Nowhere to Run

In a previous post I quoted my father as once saying that, the difference between the Rocky Mountains and other mountains in the United States is that when you go to other mountain ranges ill-prepared, you could get inconvenienced. When you go to the Rockies ill-prepared, you could get dead.

I can personally vouch for the truth of that statement. It literally comes with the territory – there are parts of the Rocky Mountains that are so remote that very few humans have ever even been there. A largely undisturbed wilderness like that, too many have found out the hard way, is inherently dangerous, even upon the beaten path.

South Pass, Wyoming

January 1978

We had spent the Christmas vacation with relatives in Los Angeles, driving there and back in that same old ’73 puke green Chevy Impala. I remember I got this huge dinosaur playset that took up way too much room in the trunk, but at least back then cars had huge trunks, so we managed.

To my father’s credit, he took his own advice and was very careful to only drive over mountain areas when the weather forecast was clear and the roads had been recently plowed and salted. Even still, we carried chains, an emergency kit, blankets, a stove, and food. Not doing so in a two door sedan with a family of five on board over Rocky Mountain passes in January (the ones that weren’t just closed for the winter) would be beyond foolhardy.

And yet, there is an old saying in Wyoming – anyone who tries to predict the weather in Wyoming is either a newcomer or a fool.

South Pass is the all-essential mountain pass that connects Interstate 80 with Northwestern Wyoming. If you wish to get from Rock Springs on I-80 to the Yellowstone / Grand Teton area, you almost have to go over South Pass. The pass is really just the lowest point in a high plateau between the Wind River Mountains and the Great Divide Basin. Its elevation is only 7,400 feet, but it remains at that elevation for over 100 miles of high mountain prairie between Rock Springs and Lander. There is little vegetation, and the plateau is completely exposed and susceptible to sudden freak and epic storms at any time of year.

If you find yourself caught in such a storm in the middle of South Pass, there is nowhere to hide, and nowhere to run. You are simply at the mercy of the elements. Coming back to my hometown from Colorado in 2013, my friend and I clipped the edge of just such a storm – a summer thunderstorm. With torrential rain that pounded the car and flash flood waters that sheeted across the highway so that it looked like we were driving down a river, and marble sized hail, we felt lucky to have just caught the edge of it. We were forced onto a side road that took us into Riverton (which was where we wanted to go anyway). Continuing into the heart of the storm out of Jeffrey City (population 10) would have been veritable suicide – I heard later that storm produced golf-ball sized hail at its center.

And that was in the height of summer.

* * *

So on that cold January day in 1978, we started up South Pass out of Rock Springs in the late afternoon (when freak storms most often form on South Pass) with clear skies in every direction and a weather forecast of partly cloudy on the pass.

As we reached mile 45 on the pass, dark angry clouds had gathered over the pass seemingly out of nowhere, and it began to snow. And snow. And snow.

By nightfall the pavement had disappeared under a blanket of snow – the only way to know where the highway was was to stay in between the highway’s snow poles lining the highway on each side for just such occasions. The defroster and wipers couldn’t keep up with the ice accumulation on the windshield – dad slowly plodded the Impala through the quickly accumulating snow at 20 mph with one hand while reaching outside the car through the open driver’s side window and scraping the ice off the windshield with the other hand. At the rate the snow was falling, it became apparent that soon the Impala would lose the battle and be unable to continue through the deepening snow.

We were in very serious trouble, the kind of trouble that was really not very far away at all from becoming a life and death situation.

And then, truly like an angel out of the snow and zero visibility, came the lights of a semi-trailer, slowly, cautiously, trying to pick and force its desperate way off the mountain. It was now snowing so hard – and I wouldn’t have believed such a thing possible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes – that the ruts in the now deep snow made by the semi were filled in with fresh snow in mere moments. My father planted the front end of the Impala just a few feet from the back of the trailer, his left hand still scraping the ice off the windshield, with the realization that staying right behind the semi before the ruts could fill in with snow was the Impala’s one and only chance to get off the mountain safely. I still remember the whining of the engine and the slipping of the wheels as the Impala rode the truck’s ruts like a train track. Inside the Impala, no one spoke a word.

We left Rock Springs at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon; we pulled in to Lander, safely off of South Pass, at 9:00 p.m. – a distance of 117 miles.

That night, a record six feet of snow fell on South Pass.

* * *

We still sometimes talk about that night, and how any one of dozens of things could have happened that would have prevented us from getting off the mountain. My father used to be fond of saying that if that semi had driven off a cliff that night, we would have too, and it’s true.

When the truck finally pulled off the road into a motel parking lot with a bar next door, my dad pulled over too. The burley trucker seemed to quiver a bit as he climbed out of the cab. He and my dad shook hands, and the trucker said he really needed a drink. We continued on our way home, getting back much later than we had planned, with a sobering reminder of who is really in charge in places like South Pass.

* * *

Coincidence or not, later that same year my father traded the Impala in on a 4×4 Chevy Suburban with a full off road package that included a winch. That would be the family car until I went to college. I bought it off my dad a couple of years after we moved to California – it had 177,000 miles on it when I got it. It was the best car we ever owned.

* * *

To this day, I don’t much care for South Pass. Like I said, I have driven it, but when I visit I prefer to take the Snake River Valley through Idaho and then over the steep but comparatively short 9,600 foot Togwadhee Pass outside of Teton National Park. You go up, you come down, there are trees and places to pull over, and you are off the mountain and in Dubois before you know it.

I just don’t like that feeling of being trapped – at any time of year – on that high prairie for over 100 miles on South Pass, at the whim of elements that can change without notice, leaving me with nowhere to run.