Descent Into Hell

The next time I have a choice between the longer, flatter, and better known road and the shorter, steeper, and lesser known road, I should pick the former.

I left the Chasm mid-morning, drove into Cache Creek where I gassed up without incident, and then double-backed to the junction to the 99 Sea to Sky highway.

For days I had been debating whether or not to take this road. Everything I’d heard about it told me that I was a difficult but rewarding road that could be done by RV. It was also the most direct route to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal.

I made a lot of bad decisions that morning, the most unforgivable of which was not trusting my gut feeling. I have an uncanny sense of intuition and it’s always when I ignore it that I get into the worst trouble. As it was, I drove down to the town of Lillooet, before which the 99 turns into the town and continues on while there is also the option of continuing straight and doubling back to Cache Creek.

The drive from Cache Creek to Lillooet was hard. I averaged 20km an hour down short hills and around hairpin turns in low gear. Mistake number one was assuming that I was in a situation similar to the Cassiar and that things would improve.

Mistake number two was not taking a longer lunch at the viewpoint before the start of a steep section known locally as the Duffy. Had I done so, I would have hit that 13km stretch with cold brakes. As it was, they were already warm from over one hundred kilometres of pumping.

Otherwise, I did what I needed to do, gearing down with the occasional bit of pumping, but I was picking up speed. Someone was pushing me to go faster (idiots!) so I tried to pull over to let him pass and this is when I discovered that my brakes felt mushy; there is no other way to describe it. It was too late to use the emergency brake to stop at that tiny turn off, but there was a sign promising a runaway lane a short distance later, so I decided to just pump the brakes to there.

Someone was parked in the runaway lane. I just hope that this person was in the throes of his or her own emergency. Otherwise, they owe me four thousand dollars.

My brakes were barely responding by this point and the next runaway lane was more than one kilometre ahead, with two more sharp turns. I was geared down and pumping was no longer working. Material damage no longer mattered. I did the only thing that worked, keeping my foot on the brake, and that slowed me down enough to get around the turns safely. I knew I was staring at death right in the face, but there was no time to panic or have a breakdown. I kept my composure and did what I needed to do to get off that road alive.

I just about flew into the runway lane where I landed with a loud bang I’m sure was a brake-related component failing. There was a lot of smoke and I quickly got the toad out of the way. A couple pulled in behind me and I thought that they were there to check up on me, but I quickly realised that they were completely oblivious to the fact that I was not there by choice.

The echoing boom of an exploding tire finally made them conscious of the fact that all was not well with me. We could see licks of flames under Miranda, so I ran for the fire extinguisher while the man ran for a jug of water he had in his car. We got the fire out with those and I emptied the grey tank into a bucket to further cool down the burning tire.

They stayed with me for a good half hour, until I felt sure that the crisis had passed and that there would be no more fires. They then followed me into the nearby town of Pemberton to make sure my toad was okay.

Nothing other than the Petro-Canada seemed to be open in town since it was Thanksgiving. I resigned myself to spending a very long night on the mountain.

Returning to Miranda, I came to my senses and realised that I was blocking a runaway lane! This was absolutely unacceptable to me, even if I was in the midst of a genuine emergency. There was a short spur off the lane, long enough to tuck Miranda into, so I got back behind the wheel and used the emergency brake to jockey her into position.

It was early, only about four o’clock by that point, and I had rarely felt so alone and vulnerable in my life. On a whim, I picked up my cell phone and found that there was service! Without even thinking about it, I called my mother.

It was about seven when I finally went into shock. Even though it wasn’t the least bit cold, I could not warm myself up, so I finally conceded defeat and crawled under as many covers as I could.

Followed the second longest night of my life.

I got up at 7:30 the next morning without having slept a wink and tried to decide how best to proceed in getting myself safely off that mountain. I decided that since I had cell service I would try to call for help rather than driving back into town. Roadside assistance wanted to send me a tow truck from Whistler for a 150$ premium so I decided to go my own route and try to find someone local. Thing was, my GPS had only one local auto place in memory.

