Sunday, May 1, 2011

Welcome To Montana, or Cliff Jumper



                               
When I was attending the U OF M in Missoula Montana in the late 1970’s, I decided to go for a soak in Jerry Johnsons hot springs; it was in the middle of winter. In those days I drove an old powder blue Toyota Land Cruiser with a white soft top. The night before, it had snowed all night and left around two feet of heavy, wet snow on the pass at Lolo. That morning was spectacular, there was not a cloud in the sky, and it was a "Big Blue Sky" winter day, all the trees completely covered in their finest "whites".
From the top of Lolo pass , the view was endless on this crisp, sunny, cloudless January morning, looking down on the Lochsa River valley and into Idaho from the Montana side .The only creature's stirring were the long tailed black and white magpies, flying in small flocks scavenging for food. I was thinking how the road had not been a problem, and how just maybe, it would be in good condition all the way to the hot springs. The road had been plowed on the Montana section, but, I soon found out on my descent, that was not the case on the Idaho side. There were two tracks breaking through the fresh snow showing signs of other life. But, these turned off at the Forrest Service station , about two miles down the steep, "long and winding road", now I was the trail blazer , heading straight into the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states.
I was tentatively meeting up with some friends at the hot springs, I thought, wow, great; we will have the hot springs to ourselves. And, in the back of my mind, I had the Calvary coming in case I got stuck, or something happened. I was moving through the snow, slowly, but, under control, and thought the road was not in that bad of condition, despite breaking through two feet of fresh wet, snow. From the top of Lolo pass to the hot springs, it is all down hill, the first part of the descent is quite steep, then in levels somewhat , and then,  there is a section where the road is very steep once again, and  curvy, until, there is just a gradual slope all the way down to the hot springs. By the time I reached the second steep part of the decline, I'd felt like I'd been through the worst, and it would be smooth sailing the rest of the way. About that time my Land Cruiser started sliding, I was of course going down hill, due to the curves in the road, the sun had not penetrated this section, and there was "black ice" below the two feet of fresh snow. I had not seen one other car since I'd entered Idaho, behind me, nor in the other lane going to Montana. So, I knew I had both lanes to slide, and try and slow to a point where I could gain control. It was steep; I was not slowing, but felt like I was gaining speed, countering every slide, I was literally "all over the road". It was a completely helpless feeling, my mind was reeling, and trying to figure a way to slow down and gain control, when I noticed this section had no "guard rails". Shit, I thought, stay on the right side at all cost, because on the left side of the road was a drop-off of at least 1000 ft. straight down to the Lochsa River. I tried to use the brakes, pumping them, not wanting to "lock them" and be completely out of control, this wasn't working, and it was pure black ice below the snow. If I could ram alongside something, that would slow me down I thought, but being out of control, it was hard to choose a tree, or hillside to ram alongside. Funny, when you’re going uphill, you can accelerate to straighten out, just taking your foot of the gas will slow you down; it is not the case when you’re going downhill on ice. I tried to spin the Land Cruiser around, accelerating, so I could face uphill and maybe drive up hill and gain control. The acceleration spun me in a 360*, and increased my speed, I was really helpless , thinking the worst case scenario, I was alone in the middle of nowhere, it was cold, January, I had not seen another person in the last 40 minutes, chances were that I was going to have to wreck the Land Cruiser to have some kind of a chance to survive, I did not want to go over that cliff on the left side of the road, that was death for sure, nobody could survive a 1000 ft. drop. I kept with the counter steering, pumping the brakes and thinking. I'd gone over a mile down hill sliding out of control, I had to do something, so, I decided to try and slide near the right side edge of the road, the snow was thicker there and maybe the friction would slow me. It worked, I was starting to slow down, aah  what a relief, now I had a chance, I thought, when I hit another patch of ice, I was sliding sideways on the edge of the highway right toward the drop off, another cliff. My decision was swift, I knew I did not want to "roll off" the cliff, death was imminent; I knew I'd have to steer the soft topped vehicle straight down the hill and hope for the best. It was not a cliff like on the left side of the road, but it was very steep and treed. I steered the 4-wheeler nose first down the cliff, the best I could and kept the Land Cruiser straight until I hit the extra large bumper, smashing against a Tamarack tree with around a 20 inch diameter. I can still remember sitting in my rig, thinking, I'm in one piece, alive, what a ride that was! My vehicle wasn't that bad, I'd torn holes through the top in three or four places, my windshield was cracked, but not all broken, it could have been much worst! And, I wasn't hurt, I felt OK, no blood, no broken bones, that was lucky!
 I got out, and looked up to see the path, it was around 200 feet to the road, and there were many smaller trees I'd driven over, some where not that small. In the path I'd driven over trees with diameters of two to four inches, not exactly twigs. I was walking uphill  toward the road when I heard a voice " Are you alright?", it was a Idaho State Trooper, he was bent over and had his hands around his mouth, " stay there, don't move" , "I'm coming down" he said. I'm fine, I said, really lucky! He was moving fast sliding in the snow until he reached me. The trooper was only a few years older than me, I'd guess 25 or so. He had a buzz cut, tall, lanky fellow that appeared nervous. I reassured him that I was OK, you sure? He asked again, yaw, I'm fine; I think I had to say this around ten more times before he believed me.  We then had to discuss what had happened; this all took place down where the Land Cruiser was pinned against the tree. He then asked, how would you like to get this rig out of here? I said, what do you think a tow truck? The trooper asked me if I did not mind paying $ 500 to get a tow truck. Shit, I said, that’s a lot of $. That is when the trooper suggested that I could drive it back up the cliff. I was shocked, drive it up the cliff? I don't think it will make it, it's pretty steep. The trooper said he had four sets of chains that would fit on my tires, "we can give it a try”, "I think it will go up this cliff with all tires chained up and in low gear" said the trooper. And so we did, Not only did I drive off a cliff that day, but, I drove up a cliff the same morning. After hours of cutting trees, and clearing rocks, some how the taggered Land Cruiser rumbled its way back to the top of the hill and back on the highway.
I was pretty shook up after all this, and knew I still had to drive back to Missoula, but, felt I was very lucky to be driving back. I couldn't thank the Trooper enough, Man; thank you so much for all your help, that was great, thank you, thank you, just then the young law man turned and said, "Your welcome, but this is for you". It was a ticket for reckless driving, I was shocked, what, a ticket? Are you kidding? I hit black ice, I skidded for over a mile down hill, I was only going 40 mph, and I kept from going over on the left side and dying! There are no guard rails! I could have died! Now you’re giving me a ticket? You have to be joking? The trooper said, "I'm just doing my job, write to the judge if you have a problem" .
I did indeed write to the Judge and explained the dangers of Idaho wilderness roads with the lack of "Guard Rails", and just what could happen. Today, you will see guard rails in this part of the road, and, the judge through out the case against my "ticket".
 I drove back to Missoula that afternoon very slow and cautious, I was never more glad to see the big blue sign on top of Lolo pass that says "WELCOME TO MONTANA".

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