It finally happened: I awoke in my truck out in the mountains, to discover that I had become very stranded in a massive snowstorm while sleeping... something I have both feared and oddly fantasized about (hey, off-roading and vehicle recovery can be fun), yet I didn't think it was actually possible on this scale. The winter weather had been relatively mild in Central Oregon... until late February, when a storm delivered a record-smashing three FEET of snowfall in just ONE morning.
At some time in the past, I can be quoted as saying I'd like to wake up buried in snow because it's fun... or, that I'd like to see another "snowpocalypse" in Bend like the winter of 2016-17... so, perhaps I'm the one who wished this upon us (sorry, not sorry). As a lover of central Oregon and its legitimate four seasons, I'm a full believer of embracing everything about winter just as much as any other season. When the snow comes, I am giddy like a child. However, I admit that I've never been more stuck, stranded and even a little afraid, than the morning of February 25th when I awoke to a three-feet-deep sea of snow that was above my vehicle's bumpers.
Although that record breaking, overnight Snowpocalypse event caught me off guard, I had already been well seasoned and prepared, after quite a few niveous travels around the west in the months prior!
For example, my autumn backpacking season last year was ushered out with torrential rain and sleet on my tent and some very wet clothes, eleven miles from the car, in the mountains of central Washington. Later, winter was ushered in with a 700 mile road trip to Idaho over snowy roads, just to visit a hot spring for merely half a day (having a hot spring to yourself in the snow all morning is worth the long drive). A few weeks later, I took a nine day trip to Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. Not only did it snow a lot throughout the Canada trip, but one very freezing night, I badly burned both hands during a campfire incident, and had to perform first aid on myself as best as I knew how, without any cell reception in the mountains (hint: the best thing you can do is to keep burned areas chilled [and clean] immediately, and for at least a few hours after).
More recently, I spent a weekend in the Columbia River Gorge and unexpectedly wound up in a snow storm that dropped a foot of snow on Hood River in one afternoon. So, it goes without saying that I was experienced, prepared, and acclimated to winter by the time I woke up stranded on that morning of February 25th; I had that to my advantage. In fact, the day before, my truck was stuck twice outside of Sisters for the first times this winter, and I was finally required to get out my handy dandy, retractable snow shovel to dig the wheels out. What a great practice run for what I would experience the next morning...!
As the snow piled up in the early hours (unbeknownst to me), I slept better than ever through the big storm. The snow has a way of falling so quietly, it insulates you from sound waves and heat loss once it coats the outside of the vehicle, just like an igloo. Around 9 a.m. (which I personally consider to be sleeping in), I started feeling like I better start being more responsible for myself and paying attention to how much snow is accumulating outside. However, the door was surprisingly hard to push open, and I had a true "oh, shit" moment as it opened and raked across the top of the snow. When I got out and tried to walk around, the snow was up to my hips.
[Image: my truck, buried overnight by a few feet of snow on the morning of February 25, 2019]
As the fight-or-flight response set in, I took stock of my situation and briefly struggled to wrap my head around the fact that I can't just flee to safety, as much as I'd like to; I was physically stuck there. However, there were a few things that gave me a fighting chance at getting free: the snow was incredibly light and fluffy--meaning, even if it was likely still too deep to drive through, it was extremely easy to shovel it around--and, I always carry a pair of tire chains which had gotten me out of another deep snow incident once before.
Using the snow shovel (which I always, always keep in my vehicle in winter around here), I cleared the snow away from the tires and applied the tire chains. Through all of this, the possibility of being truly stuck there--several miles outside of town, by myself in the snow--was very real. I had yet to exhaust all of the possibilities of how to get out of this situation, however, so I refused to panic or "lose face." Panicking only drains your emotional strength and leads to irrational decision making; that much I knew.
What gave me the most peace of mind while stuck out there in the snow, was that I had a big tub full of food like soup, pasta, instant beans and much more. Running out of clean water wasn't a fear either, because I always carry six or seven gallons of drinking water, plus I had a propane stove to melt snow. In the event that I might get too wet and cold while digging snow, I had extra changes of clothes and wool blankets. There is nothing quite as conflicting as being really scared that you're stranded and alone, yet feeling really relieved because you're actually well prepared for it.
