Anton Grimus reports on driving safe and arriving in one piece at the snow.
For many drivers, a certain type of snow blindness seems to kick in as the white caps come into view and it only seems to get worse as they wind their way further up the mountain.
It’s a condition that can cause them to tailgate mercilessly, brake heavily and risk serious accidents with triple-blind overtaking manoeuvres. Other symptoms can include forgetting to carry or fit chains, driving up on less than a quarter of a tank of fuel and failing to use the slow vehicle turnout lane when their cautious approach to alpine driving causes traffic to bank up behind them for kilometres.
Fortunately, this strain of mountain madness can be remedied using a simple, three-pronged approach involving patience, courtesy and common sense.
I know it might seem a bit rich for someone who has spent a lifetime in Victoria’s high country to get so serious about less experienced mountain folk but, with lives at stake, I can am happy to wear that criticism.
Let’s start with the common sense phase of the treatment. Your plan should be administered long before you get behind the wheel, just before you commence your sleepless night anticipating all of those fresh turns. The rule here is to relax, drink a cuppa and get plenty of shut eye, because you’ll need to be fresh on the long trip up the hill as fatigue can be a killer.
While it’s important that your body is functioning, it’s equally crucial that your car is in good shape. You’ll need to make sure it is well serviced, with plenty of grip on the tyres and its radiator full of coolant.
As a general rule, you can’t buy fuel in the Australian alpine resorts (Thredbo excluded), so it makes sense to fill up before you head up the mountain. All of those vertical feet really burn up the juice and people can be shocked at how quickly the fuel gauge needle lurches to the left.
Filling up near the base of the mountain is especially important for anyone with a diesel vehicle as these outlets stock alpine diesel, containing an additive that stops wax in the diesel from solidifying in the cold. Failure to do this can result in a long and expensive trip to a heated shed to thaw your fuel system out.
So now you’re ready to climb, it’s time to apply the same common sense to your driving. Know this: the mountains are cold and icy, they’re slippery, they’re steep and they can only be accessed via really windy roads. These conditions shouldn’t scare you, they should simply prompt you to adapt your driving style.
This is where patience and courtesy come into the mix as the next 30 or so kilometres will be slow going and it’s a safe bet that you’ll witness some truly terrible driving. You may even be tempted to do the blind overtake. Do not give into this temptation as it is just completely reckless and I may be the one coming in the opposite direction.
A few other words of advice for this phase of the trip:
- If you notice that the stream of traffic behind you is getting right up to your rear bumper and appears to be growing, please take the next opportunity to pull off to the left and let the cars all go through. This will make your own trip more relaxing while reducing your chances of being involved in a head-on and majorly increasing your popularity.
- If you’re meeting an oncoming vehicle and the road is narrowed due to snow, the person going down the hill should give way to the person coming up. This allows them to maintain their momentum up the hill and avoid getting bogged down in the snow on their way to the slopes.
- If you have a manual car, use your engine as a braking mechanism through cycling through the lower gears to maintain your speed whilst heading downhill. This will help avoid sliding off the road when you apply the brakes on an icy surface. Most automatic cars have semi-manual gear toggles which Acts in the same manner. If needed, only use your brakes gently and drive slowly. If you lose traction, you’ve got a better chance of steering out of it than braking out of it.
- Avoid braking while cornering. Brake before the corner before you turn the steering wheel.
The gears are your friends. Engage first or second gear before going up or down any particularly steep sections.
- Put your chains on when directed to do so and make sure you’re good at it. This requires practice.
- If you do happen to get bogged down in the snow, avoid spinning the wheels viscously as this will only dig you deeper. Engage low gear, clear snow from underneath the vehicle and get friends to help push the car to get out of these hairy situations that could end up costing a bucketload if towing is needed.
With the alpine resorts being home to so many great bars and pubs, it’s always tempting to stop off for a drink between finishing your day on the slopes and driving back down the mountain. This is entirely understandable but what isn’t understandable is why people think they can push the envelope and turn that “one” into “a few”.
Driving in the mountains is challenging enough without throwing drunkenness into the mix so if you are planning on having a few, you’ll need to plan a safe way home that doesn’t include driving. In case you didn’t notice on the way up, Police love to book people who love to ski and they’re very good at it.
If you happen to be at Buller this weekend, you may want to visit ‘Vanessa’ in her bright orange Bute Ute at the Horse Hill car park. As well as giving you a free breath test, Vanessa can sort you out with a hot chocolate and a heap of snow-related giveaways like lip balm and personalised snow domes.
Finally, at the end of a long day behind the wheel and on the slopes, the last thing you want to do is spend a few hours in the car driving home. By this stage a bit of tiredness is bound to be creeping in so you may aim for a bit of a kip when you clear the boomgates at the bottom of the mountain.
Don’t let this drowsiness let you make the appalling decision to get home 10-minutes quicker by sitting 5-10km/h above the limit. Police have turned catching out-of-towners returning from the snow into a fine art and nothing is surer than a speeding fine if you creep over the limit by a few k’s.
For better or worse, driving to the snow is a necessary part of the sport we all love. It doesn’t have to be too stressful or dangerous and I’ve found a relaxed attitude makes the whole experience almost fun.
Anton Grimus is an Olympic ski-cross athlete and Mt Buller local who has called the mountains home his entire life. After competing in Sochi, Anton has returned to Mt Buller to spend the winter working in his tiny coffee window ‘Grimus Grind’ at his parents’ charming Hotel Pension Grimus.
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