Another winter storm swept through Whistler this week and for a few hours, as always, the road conditions were less than ideal. With spring itching to push the winter of 2013 into the past Pique reporter John French went for a ride-along March 12 with Mainroad Contracting to see firsthand the challenges faced by snow plow drivers on Highway 99. He discovered it isn't a job just anyone can do — patience and concentration are key.
The worst of the storm is over and after five hours of plowing between Function Junction and the new Wedgemont subdivision James Goochey has pulled his Mainroad Contracting snowplow off the highway to take on a passenger.
He reaches out with a friendly smile to shake hands as I move to sit down in the only other seat in his office.
Getting into the cab of the newest truck in the Mainroad fleet, a solid looking orange Kenworth, is a bit more work than hopping into my pickup truck. The 15-tonne (33,000 lbs) monster is the equivalent weight of two hefty adult elephants and measures about 13 metres (45 feet) in length. At a height of three-and-a-half metres (12 feet) this truck won't squeeze into the underground parking lot at Creekside.
With a laptop computer, two cameras and a portable recorder in tow, I feel like my tentative entry into the snow-pushing hulk is holding Goochey back already, and he hasn't even put the rig in gear yet.
The instrument panel in front of Goochey is intimidating, with the newest technology wrapping the driver in a cocoon of controls. He looks completely at ease as we head north on Highway 99 toward Pemberton.
Sitting comfortably behind the wheel of the truck, which is equipped with a plow at the front, a small plow underneath the vehicle and a wing on the passenger side, Goochey starts to explain the plow's operations. A stick that looks like a fancy video game joystick from the 1980s controls all the components — it activates hydraulic devices to lift, lower and angle the blades.
The wing is particularly cool. To help the driver keep the wing from catching on barriers, signs and other plow hazards, a green laser is aimed at a point on the road out in front of the rig to show the driver how close it can get to the right side of the road.
I quickly get up to speed with the challenges Goochey and his fellow drivers face on snowy days.
Pedestrians are difficult enough to see in the light of day, says Goochey, but in the dark they are impossible to spot. If the concept of "even more impossible" existed, pedestrians walking on the road at night wearing dark clothing would fit the notion.
He stresses that if pedestrians must use the highway to walk in low light or at night reflective gear is a must.
Earlier this season he was plowing and noticed some unrecognizable reflections coming towards him.
"I could see them but I couldn't tell what it was with the reflection of the lights. It was two joggers and three dogs," says Goochey adding that fortunately, "...they were very well lit up."
But not every creature on or near the road has access to reflective gear. Deer, coyotes and more criss-cross the roads regularly and can pose a real threat to drivers in poor conditions. Goochey, who has been behind the wheel of a plow on-and-off for about nine years, had his first wildlife encounter earlier this month.
"I was coming from Pemberton and it was dark still when all of a sudden down by Rutherford (a deer) just darted out straight across in front of me," Goochey explains. "I didn't feel it. I hit it. I stopped and couldn't see it but there was fur on the plow."
He kept an eye out for the animal each time he passed through that area for the next few days but he didn't see any evidence of it — he is hoping the deer suffered just a glancing blow.
In the more than 20 years Goochey has been living in Pemberton and driving trucks he has heard many deer versus vehicle stories. Some of the stories he's heard end with severe vehicle damage, as was the case for his wife a few years ago when her vehicle suffered thousands of dollars in damage. The deer, he explains, had enough life in it to flee the scene.
Mainroad has broken Highway 99 into blocks from Function northward. The first one is the 24km of road they call D1, the section Goochey often works.
As we get about halfway into D1, Goochey says one of the most stressful things he and other plow drivers face is the bold drivers who pass snowplows on the right side. It happens up to 10 times a season.
That concern is echoed by Mainroad manager Brad Gerhardt — passing on the right of a plow is the thing that irritates him most about poor winter drivers. The boldest drivers will try and squeeze in between a team of three trucks plowing in tandem to clear the wider sections of highway.
"People try to get up in between because they're going slow and pass our trucks on the right, constantly," says Gerhardt. "It is so bad I have sat in my pickup with my lights on blocking people from trying to get around so that our trucks can do the job."
The impatient pass poses a significant danger for everyone involved.
"If they spin out the truck is going to pick them up with the plow and shoot them over," he says.
"That's one of the biggest problems we have, the patience.
"People don't have patience and we can't go 80 to 100 kilometres clearing the road because we have people walking down the side of the road, we have bus shelters and we just can't be shooting it (the plowed snow) 60 feet."
Gerhardt, who lives in Britannia and works in Pemberton, points out that there's a lot going on inside the trucks driven by Goochey and the rest of the people who plow Highway 99. The truck drivers operate multiple blades, material spinners that drop sand or salt off the back of the truck and the radio — all while they navigate the roads — things can get a lot more complicated for the drivers when impatient drivers are spun into the mix.
Safety is a top priority for all the drivers, as it should be for everyone sharing the road. However, that's clearly not the case, says Goochey, for those drivers that come up behind his rig and follow so close that he can't actually see the vehicle behind him in his mirrors.
"Some people get so close to you, following you, you can't even see them," he says. "I know they're back there because I can see headlight beams but I don't actually see the vehicle."
When he first started driving a plow it frustrated him but now he says there's nothing he can do about tailgaters so he doesn't let it bother him.
Three o'clock in the afternoon is a key time for Gerhardt's crew working D1. When the skiers and boarders come off the mountain on a busy day he says a mad rush begins.
"We try to make sure we don't group the trucks up at those times, so that if we do run into a traffic problem our trucks aren't caught in the traffic," he says.
Asked if it would be better if people just stayed off the road when the snow is falling sideways and every resource Mainroad has is on the road but Ullr is still winning Goochey's reply is surprising. When the weather is at its worst he wouldn't discourage drivers from heading out.
Just the opposite is true in fact, as vehicle traffic plays a key role in helping to keep the highway clear by agitating the salt and sand and helping those materials do their job — at least when the drivers are considerate of other cars and the plows — which is most of the time.
"This morning when it got compacted the traffic is what compacted the road, and made it slippery and made it hard to peel off, but then again it's also what helped work the material in, and edge it into the compacted snow," says Goochey. "It works hand in hand."
Having said that he notes that bad drivers who are impatient and don't drive safely can make the situation worse.
As we pull back into the Function Junction area I realize that I have been on my assignment for two hours. Time in Goochey's office passes by very quickly. We have done one northbound pass through D1, refuelled at Sabre's fuelling centre at Mons, cleared out the streets at Wedgemont, refilled the box with a load of salt at Rutherford and completed one southbound pass of D1.
Goochey drops me off at my truck. I climb back out with laptop, cameras and recorder thankful for the experience with a whole new appreciation for the people who do the best they can to keep us moving on Highway 99 even when snow is falling sideways, the temperature is well below zero and drivers with bald tires are passing plows on the right.