After applying the tire chains, and removing the monumental mounds of snow from atop my truck's hood, windshield and roof, I backed it up a few feet, engaged the 4LO gear, and hit the gas. The truck plowed forward for maybe two hundred feet before becoming high-centered on all the snow that had packed underneath the car along the way. "Nothing I can't dig out, and then try again," I told myself.
It was a lot of physical work though. I suspected there would be a few more rounds of this--digging the snow out from under my car and repeating the leap forward--before I would ever resign to being truly stuck, but my body was going to require some serious fuel if I were to continue digging. Just as I was thinking it was finally time to make coffee and breakfast (all of this hassle, and I hadn't even had my morning coffee yet!), something caught my eye in the distance. It was poor visibility with white-out conditions, but something big on wheels was moving down the street that intersected a few hundred yards ahead... a plow! No, a huge tractor. I thought I was hallucinating for a moment.
The tractor was a bit too far away for me to run over through the hip-deep snow, and I didn't think I could flag the driver down from where I was. Hell, I had no idea if the driver could do anything to help, even if s/he could see me, so I kept digging at first... however, by some fluke I had turned my headlights on earlier, and the driver did indeed notice me. Suddenly he was backing up and turning toward me, cutting through the several feet of snow with incredible ease. I went leaping and bounding to meet him half way, and explained that I had made it a good ways with four wheel drive and chains, but that I was pretty stuck again. The driver, Shane, was nonchalant and didn't ask or say very much. "Just gotta get that snow away from the front of your car," he said before going to work.
[Image: the man named Shane in the tractor who helped me get free from three feet of snow]
In only a matter of minutes, he plowed the snow away from the front of my car, then cleared a path back to the main roads. With a little bit more shoveling on my part around the back tires, I was free. It was miraculous and a bit lucky that I was rescued so quickly. I believe my determination would have dug me out eventually if Shane hadn't showed up with his tractor--but, if I hadn't been well prepared for a snowy emergency and/or hadn't kept a level head in such a trying time, that situation could have gone much, MUCH worse and I may not have been found as quickly.
Here's a video compilation of some footage that morning. As you can see, it was an emotional experience!
Just saying, though: If I had to go back and do it again, I would... and, I still don't regret wishing for a lot of snow. ;P
On that note, I'll end this entry with a list of my top winter essentials to staying prepared...
TOP 9 "TRUCK LIFE" ESSENTIALS TO STAYING PREPARED
1. Outfit your car with good tires, preferably snow tires rated M+S if you'll be in inclement weather (and it's definitely ideal to have four wheel drive in the snow and ice). My tires of choice are the BF Goodrich KO2 tires, for rugged off-roading year round, but also for the snow in winter.
2. Bring water (a few gallons) and some non-perishable foods (if you opt for canned goods, remember to consider a can opener, too; I keep several old fashioned P-38 can openers handy), in case you end up stuck for a while.
I also keep a small propane stove and a Bic lighter in my setup--especially useful for boiling water to drink (or to pour into a Nalgene bottle to keep yourself warm), not just for heating your food.
3. Carry tire chains in your trunk. Preferably a set of four, if you'll be on un-plowed roads and/or potentially getting yourself into a lot of snow. I have gotten myself out of a stuck spot with only one pair of chains, and then there have been times where I desperately wished I had a full set of four.
4. Extra blankets; wool is best because it insulates so well, even when damp or wet. I rave about my Pendleton wool throw because it's so warm.
5. Be prepared with a retractable, lightweight snow shovel in case you need to dig.
6. Wear proper clothes and have extra layers, waterproof snow gloves, a dry change of socks, etc. Wool (emphasis on the wool) and synthetic, non-cotton fabrics are the best choices in cold or wet weather, because they wick moisture away from the skin unlike cotton. Wool also insulates even when wet.
7. Hand warmer packets... 'nuff said
8. A flash light, or better yet, a headlamp (and spare batteries for it) so you can keep your hands free while you're digging, cooking, etc. in the dark
9. Make sure you have a good car battery. If it's weak or old, your car may not start when temperatures dip below freezing.
Be safe out there, and let me know if you think of any winter essentials that weren't mentioned here--or, if you simply wish to rant, rave, or tell stories about this winter! Happy adventures!