By: Mark Abrams
It was a cold morning in the Town of Mammoth Lakes just like many other mornings when I decided to head up to Conway Summit. It was about 10ºF that morning in Mammoth, so I knew that it would be cold on top of the Conway Summit. In addition, the weather prediction was to have a 5-10 mph breeze which is not bad when it is 60 degrees outside, but is a cold wind when it is 10 degrees.
I awoke at 6:30AM and proceeded to get ready for the day. After my usual morning routine, I dressed for the extreme cold because it is always best to be prepared for whatever could happen even though I had no reason to suspect that anything would go wrong. By 7:30AM, I was ready to leave, but I needed to review my emails and take care of some personal business. I was ready to hit the road by 8AM and head to the local deli to get a toasted bagel with lots of butter to start the day and provide the necessary fuel to get through the task at hand. I got the food to go so that I could eat on the road while heading to the site.
The drive to Conway Summit was easy and uneventful. I drove out of town on the main street California Highway 203. I met up with US395 which is the main north-south highway in the Eastern Sierras and proceeded north on the highway. I like to monitor the radio coverage of our network which covers the Mammoth Lakes area and continues north past Bridgeport, the county seat of Mono County. The mountain at Conway Summit has one of our digital network nodes which provides the coverage that we offer through Bridgeport and beyond. (This is currently our most northern site at least until we continue our build out to Reno, Nevada, once winter passes and we are able to get to the northern tower sites.) Most of the road had good mobile coverage, but there were a few brief areas where the signal dropped out, so we do not have 100% coverage which is very difficult to achieve in mountainous areas like Mammoth while heading north.
The coverage from our site in Mammoth drops out shortly after turning north on US395 because of the mountains just west of the highway. As I continued north, the signal came back after the mountains just west of the highway disappeared into a large flat area where there is snowmobiling available for those who wish to try their hand at the sport. Continuing north, I passed the southern June Lake Loop junction which provides access to the Town of June Lake and the June Mountain ski area. This is a very familiar area to me since I have skied at June Mountain numerous times and we have negotiated space with the mountain to place another site on our network at the ski lodge. (We would have had the site on the air if it weren’t for the massive storms that occurred in December just before we were about to install the equipment.) As I passed the junction, I proceeded north towards the northern June Lake Loop junction which is closed in winter because much of the road is covered under a large amount of snow. It is about 6 miles to the northern junction when I noticed that I had strong signal from our site at Conway Summit. I continued the drive and eventually reached the junction of California Highway 120 that heads west towards the Yosemite Valley (and is closed in winter) just south of the town of Lee Vining. As I approached Lee Vining, the speed limit reduces to 30mph to provide safety to the town from speeding motorists. The town is small, but quaint and offers some good food and lodging for the people who travel through the area. I have visited for many hours on multiple occasions the town of Lee Vining over the years as it is the gateway to Yosemite from the eastern sierras and a great rest stop on the way to the town of Bodie which is an old ghost town that was operational in the early half of the 20th century until the gold mining dried up which was the business that kept the town solvent. However, my destination was closer than Bodie which was at least 20 miles beyond my destination.
As I exited Lee Vining, the highway passes along the western edge of Mono Lake where the highway is cut into the side of the mountain. Due to the frequent rock slides in the area, Caltrans has set up a reinforced screened fence to catch the rocks as they head down the mountain in an attempt to compromise the highway. I continued north after the highway left Mono Lake where the tufa protruding out of the water in the lake provided a breathtaking view on this picture perfect day. The road straightened out making it safe to travel at 70mph as I headed across the flats until the road started up the hill towards Conway Summit. The highway was 4 lanes at this point and travel was brisk, even though there was a significant uphill grade. As I climbed up the hill, I was noticing the snow on the side of the hill which made me think that I might not be able to get to the radio towers. Eventually the road reached the summit where the Conway Summit CalTrans Station is located.
