Killer Hills

| December 11, 2008

Loveland? Vail? Monteagle? Western slopes rank as the most challenging, especially in snow.

Where are the toughest hills? Mostly in the West, where engineers have paved grades of 8 percent and higher. While truckers differ in their choice of the most challenging inclines, they agree that weather, equipment and experience can make a big difference in how you handle any hill.

“Most of your worst grades in terms of putting strain on the equipment or working on the driver’s nerves are off the interstate system,” says owner-operator Robert Dubonnette of Lemoore, Calif. “Especially in the winter, not because they’re tough, but because they’re less traveled, don’t have runaway ramps, and aren’t as plowed and salted as the interstates.”

Take Colorado’s Loveland Pass, the 12,000-foot U.S. 6 hazmat bypass around Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70. U.S. Xpress driver Michelle Wolverton of Oklahoma City recalls her first trip over the narrow, two-lane pass. “Everything was fine until I got above the tree line and looked down over a sheer drop-off. I swear, it looked like it was 50 bazillion feet straight down,” Wolverton says. “That’s when I noticed the edge of the road getting crumbly. I think I screamed out loud right then.”

Loveland is second on Michael Millard’s list of worst hills. “I did Loveland Pass for Klein tankers, taking fuel from Denver to Dillon, Colo.,” Millard says. “I also pulled hazmat loads from Los Angeles to Denver with placards that required the detour over Loveland.” For Millard, now a safety specialist with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration near Chicago, the worst hill is another in Colorado: 11,000-foot Red Mountain Pass on U.S. 550 between Silverton and Ouray. “Monarch and Wolf Creek are long and tedious,” Millard says. “However, Loveland and Red Mountain are bigger hills.”

Monarch, the 11,312-foot pass where U.S. 50 crosses the Continental Divide in Colorado, is “a pretty grueling ride, even in good weather, especially going west,” Dubonnette says. He says Monarch’s west side has a 7 percent grade for 9 miles with two hairpins at the end. “It’s challenging in the winter,” says Dubonnette, who pulls a tanker for Quality Carriers with his 1997 Freightliner Classic.

One of the most infamous hills is Wolf Creek Pass, at 10,850 feet, where U.S. 160 crosses the Continental Divide through southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. “I remember old Wolf Creek Pass, before it became an eight-lane highway,” says Flying J company driver Dan Galligan of Pomona, Calif. “Back in the late ’60s it was two very narrow lanes of tight curves – not quite switchbacks, but tight nonetheless.” Other hills demand your close attention, he says, “but none compares to the old Wolf Creek Pass.”

Not all the toughest hills are in the West. “I’ve been on two-lanes in the Appalachians where you’d swear you were looking at your own trailer lights when you rounded a curve,” says owner-operator David Hein of Good Thunder, Minn.

“I’ve heard Fancy Gap is a good hill,” says Dubonnette, referring to a 7-mile, 7 percent grade on I-77 in Virginia just past the North Carolina state line. Uphill, Fancy Gap is a strain. Downhill it’s long, steep and curvy, and the North Carolina scales are at the bottom.

Two other infamous eastern hills are Black Mountain, a long grade of 4 percent to 5 percent on I-40 in North Carolina, and Tennessee’s Monteagle, which is 6 percent for 3 miles eastbound on I-24. Both hills have brake-check stops and decreased speed limits for big trucks.

Interstate hills will strain a max-loaded truck, says owner-operator Ramona Nelms of Cullman, Ala. “I’ve climbed all of them fully loaded, and on each one I get down to 25 mph or less,” Nelms says. Her list of tough climbs includes Soldier’s Summit on U.S. 6 east of Provo, Utah, and Tehachapi Pass on California 58 east of Bakersfield.

Nelms takes her Kenworth T600 up Tehachapi every week. “You wear yourself out changing gears,” she says, and California’s 55 mph truck speed limit doesn’t help. “You start out slow at the bottom, and you’re going to be at 25 miles an hour by the time you get to the top. That’s extremely rough on an engine.”

Her list includes Snoqualmie Pass on I-90, about 50 miles east of Seattle; Cabbage on I-84 in Oregon, east of Pendleton; and Oregon’s North, Middle and South Sisters west of Bend, each higher than 10,000 feet.

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