A most horrible weekend

The night of Friday, 5 February 2010 was the start of the biggest snow storm of the season. In the first night and day of snowing, over twenty-one inches fell.

That was also the weekend I had a ski patrol duty shift, with my patrol shift to start early Saturday morning. Rather than rush the drive up through the snow on Saturday morning, I decided to head off to the ski resort at my own pace on Friday night and spend the night at the shared cabin I rent close to the resort.

I spent the early part of Friday evening with friends at the Wine Loft. By 10pm, I was in my car with the heat turned up, driving in shirt sleeves having taken off my winter coat for comfort, and with satellite radio tuned onto a New Wave channel.  The snow by this point was already thick and heavy on the roads, coming down faster than the road crews could plow and clear the roads. The drive was a white knuckle affair: the thickness of the falling snow made seeing the road lanes and edges impossible. The usually one hour journey took twice as long, and it was near midnight as I neared the resort.

The cabin was uphill on an unpaved dirt track that turned off from the main road to the ski resort. Halfway up the dirt access road was a sharp right hand turn. At the apex of the turn was a truck stuck in the snow on the outside curve, which meant that I had to cut the right hand bend close and tight to the inside curve, resulting in my car sliding sideways into the snow bank and ending up well stuck. No amount of rocking the car with quick first gear and reverse gear changes budged it free.

My immediate plans was to hop out of the car, kick away some snow from around the wheels to clear my way, and my four wheel drive will just power itself out of its predicament. Being on an inclined road with the car facing uphill, gravity swung my car door shut as I exited. I did my 360 around the car tramping down and kicking snow away. On my return to the driver side door, I discovered that in my scramble to climb out of my uphill and sideways leaning car, I must have inadvertently engaged the door lock button, and now my car was completely locked, with the engine still running. My winter coat which I taken off for the drive was nice and toasty warm on the passenger seat along with my cell phone that I had left plugged into the charger; both so close by yet completely out of my reach. Meanwhile, the happy, chirpy tunes of 80’s New Wave continued to play on the satellite radio, oblivious that I was at this point neither happy, nor chirpy, nor there to appreciate the music.

My sense of disbelief at seeing my keychain with all my keys hanging from the ignition switch could have been considered comical if not for the midnight cold of winter and unceasing snow. A few minutes of dismay later, and after having done a walk-around to confirm that all doors and hatchback to my car were truly, irrevocably locked, I made up my mind that it was better to leave my car and to trudge up the rest of the hill to my cabin where at least I wouldn’t freeze to death. The parking lot in front of my cabin hadn’t been plowed, and was packed with knee deep snow; I know because I that’s how high the snow came to on me as I struggled through to reach my cabin. Without my keys, I hopefully gave the door handle a turn, and bless my cabin mates for leaving the front door unlocked when they went to bed.

I rummaged around the cabin until I found a coat hanger, which I thought I could fashion into some sort of  a tool that I could slide into the passenger compartment to push on the unlock lever. I also found a ski parka with a pair of gloves in the living room, and a pair of ski pants hanging on a wall peg in the upstairs hallway. I helped myself to all three. I suppose I must have made a bit of racket ransacking the cabin the way I did, because Barb woke up and came downstairs to investigate, finding me trying to get into her ski pants. I apologized and said I didn’t know to whom the jacket and pants belonged, but I had locked myself out of my still running car with everything in it and I needed to get back to try unlocking it. She understood, but told me that I had to get her clothes back to her by 6am, which was when she had to go to work.

Fearing less the cold, I struggled back through the snow to my car, which on approaching was a beacon of headlights piercing through the snow and steam, and sounding like a cheap dance club with tinny music emanating through the door panels. In the 1am hour of the morning, it was just too dark by the dashboard light to make out any landmarks inside the car, and it was impossible to visually guide the coat hook to any target in the vehicle interior.  Utterly cold, defeated, and miserable, I returned back to the cabin, went to my room, and crawled into my bed.

Sleep came fitfully, with bad dreams waking me up, and disturbing thoughts keeping me awake: would my car overheat and set itself on fire because its was bound in snow and no longer had any meaningful air movement through the engine compartment? Would it run out of gas, then with the heater, radio, and headlights running, proceed to draining the battery? Some lay-in-the-dark mental math had me figuring out that I know I could make it from Pittsburgh to DC on a full tank of gas with a comfortable enough margin to spare that I could drive out of the district before I had to refuel, so I knew that a full tank of gas would last at least four hours of driving at highway speeds with the engine revving around six thousand RPMs. I had filled up the tank just before driving out from Pittsburgh, and I remembered that when I was locked out of my car at midnight, there was over three-quarters tank of gas in the car, which gave me some cold comfort that at idle speed, the three-quarter tank of gas should last at least eight to twelve hours: long enough for the sun to rise, and for me to get back on the task of unlocking my car.

Unable to sleep, I decided at 4am that perhaps if I had a larger gauge of coat hanger, I might have better luck with trying to spring the door lock. So once again I went about borrowing coat, ski pants, and gloves, and battling the snow to my car. This second iteration of trying to unlock my car was just as unsuccessful as the earlier attempt. Back in the cabin, I wrote up two notes, placing one on the front door and the other on Barb’s glove making sure that she would not miss seeing my notes, which asked her that if she was headed up to the ski resort, could she wake me up and give me a ride.