I entered the station through the access road that was marked “Wrong Way – Do Not Enter”. There was a dirt road that went up the hill behind the CalTrans Station which was the access road to the radio towers at the top of the hill behind the station. The access road was plowed by a snowplow, so the road was easy to travel which alleviated my concerns about getting to the site. Just to be safe, I stopped to put the vehicle in 4WD so that I would not have a traction problem. As I traveled in an easterly direction up the road, I could see certain areas where the snow was over 2 feet deep from snow drifts. This was after a whole month of dry weather where the snow was burning off daily whenever the temperature was high enough and the direct sunlight was able to melt the snow. However, the temperature was 13ºF and the snow was not melting this morning at 9:30AM. I reached the top of the hill and made the right turn to head west back towards the radio towers. It was apparent that the road was no longer plowed at the top of the hill, but the exposure to the direct sunlight seemed to burn off most of the snow. As I approached the radio buildings, the snow seemed to be thicker, but I felt that my vehicle could handle the snow. What I failed to take into account was the fact that the snow had melted and frozen multiple times creating a crust which kept the snow from being pushed out of the way when driving over it. I proceeded towards the radio buildings and after about 120 feet of being on the snow, I hit a snow drift that was deeper and the weight of the vehicle broke the crust and sank into the snow. I quickly lost traction and had all 4 wheels spinning without the slightest hint of traction. I immediately knew that I was in for a rough time to get out of the situation and that going the last 200 yards to the building was not in the cards. I felt that I could dig my way out of the situation, but it would take time. I was happy that I dressed in my ski clothes so that I would not have a problem with the cold outside. As it turned out, I was only partially correct.
First, I needed to assess the situation to see how I would go about digging out the car. As I attempted to open the door, I found that I could just barely get the door open enough to exit the vehicle. I walked around the car to see how badly I was stuck and then went around the rear of the vehicle to get out the shovel for the dig. I dug through the back of the vehicle until I found the shovel, removed it from its carrying case and proceeded to assemble the fold up shovel into a working instrument. I then went around to the driver’s door to dig out the snow so that I could open the door a greater amount to be able to enter and exit the vehicle with reasonable ease.
I started digging under the vehicle around the tires on the driver’s side of the vehicle. This entailed sitting on the snow which limited my ability to dig under the vehicle. I started lying down in the snow to be able to dig under the vehicle with greater efficiency, but I quickly recognized that I had some physical limitations that were going to make this task difficult to achieve. I am left handed and at times I needed to dig with my right hand which was clumsy and awkward to do. When I was able to dig with my left hand, I noticed that I did not have the strength that I needed at times due to the torn rotator cuff in my shoulder that was significantly healed, but not completely healed to the point where it was keeping me from being able to efficiently dig in the snow. The next issue I encountered was that my fingers were getting cold much faster than the rest of my body because the gloves that I brought were too light for the cold to which I was constantly being exposed. So after digging for 10-15 minutes, I needed to stop, get back into the vehicle and warm my hands with the vehicle heater. This would take about 10 minutes before I could go back to work for another 10-15 minutes digging out the snow from under the vehicle.
It was time to start my second round of digging. I continued to dig out the driver’s side of the vehicle. I dug around the rear tire as well as the front tire and the entire distance in between the two tires. I then went behind the vehicle and dug behind the rear tire so that I could back up in the clear. I felt that I had dug enough on the driver’s side of the vehicle as it seemed like it was fairly clear of snow. After completing this task, I needed to defrost my hands again for another 10 minutes in the vehicle.
It was now time to go around to the passenger side of the vehicle and start digging on that side. The passenger side was significantly more difficult to clear as the snow was thicker, heavier, harder, clumped, iced and packed under the vehicle in much greater volume. I started digging out the front tire and worked my way back towards the rear tire while clearing the snow away from the “roadbed” which had a snow bank along the side which made it uncomfortable for me to lye down in the snow. I had to partially dig out the snow bank to allow me to get into position to work under the vehicle. I found the snow far more difficult to dig because the snow was icier and harder to break up. Also, there was far more snow on this side of the vehicle and it was packed around the vehicle frame which made me think that the wheels did not have the weight of the vehicle due to being bottomed out on the snow. So I dug and dug and dug some more until I could not feel my fingers any more. I had to get into the vehicle and defrost my fingers again.
I repeated this procedure 3 more times as I worked to free the vehicle. I was fighting off leg cramps which I often seem to get whenever I am lying down on the ground. I was also fighting off the cold in my hands and to a limited extent, the cold in my feet. I did not have the proper shoes for being in the snow for an extended period of time, so my feet being affected by the snow getting into my shoes and melting from my body heat. I also had to dig out behind the vehicle rear tire to free the path for the vehicle to back out of the area where I was stuck.
