Close call: A cautionary tale about driving Highway 99 from guest writer and local guide Sam McKoy
I have a friend who was buried in an avalanche a few years ago. By some miracle, he was revived, and he now jokes that the anniversary of that day is his other birthday, because he got the chance to come into the world again.
So, when Pemberton/Whistler raised guide, photographer and adventurer, Sam McKoy, wrote this post about his birthday, I thought he was alluding to getting a second chance.
Turns out, it was his actual birthday too.
It’s a dark road where car tracks in the white snow on black pavement make it look like outstretched piano keys. White, black, white, black, white. My eyes are focused on the hypnotic curves of the piano-key road of Highway 99, keeping my tires on the flat keys. The slow goings of the road are interspersed with oncoming headlights but for the most part, the road is quiet tonight.
Just outside of Whistler, I absentmindedly find myself climbing a low-inclined straight hill. I’m going 30 kilometers under the highway’s regular speed limit. Unexpectedly, I find my hatchback’s back end suddenly moving counterclockwise, out from under me. It’s a rear wheel drive vehicle and I didn’t have the four wheel drive (4WD) on. I’m going 70 kilometers an hour and now I’m sliding 45 degrees off of parallel and out of control. With my foot off the gas and brake, I’m trying to steer the vehicle back into a straight line. Physics has control now, not me. Within split seconds of themselves, I find myself sliding into the oncoming lane. Shadows in the snow and black landscapes are flitting by. I’m 90 degrees to the road and as I see myself leaving the road, a half second of panic sets in. I slam the brakes hoping for any small fraction of control over this current nightmare.
As the car leaves the road I relinquish all control. I plainly let go of the steering wheel, take my foot off the brake pedal, close my eyes and with a relax of the muscles, exhale. Kind of like my mom does when trying to block out the fear of a roller coaster ride. I’d like to imagine it’s a bad dream and that somewhere someone in the background is playing a sonata on the piano.
I feel my arms fly at my sides, my seatbelt tightened against my chest, my neck rocks sharply one way and then the other. And then after a spiral that had metal crunching on rock, it’s all over. I open my eyes and it’s silent. My engine has stalled and the only sound is not piano, but the drumming of my heartbeat.
The nightmare collapses quickly and like a rude awakening, back to reality. I’m fine; in the ditch with my car pressed into a rock wall. I punch my four-way flashers and pull out my phone. 12:04 am Dec 11 2016.
Happy Birthday to me.
A student, certified Wilderness First Responder and ACMG apprentice ski guide, Sam studies risk for a living.
I was just returning from a week spent with Bella Coola Helisports going over safety training for the upcoming season’s heli-skiing. Between bone splinting, crevasse rescue, buried skiers, large scale scenarios, risk management protocols, there are a lot of ways we work to make heli-skiing safe.
And now I’ve managed to terrify myself by winding up in the ditch in the cold and dark.
“Taking part in a lot of inherently dangerous activities, there are a lot of risks in my life,” writes Sam. “They are often calculated, minimized, but present nonetheless. However, consequences don’t always feel real until you experience them.”
Sam is the fourth person that I know of to have driven off the road this month. Happily, all escaped without injury. But it’s sobering, nonetheless, and a reminder of the particular vulnerability we all have, which we can become inured to, as we make our daily commute, which is why I appreciated Sam’s post, and his willingness to expose his vulnerability and analyze the decisions that led to him going off the road.
“In driving my vehicle around on icy highways in the middle of winter nights, I don’t know that I fully considered my vulnerability in the risk equation,” he writes.
It’s a great piece – and truly counts as thought leadership (in an era when that term is so abused.)
And in the end, Sam’s “birthday bump” was a chance for someone to be reminded how much they are loved and how precious their life is – which might be the best birthday present you ever get.