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Stranded in the Snow

Stranded in the Snow

Army Aviation Support Facility No. 1
Boone, Iowa

Sometimes, we make decisions contrary to our training. When we leave the military environment at the end of a work day, a lot of us leave our risk management training at the door. I speak from experience. Even though I had quickly thought through some aspects of risk management, I did not necessarily implement all of the steps one winter day a couple of years ago.

As I departed for work at the flight facility, the conditions were typical for a mid-winter day in the area — cold temperatures in the 10-15 F range. There was no snow or other precipitation, but the forecast called for gusty winds with drifting snow and lower visibility. The conditions had already deteriorated from my morning commute. The wind direction changed to the west and increased in speed, and the temperature dropped several degrees. There was also reduced visibility in some areas.

I decided to run an errand in town before heading home. From the north side of town, I had two routes I could take home: a paved highway or a gravel road. I frequently traveled both routes over the past nine years. Based on the current weather conditions, I decided to go with the gravel road, which stretched about 3 miles in a north-south direction and then 2 miles east to west before reaching home.

The first mile of gravel was as expected. I had normal winter driving conditions with some minor drifts at the farmsteads and evidence other traffic had traveled through recently. I then came upon a deeper, shorter-width snow drift, but was able to push through it in four-wheel drive. Unknown at that time, the deeper snow had pushed into my pickup’s engine compartment and caused the serpentine fan belt to come off the pulleys. This reduced the steering response and also affected the anti-lock brakes.

About a half-mile north, my pickup’s left wheels caught the edge of another snow drift and pulled me left. With a lower steering response, increased steering effort and the anti-lock brake situation, the pickup slid sideways and eventually dropped into a snow-filled ditch. Even with the four-wheel drive engaged, I was not able to back out of it. I was at least a half-mile from the nearest farm and more than 2 miles from home. I pondered my options based on the environmental conditions. But before I made a decision, I called my wife and let her know where I was and what I was thinking.

The walk home was not going to be pleasant with the cold temps and associated wind chill; however, there were at least three farmsteads along the route where I could seek assistance. Another option would be to contact a friend with a four-wheel-drive pickup and snowplow and see if he could rescue me. My last option was to stay with the truck.

Fortunately, a neighbor out on his snowmobile saw me in the ditch and rode over to help. After we assessed the situation, he gave me a ride home. During the ride, I discovered that even if the pickup had not become stuck, further travel on this portion of the gravel road would not have been possible. Drifts in one area were 4-5 feet high and would have buried my pickup.

Lessons Learned

Although I assessed the weather conditions, my previous experiences and overconfidence made me believe the gravel road route would be passable. My gut told me I should have taken the paved road even though it was slightly longer because it’s usually cleared of snow quicker, more vehicles would be traveling it and assistance would be available had I needed it. However, before I could find a clear area to turn around on the gravel road, I got stuck.

In addition, had I been stranded, my family and friends may have started looking for me on the paved road based on their driving experiences. As the phone call to my wife demonstrated, she did not understand where I got stuck. She assumed I was on the paved highway. Thanks to my neighbor’s assistance, though, this event ended well. Other than a cold snowmobile ride — and then having to dig out my pickup, remove packed snow from the engine compartment and complete some minor repairs — I was pretty fortunate.

  • 10 December 2023
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 205
  • Comments: 0
Categories: Off-DutyPMV-4