an hour. Personally I couldn’t take more than 20 minutes being outside with normal winter gear.
The week before Thanksgiving, we were in Salt Lake waiting for a load. It was Friday and we finally got a bite on a DOD load offer to run munitions from Salt Lake to Malmstrom AFB in Great Falls MT. The load didn’t pick up until Monday so that gave us a weekend layover. We had been paying attention to the weather up north. The first frigid winter storm of the Rookies was heading our way. After studying the forecast, we saw that the storm was more of a very cold wind storm with lots of blowing snow but no real snow accumulation. Considering the weather and topography (three mountain pass to traverse) we felt we could deal with this storm as long as the snow accumulation stayed low. The pay was good, and we had confidence in ourselves and the truck with what was being forecasted.
We’ve made this run between Salt Lake and Great Falls several times. In the summer, it is a great 600 mile drive long I-15 running north/south. Going north one drives thru Utah’s Wasatch Range. After crossing the Idaho flat country, The mountains begin again at the Montana border with names like the Beaverhead, Bitterroot, and Sawtooth ranges rising west of Yellowstone. Continuing north, I-15 runs past Butte and Helena and over the Gates of the Mountains pass down into Great Falls. Most of the passes are above 6,000 ft. Most of the route through Montana follows the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail.
We wanted to make as much time during the day as possible but still got a late start. The plan was to keep driving nonstop until we got to Malmstrom AFB. As we crossed the Montana border (half way), we really started to hit the cold, wind, and blowing snow and it was starting to get dark. Not much traffic on the road, which was great and after a bit we seemed to be the only ones out there. We made it over two passes without chaining up as we headed down into Butte. One more pass after Helena and we should be okay. We get the NOAH Emergency Weather Service on our truck FM radio, and use 511 to get the state road info over the phone.
The road from Helena north was open but the temperature was really dropping with double digit minus readings and strong winds. As long as we didn’t need to chain up we’d be okay. We had last been home in September and didn’t bring our heavy winter gear with us since we thought we’d be home before the extreme winter weather. We always need to carry two sets of clothes because the wide ranges of weather we drive, but the down parkas/boots/gloves didn’t get on board. With the Arctic weather conditions outside, any thought of chaining up was not an option. We would just have to park the truck until we could proceed w/o chains or the weather improved. We kept moving though and took 2 hour shifts driving so as not to over fatigue or stress the driver. We finally made to Maelstrom about 0300 hrs. We had a contact number, and called the base Duty Officer who arranged for MP’s to meet us at a remote gate to the munitions depot. Our military escort showed up, and after the necessary searches, ID checks and paperwork, the MPs decided we weren’t the enemy. All of this was going on outside in blizzard conditions. It looked like a scene from some Russian gulag camp in Siberia; blizzard, soldiers in Arctic gear, weapons, barbwire, and me freezing my assets off.
As the MPs became more at ease with us, the comment was made that our arrival was a real surprise, and they didn’t expect to see us for another day or two. I asked way, and they said that I-15 south between the Montana border and Butte was closed due to the weather and they figured we got shut down. It seems, as we were moving north, the state cops were shutting the interstate down behind us. With sincerity and some respect one of the MP’s said “Gosh, you guys are real Ice Road Truckers.” I thought about it for a moment and said “Yes, I guess you could say that”. For the record, that was the highest compliment we’ve been paid since this starting venture.
On the local radio the next morning was a news item:” … one storm related death….”
Check your mirrors and keep’r between the line
gary and barb
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