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How to survive a Vancouver snowmaggedon (without snow tires)

Easterners may tease us about our winters, but they don’t live on the sides of mountains
Grant Lawrence and family survived Sunday night’s snowpocalypse in a VW Jetta without snow tires tha
Grant Lawrence and family survived Sunday night’s snowpocalypse in a VW Jetta without snow tires thanks to a lot of careful, excruciatingly slow driving and continuous forward motion. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Madness. That’s what it felt like to be in the eye of the chaos during Sunday night’s sudden blizzard, caught on the ribbon of white that was the Trans Canada Highway in our tiny Volkswagen Jetta, with no snow tires and two kids strapped into their car seats in the backseat.

And, yes, I’m calling it a blizzard, since those are generally defined as “a severe snowstorm with high winds and low visibility.” That’s exactly what got dropped on Vancouver Sunday night — fast, cold, hard and Hoth-like, with accumulations of snow anywhere from five to 20 centimetres in what felt like a matter of minutes.

I know that for a fact, because it took my family many hours to make the treacherous trek from my parents’ place on the North Shore to our home in East Van, a drive that usually takes minutes. Not so in a bonafide West Coast blizzard. Cars were spun out and smashed up everywhere. Hazard lights blinked in ditches and shoulders as if warning others: do not proceed.

Though of course we did, maneuvering slowly through Snowmageddon. I white-knuckled the steering wheel, nattering nervously, while my wife leaned in for support. As we slowly rolled eastbound on Highway 1, I knew from years of experience that “the Cut” (the North Shore’s own mini-Coquihalla, the steep hill on the Trans Canada Highway that connects Lynn Valley to the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge) would be a complete gong show, and later tweets proved me right.



In an attempt to avoid the pile-ups, we turned off on Lonsdale Avenue to try and make it to the lower, flatter, shoreline road that would lead us to the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge.

There was only one problem: Lonsdale is also downhill all the way, and once we reached the steeper parts of LoLo (um, that’s Lower Lonsdale, peeps) driving once again became treacherous. See, this is what those judgmental, frostbitten Easterners forget when they tease us: we live on the sides of mountains.

After years of driving through horrific winter storms throughout North America and Europe on tour with my band the Smugglers, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about snowstorm driving, it’s this: you gotta keep your wheels moving, slow and steady. Stopping is when you get stuck. So we kept on rolling. Even my ever-safety-conscious wife was OK when I told her that I’d very slowly be blowing through a few stop signs and maybe an empty red light or two just to keep up our forward momentum.

At least our heat was working. During the first major blizzard the Smugglers had to drive through in southern Alberta back in the — ahem — late 1980s, the heat in our Volkswagen van was on the fritz. It was so frigid inside the van that the condensation from our breath created sheets of smooth, translucent ice on the insides of the windows. We were in a rolling igloo and couldn’t see the highway. Our harmonica player Adam threw his lighter forward. From the passenger seat, I leaned over and melted an eyehole on the driver’s side windshield about the size of a puck. Our guitarist/driver Dave leaned forward and pressed his eye against the hole and kept driving. About 10 hours later, we pulled into Regina.

This past Sunday night, it took us hours to finally reach the onramp of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, but it was another sea of red blinking hazard lights, cars at a gridlocked standstill, tires spinning. We made the call to steadily roll past the lineup and under the highway, to snake around to the lesser-used Dollarton onramp, which was mostly downhill instead of up.

Eventually, we entered the inching, single-lane southbound traffic flow of the bridge, which was a surreal experience onto itself. Cars were stalled at various angles everywhere. Other onramps were totally blocked, and the long incline up the bridge was littered with vehicles of all sizes that didn’t make it, including a huge semi blocking two lanes and, weirdly enough, several Teslas.

With the pedal to the metal and still only averaging 20 km an hour, we had to zigzag our little private Jetta carefully between wiped out cars until we luckily made the apex of the bridge. That’s when we let out a massive sigh of relief, and rolled down the empty, snowy southern bridge deck into East Van.

There were a few more hurdles and local short cuts that needed to be made with admitted fishtailing abandon to actually get to our house, but we made it. And the kids slept through the whole thing. Now about those snow tires…