STUCK ON THE COQUIHALLA: Dozens of closures and Mother Nature's havoc on the mountain pass

FILE PHOTO - A crew from the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure Avalanche Team working on avalanche control on Highway 5 on Mar. 21, 2012.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Ministry of Transportation

"THE COQUIHALLA IS KIND OF LIKE A LUGE. THE ONLY WAY TO GO IS DOWN."

THOMPSON-OKANAGAN – Last Sunday, Lisa Durack was travelling home to Kamloops from Princeton with her husband and dog, seemingly well-prepared for the journey. Emergency preparation is key when it comes to the Coquihalla, as they discovered after getting caught in a solid line up of cars in quickly deteriorating weather.

Traffic was stopped in both directions following a fatal crash and several secondary collisions on Highway 5 south of Merritt. After the accident, motorists had no way to turn around and northbound traffic backed up quickly.

"We were waiting and waiting and eventually we moved forward a little. We checked our gas, and turned off the car periodically to be sure we wouldn't run out," Durack says.

They followed other vehicles U-turning through an emergency vehicle access road hoping to take an alternate route as suggested by Drive B.C. but quickly found that route blocked as well. 

Traffic stalled at the crash scene south of Merritt on Highway 5 on April 2, 2017.
Traffic stalled at the crash scene south of Merritt on Highway 5 on April 2, 2017.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Kailey Reid

"Eventually they let us go through, but no one really looked at the level of risk of stopping us there. If you're going to block the road, don't make it so the cars are out in the lanes of traffic on a 120 kilometre per hour highway. It was just a bad situation," Durack says.

"The Coquihalla is kind of like a luge. The only way to go is down. There are big spaces between the exits, if there's an accident, or if something changes, there aren't many options."

By the time they made it through, it was dark, they were on an unfamiliar road in terrible conditions and delayed by about five hours.

Frequent Coquihalla travellers might have a similar story of what happens when weather or traffic accidents leave you stranded on the highway with few options. The Coquihalla had five times as many closures this winter compared to last winter — 25 closures (26 if the April 2 fatal crash is included).

From October 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016, the five Coquihalla closures were due to collisions. In the 25 closures in the same period this year, 18 closures were due to incident, five closures were due to road conditions and two were due to maintenance, according to data from The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

The fatal crash on April 2 happened during hazardous weather conditions, according to the ministry. A snow squall near the summit of Highway 5 caused conditions to change from bare pavement and clear skies to white-out conditions with zero visibility in a matter of minutes.

Traffic on Highway 5 northbound was at a standstill for almost eight hours on April 2, 2017 as RCMP and crash scene analysts worked at the scene of the fatal crash 10 kilometres south of Merritt.
Traffic on Highway 5 northbound was at a standstill for almost eight hours on April 2, 2017 as RCMP and crash scene analysts worked at the scene of the fatal crash 10 kilometres south of Merritt.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Kailey Reid

While VSA Highway Maintenance spokesperson Bob Gilowski didn't have information on the Coldwater Road stop that Durack experienced, he says the first priority is to get everyone stuck in a highway closure turned around safely.

Gilowski says this year, the Coquihalla got slightly more snowfall than normal and as much as 50 per cent more snow in March than usual. The weather conditions may have contributed to the increase in this year's Highway 5 closures.

Mild weather in lower elevations can fool motorists into thinking there will be smooth sailing on the mountain passes.

"It even happens in the winter months. We can experience dry conditions with no snow in lower elevations and it lulls us into a false sense of security," Gilowski says.

"Pay attention to the road and weather conditions. Some of us have children who drive those highways. We want all drivers to be responsible, vigilant and safe." 

No matter the time of year, always carry a cell phone, blanket and emergency supplies in case of a prolonged road closure, and check road conditions before leaving. Because as this season proved, closures are always a possibility.

Durack says the transportation ministry can do more to inform drivers in such events about safe alternatives. Even some basic information isn't made available.

"It would be progressive if there were more options like extra turnarounds for course corrections when people are stuck for who knows how many hours," she says. "I mean, legally you aren't even supposed to turn around in those emergency turnarounds, but that's where everyone was taking U-turns."


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