Saturday, April 23, 2016

Outrunning the Snowstorm

Donner Summit, late spring snowstorm.

We tried to outrun the freak spring storm from Bishop, the wind howled, and pummeled the rental car all the way from Long Valley to Mono Lake, where a curtain of alkali dust shrouded the shore. We stretched our legs at Lee Vining, but our eyes stung. Rain turned to curtains of snow in the hills. We were planning to go over Hwy 88 after Mono Lake, I wanted to see the wildflowers, but I was treated to a mirage—curtains of distant snow falling.

Every pass up Hwy 395 was closed that day. I raced through Bridgeport, past the Bodie turn-off, slalomed through Walker Canyon, skirted Topaz Lake. I raced over a series of mountain passes, as snow was threatening to stick at 7000 feet (do you know how many passes there are on Hwy 395 between Bridgeport and Carson City that are over 7000 feet?) It was Donner Pass or bust. No potluck jokes, please.

We were racing the snow flurries to the junction, only to have Hwy 88 close just as we got there, so then it was another mad race onto Carson City (almost no rain lulled us into a state of false security), and then it was onto Reno where the rain began to pound in earnest, then it began to sleet, then hail...

We made it all the way to Hwy 80, and onto Donner Pass, but we were too late to beat the clock... the snow began to stick just as we crossed the Truckee River. 4 PM is the witching hour. Snow sticks as night approaches. We drove as far as we could before CalTrans busted us.

Chains and installation from the shell station cost a bundle. More than a C-note. We're now the proud new owners of snowchains...they've come a long way since the good old days. We were one of the lucky ones. As snow chains became a scarce commodity on the backside of the Sierras, the price jackknifed to $200. Of course, neither of us knew how to put them on, my skills were old school. So we got back onto Hwy 80 and crept along until we were caught again.

Traffic ground to a standstill, yet another chain inspection check station. Bumper to bumper. Trucks spinning, sans traction. The truck behind him pushed on his rear bumper, it was a collaborative effort to get over the pass even with chains. Where's the freakin' snow plow, and sand when you need it?

We began to make off color potluck jokes, and wager bets as to how far down the snow level went. At first I thought it would be 6000', but no, it was still snowing at 5000, 4000, would you believe 3500'? Some spring weather.

Then there was the problem of no snow monkeys at the other end of the pass to take the chains off, or should I call them cables? I guess they weren't expecting snow either. Probably all on vacation. Somewhere else warm.

Whatever you want to call them, chains/cables, they're still a bitch to remove. You don't want to do it in the dark. Can't get the inside chain off? It'll slice your brake line. Our journey exacerbated by a rear tire threatening to go flat. Snow, sleet, hail and it's nearly May. Who ordered the weather?

Bishop to Oakland, the long way home, 12 hours on the road...

FWIW, last year, we came back the iconic southerly Route 66. It was raining so hard in the desert, that the car hydroplaned across bridges. Drivers hid out under overpasses, waiting for the storm to pass. I kept alternately hoping for flash floods and dry roads as I outran the storm across Arizona and California. We crossed the Colorado in a massive hailstorm. —April 25, 2015.

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