Mr. Napa guy who picked up thank you. When I asked if they offered towing, he said no, but that he could give me a few numbers. What sort of vehicle did I have? Oh, a motorhome? Then that brought the choices to only one, Off Road Hooker. Have him bring you to Olemotors. Both will take good care of you.

I called Off Road Hooker (love the name, btw!) and was promised help within twenty minutes! It wound up being closer to an hour, but still! I hadn’t made breakfast yet figuring that I would do so after everything was settled as I would surely have hours to kill.

The driver hooked up Miranda very easily, to my surprise. I thought that she was badly positioned for towing, but he had no problem getting her out of there. I was complimented on the fact that I’d tucked her out of the laneway. The driver told me to follow him and I said that I wanted to go to Olemotors. He smiled and said “Ole’s waiting for you, spoke to him on my way here.”

Olemotors is located in the industrial park about 6km shy of Pemberton proper. There, I was told that it would be a few hours before Miranda could be looked at an an estimate given. I was advised to back her up against the fence where there are 15A electrical hookups and was also given instructions for getting to a nearby coffee shop offering wi-fi.

At first, I was annoyed that I had to move Miranda myself and I didn’t have much fun manoeuvring the rig into place with just the emergency brake, but being behind the wheel did give me back a much needed feeling of control.

A few hours were killed at the coffee shop and then I came home. The following is soooo embarrassing, but too funny not to share. I had no sooner sat down on the toilet than my house started moving!!!!!!!!!!!! The mechanic was driving Miranda into a service bay without realising I was home! I think he had a heart attack when I came out the front door as soon as we were parked.

I was invited to sit in a warm break room while the damage was evaluated. I think that took all of twenty minutes. The diagnosis was that I needed a complete brake job, but the good news was that I had managed to spare my bearings. I was chastised for not gearing down and I indignantly stood up for myself. The Duffy is a menace, plain and simple!

The evaluation done, Ole called to get quotes for parts and I parked myself for the night, then went out to the coffee shop for a bit more internet checking and some dinner.

The evening was quiet and at about six Ole knocked on the door to let me know he was leaving and to give me his home number in case I needed anything. The last worker on site left at 8 and also came by to let me know he was leaving and locking the gate behind him.

Feeling very safe, I went to bed and slept well.

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  • You have a very level head, my girl! I’m proud of you. Most people would have panicked! Congratulations on saving your own life and not causing the demise of anyone else.

    From a fellow Ottawan, also a fulltimer!

  • I enjoy your blog.I’ve been following it for a year now.I have you on my Blogs I read,list.
    I guess I was parked near you in Dawson City this past August,after finishing a trip up the Dempster.I was in the rv park with the gas station,convience store,I’ve forgotten the name.
    Your trip down the Duffy lake road reminded me of years ago when it was all gravel and I travelled it with a van conversion.And another time had a similar experiance to you coming down the Hurley from the Bridge River Valley to Pemberton and was standing on the brakes with both feet.The van had a 2 speed tranny,so gearing down wasn’t much of an option.

  • Sandra, thanks for your comment!

    So, there are two full-timing Ottawan gals haunting the roads…. We should start a club. 😉

  • Having done 25,000 miles (40,000 kms) in our 1996 28 ft class A motorhome over the last 2 years ourselves, we’ve also done a LOT of backroad mountainous driving. We don’t have a toad, so that’s a major difference. And I’ve never been concerned about going UP a steep hill. Our engine seems to have enough power and a good enough cooling system to take us up any hill without an issue. But I have always been concerned about going DOWN hills. Despite the fact that our brakes are checked regularly and are in excellent condition, the front brakes seem to heat up very quickly. I think it’s normal for a motorhome…there is an awful lot of weight trying to be slowed down by two relatively small discs.