I thought that I had dug enough to get out and if not, I thought that it would only take a small additional amount of digging. I was reaching my limit of what I could do in the digging department as I was getting tired and expending a lot of energy due to the cold which I could feel in the extremities. So I decided to try to move the vehicle to see how much more (if any) I needed to dig. I thought that if it was going to have any difficulty backing up, I would need to give it one more round of digging to get free. So I got into the drivers seat and proceeded to put the vehicle in 4WD low so that I would have greater torque in case I needed it. I placed the transmission in reverse and proceeded to apply gentle pressure to the gas pedal. The tires immediately began to spin without any traction whatsoever dashing my plans to get out of this situation any time soon. I looked under the vehicle to see if I wanted to continue to dig, but after inspecting under the vehicle, I decided it was time to call for help. It was now almost 11:30AM and I have been stuck for about 2 hours without making any significant progress. I figured that I should call for help and if I was feeling up to it, I could continue to dig under the vehicle or just wait it out until help could arrive.
I had charged up my cell phone while I was stuck so that I had a full battery. Also, I had my two-way radio and was able to reach the shop in case I felt that it would be necessary. The site was less than a 5 minute drive from the highway, so I knew that I could hike out to the highway within 20 minutes, so I was not particularly worried about being in serious danger from exposure or being lost without hope of survival. There was a cell site on top of the mountain, so the signal for the phone was excellent. I dialed 911 and waited for the dispatcher to answer. I explained my situation to dispatch and asked for help to get out of my predicament. She asked me if I was a member of the AAA to which I told her that I was a premier member. They informed me that I should call the AAA and request roadside assistance to get pulled out. She did not indicate that they intended to send anyone to help. So I called the AAA and got the automated attendant which ran me around in circles for several minutes before I was able to get to a live person. I explained my situation in great detail and informed them of my exact location which took another 5-10 minutes at which point they informed me that I was talking to Southern California dispatch and that I needed to speak with Northern California dispatch. She then transferred me to Northern California where I proceeded to go through the same issues all over again like I had never spoken to anyone. They told me that I should expect to get help in about one hour and that I would receive text message updates. This made me feel better that help was on the way.
Now I was trying to figure out how to pass the time until help would arrive. I started to read a book that I had in the car and after about 15 minutes, the AAA called back to tell me that it would be about 2 hours before anyone would arrive because the local AAA contractor was unavailable. At this point, I decided that I had plenty of time to go to the building and complete my task there. So I grabbed everything that I needed and proceeded to walk the 200 yards to the building. I found myself being significantly challenged attempting to get to the building. Walking on the crusty snow was far more challenging than I imagined for several reasons which included the icy crust, the uneven surface and the fact that I kept breaking through the crust and ending up almost knee deep in the snow. My shoes and socks were filling up with snow and getting soaking wet which made my feet cold. In addition, I was having some trouble with my right hip which I had injured previously and was in the process of healing. I strained the hip while digging out the snow, so it was more tender than normal. When I broke through the crusty snow and sunk in to the snow up to my knee with my left foot, I now had to use my right leg to step out of the hole which put a greater strain on my right hip. I pulled a muscle in my right hip during the affair making the trek to the building that much more painful. I was less than 50 yards from the building when all of a sudden, I started hearing a voice over a bull horn. I turned around and saw that the highway patrol had sent a car to see if I was OK and had not informed me that they intended to send anyone. I was glad that someone was here, but now I was faced with the fact that I was almost to the building and now had to turn around and head back to the vehicle. He asked me if I needed help and I yelled back at him that I did need help. Walking back to the car was just as difficult as the trek out to where I was located, but I kept working at getting back to the vehicle and eventually made it back. I was thinking to myself that I was no longer up to another attempt to get to the building, so now the trip was a total loss. I failed to get any work done and I got myself stuck in the process needing help to get pulled out.