Shortly before 6am, she knocked on my room door to tell me that she was indeed heading to the resort, and could give me a ride. Over quick morning shots of coffee in the kitchen, she said that she had an extra jacket in the car that I could wear in the car so I wouldn’t get cold in the short drive up to the resort. Since our cabin’s parking lot was inaccessible to vehicles due to the snow packed into it, she had parked her car at a pull-off about fifty yards up the access road. She came up with suggestion that I would give her a five minute head start so that by the time I followed and got to her car, she would have it unlocked, ready, and warmed up, which sounded like a capital plan to me.

After the appointed five minute head start, I dashed out of the cabin and followed her footprints, deeply indented into the untouched overnight snowfall which had all but filled in and covered any signs of my tramping about in the dark earlier that morning. When I made it to Barb’s car, she had indeed started the engine, but all doors were open, and she was shoveling out of her car.

“I don’t know how it happened,” she said as I approached. “I must have left the passenger side window open all night. There’s snow all over the inside of the car.” I tried hard not to laugh, which turned out rather easily accomplished since I was more preoccupied with shivering. She ducked into her car, and came out with her spare jacket: it was pink leather, and the sleeves were slightly too short for me. And I had trouble figuring out how to zipper it up until I realized that it was double-breasted. I must have looked very dubious in it. Her car had been plowed in, and she was busy emptying out the snow from inside her car, so I offered to walk up to some of the other cabins to see if there was a snow shovel left outside I could borrow to shovel out her car. It didn’t take me long: the second row of cabins I came to had left a shovel standing next to a front door. I climbed over the snowbank, retrieved the shovel and went back to Barb’s car and began to shovel it out.

After twenty minutes of hard shoveling an exit for her car, she asked if I was tired and if I wanted to switch with her and I could work on unsnowing the inside of her car while she took over shoveling duties. I agreed, handed her the shovel, and climbed into her car to brush out the overnight snow accumulation. Not thirty seconds after I started cleaning out the inside of her car, Barb called me out saying that the guy whose shovel we took was there. We introduced ourselves all round; I apologized for taking his shovel without permission, but I swore that I would have returned it once we were done. He vigorously offered to help us shovel out Barb’s car, an offer both Barb and I accepted. It was only later that I realized that he must have thought that I was such a douche dressed in a too small, pink leather jacket, hiding out in the car and while leaving a woman to do the hard work of shoveling snow. Twenty more minutes of shoveling, and with much wheel spinning, slipping and sliding, her car was finally freed. We thanked the shovel owner one last time, and drove up to the resort where she dropped me off at the ski patrol house.

With both access to a phone, and a warm place to wait, I called up AAA. After the usual canned music-on-hold, I finally spoke to a representative; I explained that I was locked out of my car with the engine running, and the service representative told me, “due to the extreme weather, AAA has stopped all service calls.” This was now totally WTF and getting to be FML.

My next option was to break into my car myself. I called up the borough police asking if they had a Slim Jim that I might borrow. The dispatcher said she would have to check with the patrol cars to see if any patrolman had one, and that she would call me back. We used to have a Slim Jim at ski patrol, but it could no longer be found.

I got equal doses of sympathy and amusement from the ski patrollers who managed to get to the resort and were reporting for start of shift. A ski patroller heading out offered to stop by the office for Winter Operations where their director might knows of Slim Jims on premises. Police dispatch returned my call to tell me that none of their patrol cars carried Slim Jims. Word then came back from the Director of Winter Operations that the vehicle maintenance department had a whole kit for gaining entry into locked cars.

I easily hiked the two hundred yards to the vehicle maintenance garage to borrow their Slim Jim. It turns out that they didn’t use Slim Jims as much as a plain stiff metal rod to disengage the door lock switch from the passenger compartment. Unfortunately, all their rods were in the trucks that were now plowing the roads, and they couldn’t afford to call any of them back. The maintenance mechanic dug out some surplus iron bars, cut off a segment of about a yard and a half, put a bend in it, and ground down the rough ends of it and lent that to me as a manufactured door lock rod. He also lent me two window wedges. The rod was definitely much more substantial than the flimsy coat hangers that I had previously used.

I was just in time to come across two patrollers driving up to the ski patrol house as I was returning there. The patroller in the passenger seat got out of the car, and I leaned in to ask the driver if I could con him into driving me back to my cabin. Surprisingly, he  said yes and said he knew exactly where the cabin was since he was renting a cabin in the same development. On the drive back to the cabin, I told him the whole story of how I locked myself out of my car. He said he and his passenger had seen my car and had wondered whose car it was.

It took me about ten minutes of fidgeting and jiggling the rod inside my car before I had it unlocked. The patroller who had ferried me back to my car, had driven up the access road to turn his car around, returned and told me that while he was up by the cabins, he had helped shovel out two other cars.

Finally, past eight in the morning, I was able to drive out with my car and head to the ski resort. I noted that my gas tank was just under three quarters of a tank full, making this little point the one small standout highlight of the weekend.