    I have yet to read answers to the following questions, and so I ask them solely for the purpose of helping someone else avoid a similar situation…

    In hindsight, what did go wrong? (and which tire blew…?)

    And what could you have done to have prevented the situation from becoming a problem in the first place?

  • Kevin, those are good questions.

    What went wrong is is hard to pinpoint. Some people get down that hill okay and some people don’t. Most people have a problem.

    I think that my problem was two-fold: the brakes were already warm when I started down and they were reaching the end of their life. They were last checked in Dawson before I left and the mechanic said the brakes were more than in good enough shape to get me safely to Vancouver Island, but that it would be a good idea to get them serviced before coming up next year since it would be cheaper than waiting to do it in the Yukon next fall.

    The ‘Duffy’ is unique, 13 percent grade for 13km with hairpin turns and no place to stop, so it’s hard to know for sure if newer brakes would have helped or not. What I was really lacking was experience in driving in such a situation with an automatic transmission, never having had formal training in doing so. I was geared down and my engine was definitely slowing the descent, but was I doing it right? The mechanic thinks I did everything fine based on my account, but there is always doubt after a situation like this.

    I’ve received a lot of horror stories about this road, with people in everything from sub-compacts to class Bs and As losing their brakes, so I’m really not convinced I could have done anything differently and there’s no point in doing the ‘what if’ game. My best suggestion is to avoid BC highway 99 between Lillooet and Pemberton.

  • Hi Willy, thanks for reading and commenting!

    You must have been next door to me at the Dawson RV Park.

    The Duffy used to be gravel? OMG, that must have been even worse!!!

  • Okay, so I’m getting the impression that this whole thing is related to overheated brakes.

    Sorry Rae, but I still have unanswered questions.

    Which tire blew? The reason I ask, is that it would be more logical for a front tire to blow. There is a tremenous amount of heat generated in the front brakes and it has nowhere to go but the air or the rim…which then of course heats the tire. If the rear tire went, I’m trying to figure out why.

    And what work did you have to get done? Pads? Shoes? Discs? Drums? Brake lines?

    Okay, so I want to play “what if”, and in doing so maybe we can save someone else from a possibly worse fate than you endured.

    What if…you would have had a “brake buddy” or similar? I haven’t seen you mention one for your toad, so I’m assuming you don’t have one.

  • Oh, and which gear were you in going down this steep grade?

  • Kevin, it was an inner rear dually tire that blew from the heat of the brakes. The mechanic and tow truck driver said that this was to be expected.

    No, I did not have a Brake Buddy and both the mechanic and the tow truck driver told me to thank my lucky stars I didn’t. The car is too light to have made any significant difference to my speed going down that grade (started at D2 and went down to D1) and my braking would have ruined the toad brakes, too had I been hooked up to an auxiliary braking system. In fact, this incident has convinced me to NOT get a braking system with my current vehicle combination.

    Yes, overheated brakes were the issue, but you’re ignoring the fact that I was using my engine to slow down but I was still going too fast to get around the turns and had no choice but to pump the brakes to further slow my descent.

  • With my rig, gearing down has limited effectiveness. It does initially slow me down but the weight of the rig very quickly overwhelms the braking effort of the gears and RPM’s go up very quickly!

    My method now is to gear down, watch the tach and when RPM’s (or speed) get dangerously high I brake heavily. This heavy breaking seems to keep the brakes cooler than gentle constant braking.

    Having said that, I am never comfortable on steep downhill runs and tend to pull over to let the brakes cool.

  • Like Croft said. 🙂 It’s like being stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place–burn out the engine or burn out the brakes.

  • Okay.

    I absolutely disagree with the mechanic and tow truck driver regarding a toad braking device. What do you (or they) figure a toad braking system is for?

    And, it is much more highly likely that a front tire would have blown well before a rear. The front brakes on any vehicle do much more of the work (and hence generate much more heat) than the rear brakes. This is why I wonder why your rear tire blew. But, maybe you are just extra lucky that a front tire didn’t blow as well!

