Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Don't Panic!

You don't have to find yourself in a plane crash or earthquake to start applying survival techniques. In the UK, we are more likely to find ourselves affect by flood or cut off from our day to day by the snow. This winter, as seems to be an annual event, the British roads were crippled by a snow storm leaving countless motorist stuck out in the cold.

North Devon - 2am
How inconvenient it was for our weather system to dump a pile of snow on the roads eliciting the slightly late response of a fleet of gritting lorries to cover the road in salty goodness. This did nothing more than create a slushy film on top of an already compacted layer of snow which subsequently froze solid when the temperature dropped below minus seven, which is when the salt stops doing its job properly. Nightmare! My poor mate spun his little Cleo and reverse parked it into a ditch. With the RAC being frankly rubbish, he took refuge in a parked lorry, gave us a ring and asked us to come and pick him up. We packed a 4x4 with sleeping bags, shovel, basha, bow saw, hot chocolate and a pack of mince pies, stuck The Greatest Rock Album in the World Ever on the stereo and went to get him ourselves. He was extremely grateful and we only took the piss a little bit.

I had my own encounter with this phenomenon at one of the sites which is accessed by a long track. Without the benefit of a gritter, this track had developed a pair of icy lanes simply by the sun melting the top layer and it freezing again. I set off slowly from the top of the hill, testing my brakes as I went and it was all going well until I got close to the gate which I'd have to stop to open. Did I stop? No, of course I didn't. I couldn't even get out of the ruts and onto the fluffy stuff, the car kept sliding back down into the slippery bit and it was only by the grace of a few protruding stones that I managed to get enough traction to stop. Inching my way down, I managed to get through the gate and faced stage two which became steeper and culminated in a short glassy run to the main road. If that wasn't enough, my handbrake, which had recently had the cable replaced, was not holding consistently. I couldn't go forwards, backwards, turn around or stay still without having to be in the car myself. I did the only sensible thing I could think of; I lit a cigarette and phoned my assistant instructor to come down and get involved in the comedy.

He arrived, rope in hand wearing a deserved smirk. First we chocked the car, lit another cigarette and sucked air through our teeth. We figured that if the car was going to keep sliding, our best plan was to create an area with traction and attempt to brake before hitting the road. We stuck a few branches further down the track, just in case. Having identified the flattest section, we tried chipping it, deicing it, throwing neat screen wash on it. Nothing worked.

Plan B involved creeping down the hill then using a bit of power to get off the shiny bit and on to the side. This turned out to work well and even though it was not an exciting or technical solution, I eventually made it down the rest of the track. My colleague directed the traffic to stop and I made it back onto the tarmac and went on my way, albeit an hour or so late. I ended up returning in the dark, parked at the pub and walked up through the woods back to site. Thankfully, I always keep a torch in the car.

The moral of these stories is one of anticipation, preparation and that if all else fails, ring your mates and they'll come and help. They might make it more of a mission than necessary and they will almost certainly have a good giggle at your expense. It is important remember your priorities in these matters; protection from further danger, analysis of resources, protection from the elements and if self rescue is difficult or dangerous, enlist the help of whoever you can. Whatever you do, don't get stuck, take risks or try to man your way through a tough situation. Don't underestimate the time these things take and plan for the worst at each stage.

Be safe on the roads this winter readers. My advice is to assume you'll get affected by bad weather and always take a tool kit, sleeping bag, first aid kit, waterproofs, rope, small shovel, plenty of spare screen wash and a working mobile phone with a car charger. Ensure your car is in good working order, especially the brakes and don't wait until your tires become illegally bare before changing them. All in all, know the limits of your vehicle and don't take risks.

Take part in an open discussion about this article on Facebook