Winter Driving

Typical winter driving scene: The Highlands neighborhood above Breckenridge.

Conditions can vary wildly and deteriorate rapidly. Visibility can drop in seconds and traffic further up the road may be at a standstill.

Winter driving in Summit County is no laughing matter. The steeply-graded mountain roads with their sweeping curves and frequent barrier-free drops into the valley below are enough to challenge the average driver - throw in whiteout blizzards and heavy winds, cover the road surface with solid hard pack snow, then drop six inches of fresh powder all over everything and you will quickly find yourself in a tricky situation.

A car that has lost control on Swan Mountain Road and ended up perched above frozen Dillon Reservoir.

In those conditions, the hazards are plentiful. Lanes are indistinguishable under hard pack, and they are equally invisible to oncoming traffic and cars beside you. The shoulder of the road also vanishes under the thick cover of white and it is this aspect of winter driving that is of particular concern to most; beyond the edge may lay the winter drivers worst enemy: a snow filled drainage ditch.

Many - quite possibly all - drivers in Summit County end up in the ditch at one point or another. There are two kinds of ditched drivers:

  1. The Inexperienced : Some people haven't yet had the chance to try their hand at winter mountain driving, or they haven't had much practice. Others simply aren't very proficient at the art of driving no matter how long they have been on the road. At any rate, the inexperienced might find themselves shooting out of Eisenhower Tunnel at a decidedly inappropriate speed into a heavy winter storm and a 7 mile long 7% graded descent down a very curvy highway, or they might slowly slide straight through a stop sign despite their most wholehearted attempts and end up in the ditch across the road

  2. The "Experienced" : Those who don't ditch early on in the winter may find themselves driving with an illusory air of confidence about them. They've been keen to the ways of the snowy road and damned if they'll let the white monster get the best of them - what, with a dozen days of driving at 5mph down Loveland Pass in whiteout conditions under their belt? And then it happens, on a beautiful bluebird day with a shining sun and clear skies and not a worry in the world; the "experienced" is casually driving around a gentle bend in the road when suddenly he loses traction and immediately goes for the brakes (don't ever go for the brakes). The road continues to curve to the left, but now the vehicle is suddenly heading off on a straightline tangent directly into a four foot snowbank at 20 mph. It will ultimately take two Ford F-250's strapped to each other to pull the "experienced" from teetering off the edge of the road. This may or may not have happened to me.

Then there are the actual experienced drivers, those who have learned a few simple rules about winter mountain driving and follow them relentlessly.

  • Cars equipped with AWD/4x4 and snow tires are not above the laws of physics.

At the end of the day, inertia will always win. Fancy mechanics and sticky studded tires may help you get moving a lot quicker than everyone else, but stopping distances on snow and ice are hugely exaggerated and entering a turn at excessive speed will likely end up with the vehicle sliding out. Drive at safe and reasonable speeds for the conditions and don't feel pressured by vehicles behind you.

  • Acceleration, Steering, Braking: choose one and only one at a time.

When you accelerate, do it only while moving in a straight line. Don't accelerate while going into or out of turns because you may lose control of the vehicle. The same applies for braking; try not to hit the brakes while the car is in a turn or going around a curve.

  • Brakes are Bad

This one is really quite simple: slamming the brakes on hard pack snow and ice is a surefire way to lose traction and control. Those of us who haven't spent much time driving on snow and ice will likely go for the brake pedal at any sign of trouble. It takes concentrated practice and willpower to break the habit. When descending steep graded slopes, it is better to shift the car into a lower gear and use engine braking to slow the car. Feathering the brakes is also acceptable when done carefully and only when traveling in a straight line.

Some roads become very challenging to navigate in the winter, others become completely impassable. This is a neighborhood road in Blue River, taken in early May.

As I mentioned, the dangers of winter driving are in no short supply. I will add to this list of assorted tips and helpful hints as time goes on:

  • When changing lanes, be aware of the mound of snow that has gathered between the lanes: As your tires cut through it they will be pulled in a different direction and being ready for this can make the difference between safely changing lanes or spinning off the side of the highway. Try to cross over as gradually as possible.

  • Always brush all the snow off your car and scrape your windows and mirrors: Six inches of snow sitting on top of your car will turn into flying chunks and clouds of powder at speed, creating a dangerous situation for drivers behind you. I've found that a long handled nylon broom works best. Please scrape every window clean, you need as much of a view as you can get when driving in adverse conditions. Also check your headlights and tail lights.

  • High altitude driving may affect your cars performance: The most popular areas of Summit County sit over 9,000ft above sea level and both direct routes in from Denver pass above 11,000ft. The atmospheric pressure at this altitude is significantly lower and as a result naturally aspirated vehicles will suffer a 15-20% decrease in power that will be very noticeable when driving uphill on mountain roads. One way to overcome this handicap is with a turbocharged engine, the artificial compression compensates for the lower air density.

  • Always keep an emergency kit in your vehicle: road closures, accidents, and accidental ditchings may leave you stuck or stranded for hours. In winter months it is a good idea to keep extra blankets, space blankets, extra jackets, thick socks, hand warmers, water, a flashlight, warm headwear, and an assortment of gloves including insulated gloves and gloves that will allow you to work on the car or tend to an injury if need be. A tow strap and tire chains are also recommended. In most instances, you will find strangers are quick to stop and offer their help.

  • Keep to the right: There is a strong culture and numerous traffic regulations that dictate slower moving traffic should keep to the right of the road. On highways, that means the far left lane is used only for passing.

  • Beware the snow-chain ruts on I-70: Commercial vehicles are required to chain up when there is frozen precipitation falling from the sky. These vehicles are also restricted to the right lane and, over time, the snow-chains have gouged the road for miles on end. The impact is most noticeable on either side of Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels. The ruts will pull your vehicle into them and are especially dangerous in bad weather. If you can, stick to the smoother center and left lanes but remember to merge right when traffic approaches from behind.

Descending toward a tight curve on Tiger Road in Breckenridge.

These articles are my best efforts to share the amazing things I have encountered on my adventure in Summit County. They are a constant work in progress, so check back often for updates and feel free to contact me with questions or comments.