    Anyhow, for advice to others, what I would do to avoid a similar problem is this…I would not travel with a toad without a toad braking system. It is simply too hard on the motorhome brakes. I also start any steep hill at a VERY slow speed (and don’t care if I inconvenience a driver behind me) and will quickly downshift to first gear without hesitation if it seems steep enough. Depends on the situation, but you’re right Rae, you should have started the run with totally cooled off brakes. That means sitting still for at least a half hour to let them cool down. If you’re at the top of a hill and you can’t touch your steel rim with your bare hand, the brakes are still way too hot. And I realize that you said there was nowhere to pull over, but even stopping on the grade somewhere is probably safer than letting your brakes fail.

  • Oh, yeah Kevin, I’d take your advice over that of two people who have 35 years combined experience helping folks who got burnt by that road. Oh, and both say the braking system would have bought me a km or two before the brakes got mushy, just enough time for me to have missed that second runaway lane, crash through the guard rail, and land at the bottom of the ravine.

    Stopping on that road is NOT POSSIBLE. It’s too narrow.

    The topic is absolutely closed until you come and do this road yourself.

  • Been on that road Rae…September 2006, but not in a motorhome. Beautiful drive. I especially enjoyed the hike up the to 3rd lake at Joffrey Park.

    Remind me again…what are toad braking systems for???!! If not to help slow the rig down???

    Rae, at least try to understand the logic of why they are used….I wouild rather be having this discussion with the two people who have given you wrong information.

  • Kevin, I’m going to humour you one last time. Have you seen the size of my toad compared to the motorhome???? By your logic, you think my tiny little car brakes would have held up the motorhome on a 13 percent grade. No. They would have bought me time before the motorhome brakes had gotten mushy, time that would not have helped me in this situation, and I would have needed new toad brakes and tires. For crying out loud, get off the subject already.

  • All I know about my my electric dolly brakes is that they are entirely ineffective in braking anything! They could be dragging fully locked up sending smoke and sparks flying and not slow me down enough to even notice them. Yes I have tested this by adjusting them to go on before the MH brakes and if it wasn’t for the smoke in the rear view mirror, I would not know they were engaged.

  • You did admirably well, I have driven that road, in my MGB, so know of what you speak. I don’t believe I would attempt to get my motorhome over that way though.

  • Holy Moly! Amazing story. As much as you were in a panic at the time, it seems as though your good sense was there all along! Congrats for your choices!

  • John, I wish more motorhome drivers had warned me about that road. 🙁

  • Neil, thank you for the reminder about what was important, that I got off that mountain safely, with minimal damage, and without hurting anyone.

  • […] Seymour Narrows is BC’s marine equivalent of the Duffy. […]

  • Hi Rae,
    Just found your website…..interesting stuff.
    Question for you on your decent.
    When your rig was towed, was it towed front end on the hook or back end?
    I have seen several auto trans. ruined because they were hauled by the front end and without the tranny being disconected, the drive shaft turns the tranny and without fluid to keep the tranny cool, it cooks the tranny making for a shorter lifespan.
    How did they tow your rig?

  • Hi Bob,

    It was towed by the front end, but not ‘four down’, so the tranny issue doesn’t apply here.

    Good question!

  • Rae,
    Only problem with the front end being towed is the rear wheels turn the rear gears which turn the drive shaft which turns the tranny.
    If it wasn’t towed to many miles, it probably wasn’t a problem for you.
    Thanks for your quick replyl

  • She was towed less than 6mi.

    The tow truck driver knew what he was doing and then I had a full mechanical inspection done, so I’m not too concerned.

    I’ll keep your comment in mind if something like this ever happens again and I don’t feel as confident about the tow truck driver!

  • […] opportunity to do so. I must have had this lesson in mind during my Chasm respite before one of the worst days of my life. If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS […]

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