I bought a new-to-me fifth wheel a couple of weeks ago, a 2021 Keystone Montana High Country 40′ long, that the previous owner lived in for a little over a year and kept in excellent condition.
My family and I slept in it the first night in our driveway to test it out and had fun. Our first real trip was planned for this weekend to Elk Meadows RV Park near Trout Lake a bit south of Mt. Adams.
The forecast was rainy and a little cold, but I was good with that as I figured it would be good to test the camper out fully. I used Google maps and it showed me the route was headed down Highway 7 and would take just a little under 3 hours.
We spent the morning packing the trailer and getting a little work done, so we got on the road about noon. We drove through Elbe and stopped in Morton for fuel and groceries, then continued on our way.
We turned off the highway in Randall heading on a road towards Mt. Adams. After about an hour of driving, the road went from two lanes to one lane. After another good bit of driving, the road turned to gravel, then slowly turned into a dirt road, then developed potholes. I figured we were getting close and I could deal with a rough road by going pretty slow.
The trees around us started showing snow on their branches, which we were surprised to see this low this early in the year (beginning of November). A little further and snow started to appear on the ground, but not on the road.
I didn’t really notice it for awhile, but the road headed up a pretty steep hill and was covered in a light feathering of snow. With a little more driving, I started to get concerned.
My truck is an F450 that is 23′ long and the trailer was another 40′ behind me. I had been driving for miles on a narrow one lane dirt road with no possibility of turning around. Now I was starting to drive on a couple of inches of snow.
I decided to stop and shift the truck into 4 wheel drive low (Low requires the truck to stop and be shifted into neutral for this to happen) in a patch of the road that looked to have some spots clear of snow.
Once I was in four wheel drive low, I pressed on the diesel pedal and the tires spun. Uh oh.
I got out and looked at the tires and saw the telltale signs of spinning. If I kept trying to go forward, I was just going to dig myself a hole. I got back into the truck, backed it up a few feet.
I pressed on the diesel pedal again and the truck and trailer slowly inched forward. I babied the pedal to keep it from spinning again and tried to slowly build up some speed and momentum going uphill.
The situation was pretty bad… I was high up on a mountain pass and I had my whole family with me; my wife, my twin three year olds and six months old in car seats in the back. I was miles up from the last intersection, so I couldn’t back up as I had my long truck and huge trailer behind me. If I stopped where I was, the snow wouldn’t stop till spring. I could have stopped for the night and used the full propane tanks to keep my family warm for a night or two before they ran out. I had no phone service, nor did my wife. I had read lots of stories about people leaving their cars in snowstorms and dying. I had no idea how much higher the road I was on was going to go. All of my options ugly.
It would have been smart for me before I left home to more carefully look at the route Google Maps had recommended. I have gotten in the habit of just trusting it and turning it on and going. It was too late now to worry about that.
My wife Laurel was quite upset and her being upset was making the kids upset. I had to tell everyone I needed silence so I could focus and try to figure out what to do.
The Google Maps route showed us as being east and a little north of Mt. Adams on forest road 23.
I decided the best thing to do was to press on and hope it wouldn’t be much further till I was over the pass and headed back down to safer areas.
I continued driving up the hill. The snow on the road got deeper, first an inch, then 2-3 inches. I was afraid I would get stuck if I stopped again, so I drove up the hill at about 15-20 mph. My truck and new trailer were hammering into potholes I would rather have taken at 1-2 miles per hour. I didn’t see any other choice though, better to risk the trailer than my family.
I could feel the back end of my truck slide back and forth whenever I pushed for more speed. I didn’t feel much loss of traction in my front tires which I needed for turning, but that could change at any moment and would be potentially deadly.
My grandpa Martin had trained me how to drive in the snow from a young age. I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet when he had me learning how to snow drive. I was quite grateful to have experience with it here as I knew how to correct for sliding and what to expect my vehicle to do and not do. I knew that if I hit the brakes, I would lose my ability to steer if I was sliding. I figured that the trailer would do the same thing and come up around me, so I tried to avoid sharp braking and sliding.
I was feeling stress and anxiety. I didn’t want to let harm come to my family. I felt it was stupid for me to have gotten into this situation with them. But I knew that regrets or even thinking about that wouldn’t help me in the situation I was in, so I put it out of my mind and focused.
The road going uphill got even steeper. The snow got deeper. The only way I could tell where the road was was that it was the clearing ahead of me. We kept slamming into potholes but I kept pushing on so I didn’t lose my momentum.
I was well past the point of no return. Either I was going the truck and trailer stuck, I was going to slide off the road, or I was going to get over the pass.
Laurel saw a sign saying we were at 4,350 elevation. The road seemed to level out a bit and continued up and down for awhile. Finally, the road turned consistently downwards.
Going downhill presented a new set of problems; we were driving on a rough dirt road over a mountain pass with a steep drop off on one side. I didn’t want to go so slow I stopped and got stuck. I didn’t want to go so fast that I would slip and slide off the edge of the cliff. I didn’t want to ride my brakes which would trigger my trailer brakes causing it to slide off to one side of another as it lost traction.
My wife Laurel and I held hands on the straightaways down the hill and I kept trying to ride the knife blade of not going to slow or too fast… Not getting stuck and not sliding off the hill.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably a little less than an hour, the snow on the road started to thin out and traction got better. We continued driving until the road turned back to paved, and finally until the road was clear of snow and we were back in the cold rain.
We pulled into the RV park at 6 pm, 3 hours later than expected but safe. So far everything on the fifth wheel trailer appears to be in good shape, pretty shocking to me based on stories of RV problems I’ve read on the forums. We backed into our spot in the dark and I set up the trailer and got my family into it.
Now we join together as I write this at 8 pm while my twins wrestle with each other. This will be their bedtime story.