Rob's Blog Archive

January 4, 2015

The Driveway from Hell Strikes Again










The first time I slid off of my driveway was on my way to the airport to catch a flight to El Paso for work.  Glare ice and four season radials are a bad combination.  I tried to chain up and use the two front tires to pull the truck out, but it had hung up on the frame.  Happily, my boss—an Israeli living in Silicon Valley---took my missing attending the meeting well.  The truck itself was unscathed.  I made the appointment to get four studded snow tires while settling up for the tow. 

Since then, there have been times that I’ve found myself off a bit to the side of my driveway, but I’ve always been able to extract myself using chains.  Partly, I’ve been more careful.  And, of course, since that first time, I’ve always had winter tires on the truck.  Sometimes they’ve been studded and sometimes they’ve been one of the new studless ice tires, but I’ve always been careful to change out my four season tires before the winter really sets in.

This year, I’m driving with a brand new set of Blizzak’s---one of the original studless snow tires.  We’ll see what happens as the season continues, but so far they haven’t been very impressive.  I spun out on ice and did a 180 on Fawn Creek.  I had to walk about a third of a mile home and then back as I hadn’t yet thrown a shovel in the car.  With the shovel and the technique of just laying chains in front of two tires, I was able to extract myself. 

One year, in February, we got something close to an inch of rain on top of a thick layer of snow.  Usually, after December, the snow can absorb the rain without becoming ice, but there was so much rain that that didn’t happen.  I was working at the Seeley Lake Race to the Sky checkpoint, and tried to stop as I turned into the plowed pull out area at the top of my driveway.  I had planned on walking down the driveway to check it out, but the fact that the truck was sliding on the shallow slope at the top made the choice rather clear.  I kept chains on the truck for several days.

The most typical time for difficulty comes in December when the snow is thin, but cold, and can’t absorb the rain without turning into glare ice.  Usually the situation corrects itself with a warm followed by a cold snow---a typical warm then cold front.  With this, the moisture in the warm snow, and the snow itself, glues the cold crystalline snow in place, and traction is pretty good, at least good enough to drive around with my winter tires and four-wheel drive. 

I’ve still gotten stuck once a year, or so, but been able to chain up and get out.  I will say that, at least half of the time I’ve gotten into trouble was by hurrying, particularly the part of my driveway closest to my house.  This has a critical turn I have to take while backing up, and the driveway has a pretty nasty sideslope.  It is easy to screw up while backing up through that turn.

Saturday night, I was indeed hurrying.  I had finished clearing ice off my dogs’ platforms with just enough time to get to one of the local eateries for dinner.  It was backing up that I got into trouble.  With this, I was just too close to the edge. 

What I hadn’t realized was just how bad the conditions were.  Usually, when it’s as cold as it was---the temperature was in the low teens----snow has very good traction.  The problem was that all of the snow had fallen this way, on top of a hard layer of ice, and it was too cold for it to bind to the ice.  For the record, it will eventually, it just takes much longer at these cold temperatures. 

It was shortly after ten when I decided that I’d wait until morning, chain up, and get myself out.  As it ended up, I couldn’t wait that long.  Unable to sleep, I got up at five, surveyed what and where I was by headlamp---I definitely have some very good headlamps---and managed to move the truck to a spot that would let me comfortably put chains on either set of tires.  With that, I went to bed and slept.

After breakfast, I stepped out and surveyed my truck.  Beginning to end, my instinct was to put chains on the rear tires.  Unfortunately, I obeyed my training which said you put chains on the front tires of a four-wheel drive vehicle.  The reasons for this are the front tires have more weight on them and, usually, you’re moving forward and having traction on the lead tires is better than having them on the following tires. 

The chains themselves went on fine, I only cursed a couple of times.  I’m very used to chaining up, but not usually in dry powder snow.  This was getting everywhere and made closing the chains a little more difficult than it might have been.  Still, I had done a good job that early AM, and could move the truck forward and back more than enough to do a clean job of chaining up.    Chains on, it took me about ten minutes to get the truck into a position from which I knew I could only make things worse, and I called AAA and asked for a tow. 

It was at least a small consolation that, after the tow truck had “pulled me free,” Ben had to go through some impressive gyrations to extricate it without again using his rig.  He had the front tires turned a bit to the left.  With this they came up against a bank of ice that, even with the chains, they weren’t going to climb, and the truck moved forward along the ice with the wheels pointed a good thirty degrees off from the truck’s actual motion.  I was impressed.  This did get the truck into a position from which Ben could back it up without the right front going over my bank, but even then, just barely. 

The sad thing was that, if I had chained up the rear tires, I would have easily been able to back out of all of this.  The only thing that would have been a problem would have been if the frame itself had hung up on the bank---even my front right tire starting to go over the bank wouldn’t have been a problem.

So lessons learned:  Once again don’t be in a hurry (like that’s going to stick).  If I have to back up and I have access to my rear tires, those are the ones that get the chains.  And, probably until spring, I’m parking the truck a bit farther from my house.  It’s actually on the side-slope, but I no longer have to do a turn.  It’s just backing straight up.  I’ve ended up parking there for previous winters before, actually about half of the seasons I’ve lived here.   Now, we’ll just have to see how the season affects the steep part of my driveway and how the Blizzaks handle it.  I do own the driveway from hell. 

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