Black Ice

by wjw on October 29, 2020

Kathy had an appointment in Albuquerque on Monday, and I had some business in town as well, so we drove up together.  We knew the weather would deteriorate over the course of the day, but Kathy’s business should have been over by 2pm, and that would have got us to our warm hearth in plenty of time.

Unfortunately Kathy’s appointment time was delayed by four hours, so we didn’t leave till six, at which point the snow was pouring down and a nasty cold wind was blowing.  The highway was coated in black ice.  Traffic on I-25 was moving at about 35 mph, and we had to pull over once to clean ice from the windshield wipers.  Ahead I could see nothing but taillights frozen in place, so I managed to get off the freeway at Rio Bravo.

I remember Rio Bravo from years ago, when there were two lanes westbound, always choked with traffic barely moving along.  In the last few years Rio Bravo has been widened to four lanes westbound, and now there were four lanes choked with traffic and barely moving.  The movement of traffic was downhill, and the road was still coated with ice, so stopping a downward skid was problematical.  I gave the car ahead plenty of room, and hoped to hell the driver behind me was as obliging.  Against the odds I managed to get across the four lanes and into a turn lane for Broadway, which becomes Highway 47 when it crosses I-25 again, on its way through the Isleta Reservation.  From Isleta it would be tedious but entirely possible to work our way home over country roads.

A colossal number of vehicles were completely helpless in these conditions.  Their wheels spun frantically as the wind pushed them off the road.  I saw an entire tractor-trailer rig floating gently off the road with all its drive wheels spinning and its front wheels trying madly to correct.  Most pickup trucks were useless, though some of the larger ones with big tires forged on at far too great a speed.  (And with typical arrogance, I thought.)  They’d be okay unless for some reason they had to brake, in which case they’d become out-of-control juggernauts turning everything in front of them to pulp.  I saw people trying to push a large RV uphill, with predictable results.

There were so many stranded and abandoned cars that it felt like a war.

We were in an all-wheel-drive Subaru with good tires and we were just fine. It helped that the driver had learned to drive on ice in Minnesota.

When we got to the intersection of Broadway and I-25 traffic slowed to nothing.  We had planed to cross the freeway and continue through the Rez, but all we could see ahead were cars frozen in place, their emergency flashers on.  I don’t know whether traffic had been stopped deliberately or whether the cars were just stranded there blocking access, but I saw that traffic on the freeway was moving again and got on I-25.

That turned out to be the right decision.  At points I almost achieved 40mph!  Traffic was very light because everyone was getting off the highway at Broadway, and the all-wheel-drive performed extremely well.

We got home after driving nearly two and a half hours on a journey that normally takes 40 minutes.  I was still vibrating with anxiety and was pretty well useless for the rest of the night, even after I had a can of chicken soup and watched an episode of “The Great British Baking Show,” which is my current comfort viewing.

And oh yes, I voted.  Hope you did, too.

mearsk October 29, 2020 at 9:19 am

That’s always my problem with winter driving. Not so much me being able to handle it, but the other yahoos on the road that freak out and crash. The worst snow commute is always the first one, as we learn in a hurry who has bald tires.

John F. MacMichael October 29, 2020 at 4:42 pm

Very glad to hear you made it home OK!

“The Great British Baking Show” (which my gf and I are currently rewatching) is a great tranquilizing video. Watching the earnest, wholesome British contestants striving for the heights of pastry perfection (and struggling to avoid the dread “soggy bottom”) amid the perfect pastoral fantasy of the English countryside is always relaxing. And I have to say, those people display some serious baking skills.

pixlaw October 29, 2020 at 7:22 pm

All wheel drive is a godsend. Frankly, I’m not sure why it hasn’t been mandated for all autos everywhere.

We’re talking about replacing our 13 year old Subaru with a newer car, but until we can find a plug-in with AWD, I’m sticking with the gas-burner.

wjw October 29, 2020 at 7:57 pm

Aren’t all electric cars AWD? I mean, why wouldn’t they be?

Kathy can’t watch the British Baking Show because it makes her hungry. I’m not a big fan of sweets, so seeing a Classic Royal Victoria Sponge Cake doesn’t bother me.

But sometimes you get something that’s far too British, like Bangers & Mash Pie with Pickle, that just makes me want to cover my eyes.

Steinar Bang October 30, 2020 at 2:14 pm

Subaru! Unstoppable!

As for AWD electrics: not all of them, no. Tesla and Audi, are. And the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV hybrids have a really advanced AWD.

But plenty electrics are 2WD.

And, heh, re: being blown off the road. Just north of where I was born there is a mountain pass (the arctic circle bisects the mountain pass).

When I was a kid the E6 went along the western side of the mountain pass, wich resulted in the road being closed a lot during the winter, and having 6 to 8 metres tall roadside snowbanks.

In contrast, the railway on the eastern side of the mountain pass , was almost never closed. All the snow was blowing from the eastern side and settled on the western side of the pass.

Thus, when they upgraded the E6 in the area, they moved the road to the same side as the railway… only to find the wind that cleared the snow away, blowing the cars off the road…

So this road is still closed a lot during the winter…

Ray Kuntz October 30, 2020 at 11:27 pm

Testify! The Subaru all wheel drive system works better than almost anything else. The F250 pickup carries more mass into the big drifts but when it gets burrowed in and starts spinning both wheels on one side you’re there until a neighbor pulls you out. With studded snow tires the Subaru is unstoppable until it gets high centered, and even then it’s a lot easier to dig out. If I put chains on all 4 wheels of the F250 it’s just about even with the Subaru.

That same storm (or it’s cousin) rolled through Montana, with 20 mph winds on its heels bringing drifts we don’t usually see until February. The Subaru pulled a neighbors Tahoe out on the way home Friday afternoon.

My wife has been working the phones for a couple of hours every day for two months on a mission to register voters, get the ballots in on time and evict the lickspittle Steve Dains from the senate. The only thing that provides refuge from the stress of the calls and the madness of the news is the great British baking show. We watch two or three episodes a night. I will confess that I have yet to see anything I would not eat…

mearsk November 2, 2020 at 1:17 pm

AWD or 4WD is useful, but it sure isn’t unstoppable. You still only have 4 tires in contact with the road. The first people I see off the freeway when it’s snowing or icing are generally pickup trucks with overconfident drivers.

Shash November 5, 2020 at 12:50 pm

You didn’t just learn to drive in MN winters, but on the “Norwegian Riveria”. I do remember heading down that hill to Park Point on a weekend visit and sliding right through a red light while the police watched. They knew we were trying to brake, so they just waved and shrugged at us.

I agree with mearsk on 4WD/AWD. Having ice raced cars, I prefer front-wheel drive in winter. Stops much sooner on ice. Tires and brakes are your most important car parts if you want to stay alive. Glad you got home safe.

wjw November 5, 2020 at 11:19 pm

Duluth on its hill constitutes a master class in winter driving. Fortunately I haven’t enjoyed a Duluth winter since I was a teen.

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