The highway patrol officer was considerate and attempted to be helpful. I asked if he could pull me out, but he did not have any tow rope and felt that it was too likely that he would get stuck himself if he attempted to pull me out since my vehicle was about 50% heavier than his vehicle. About that time, I received a call from AAA which I thought would be an update to the ETA of their vehicle. I was right that it was an update for their arrival time, however the update was that no one was going to help from AAA. They said that they have a rule that if I am more than 50’ off the pavement, they will not come to help as it was not covered by my membership. I asked them if I could pay the contractor for the charges not covered by the membership and she indicated that no one was going to come to help me and that I needed to call someone else. Now, the highway patrolman was attempting to find someone to get me pulled out. He called the local off road towing company, but kept getting their voice mail and did not get any return calls from them. He managed to get the name and phone number of another company that was based in Gardnerville that was over 2 hours north of my location. The CHP dispatch had contacted them and they indicated that they could run the call, so I had to call them to give them the information about my situation and arrange for the rescue. They told me that it would be 2 hours since they had to dispatch their tow truck from Gardnerville, Nevada which is several miles south of Carson City.
Now that I had arranged for the rescue, the CHP officer asked if I still needed him as he had other things that needed his attention. I thanked him for his help and his caring and told him that I should be OK. He asked me if I wanted a ride to town, but I said no and that I would stay there with the vehicle waiting for the new towing outfit to arrive. I then received a call from the owner of the towing company who said that he was in the Bridgeport area and could get to me within the hour with his jeep and thought that he would be able to pull me out without bringing a tow truck from the office. At this point, the CHP officer bid me goodbye and said that he would check back later in the day to see that I was out of there since it was only 5 minutes off the highway.
Now it was time to relax and read my book. I sat there in the car reading page after page, passing the time until the towing company was set to arrive. After about 45 minutes, I received a phone call from the towing company and he was about to arrive at Conway Summit. So I gave him additional instructions on how to find me as he drove into the CalTrans station and proceeded up the dirt road. He arrived at the top of the hill and made the turn to head to the radio towers. As I spotted his vehicle, I got out of the vehicle to greet him. He thought that I was someone else working at the radio towers, so he called my cell phone to let me know that he had arrived. When I answered the phone while being 40 feet directly in front of him, he was surprised because he thought that I was someone else.
He got out of the car and walked over to my vehicle to inspect the situation. He said that he thought that it would be an easy job to pull me out, so he proceeded to pull his vehicle onto the snow and stopped about 30 feet from my vehicle where there was a bump in the snow that he could use as something to provide additional anchorage for his vehicle. He rolled out his winch, attached his tow straps to my tow hitch while I got into the vehicle to steer and apply gentle pressure to the gas pedal to give a mild assist. He winched me out within 2 minutes with very little effort which told me that I probably could have continued to dig myself out of the situation if I had felt good enough to continue. (If no one could have come to help, I would have continued to dig my way out of being stuck.) He wound up his winch and put away the controller. He then neatly folded up his tow straps and put them away. After a brief interlude with the paperwork, we were both on our way down the hill.
I reached the highway and turned left to head south towards Mammoth Lakes where I needed to clean up, change clothes and pack the car to head back to the Los Angeles area where I could get back to the regular daily work after stopping by one of my condos in Mammoth to take care of some issues that the current guest had mentioned that some attention was needed. So I went to the condo and took care of the issues, packed the vehicle and headed south.
It was a 6 hour drive from Mammoth to my home in Palos Verdes. The drive was mostly uneventful other than the fatigue that had set in during the long drive. When I arrived in Mojave, I found that a train just started crossing the road, so I sat there in the car waiting for the train to finish crossing the main highway which by law can only block the road for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes passed and there seemed to be no end of the train, so it continued to block the road for another 5 minutes just like the first five minutes. The train still seemed to go on forever, so I knew that I was not out of the woods so I thought that maybe there was a way around the train. The only way I knew how to get around the train would take me at least 10 minutes, so I decided to continue to wait for the train to pass. I noticed that the train seemed to be slowing down and as I continued to sit waiting in the car, I could tell that it definitely was slowing down and eventually when the last train car was blocking the road, it came to a complete stop. This was the first time after at least 200 trips from Mammoth to Los Angeles (and vice versa) via this same route that I have ever been confronted by a train on these tracks. Naturally, it would happen on the day I got stuck in the snow. Now that it was almost 9:30PM with another 2 hours to go to get home while I was getting tired, I was getting anxious for the train to clear the roadway so that I could continue the trek to get home. After 17 minutes of blocking the road, the train finally started moving again and finally cleared the roadway so that the railroad gates would stop screaming and blinking, then rise up and out of the way so that we could continue on our way.
I arrived home at 11:45PM, got undressed, crawled into bed and passed out. Morning arrived way too early, but I was very glad that I was alive to experience the pain and exhaustion of the next day…………..