Snow driving, fear, and a little perspective for Michael Stahl

Despite all the driving experience in the world, there are still situations in which no amount of power or skill can save you

Snow driving fear and a little perspective

THIS WINTER I took my family on a skiing holiday in New Zealand. I'm still pinching myself that I've become that guy who takes family skiing holidays, and that's only partly because none of us can ski.

But I wanted to tick that box, so we organised accommodation in wonderful Wanaka – nearest to the family-friendly Mt Cardrona – arranged a car, some skiing lessons, and away we flew.

The anxiety level that had started humming when I organised the car, stepped up a couple of thousand revs at the rental desk at Queenstown airport. I knew why.

I’ve been in this motor-noting caper for 35 years (eeek!) and in that time, I’ve had a whole encyclopaedia of automotive experiences. I’ve driven flat out on a bunch of motor racing circuits around the world, including the Nurburgring, in a variety of mostly fast cars. I’ve even raced at Bathurst. My 100 percent win rate should stay intact, provided I never go back a second time.

I’ve driven a Porsche 911 across the Simpson Desert, and driven the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley (the region, not the Austin). Driven a Ferrari at 300km/h on an Italian autostrada, and gone close to that on autobahns, proving grounds, and Targa Tasmania. I’ve driven pre-production prototypes on a frozen lake in Sweden. Done a ton of off-roading, even in my early-teens, thanks to my stepdad’s Sunraysia accessories business. Driven a 1962 Saab 96 works rally car. The 1998 Le Mans-winning Porsche 911 GT1-98. The Mazda suitcase car.

I hear the chorus of “big whoop, fatty boom-bah” from Wheels’ tolerant and mature readership, but I am getting to the point.

Many of these situations have made my nerves jangle, but that elevated state and interaction with the machine is a big part of why I love cars (and motorcycles). But the thing I was facing in New Zealand – driving on icy mountain roads – has truly scared me for as long as I can remember.

It’s like driving with a little turd of kryptonite in my underpants. I’m not talking about driving fast; quite the contrary. This is about being completely helpless as gravity slurps a near-stationary car down the crown of the road.

There was one trip across the Jura mountains from Geneva in an Audi A6 Allroad. I can still see the roadside ditches dotted with hatchbacks; others being miraculously well-driven (snow tyres! d’oh!); queueing on gentle inclines with the car ahead wheelspinning and inching backwards; and descending a gentle hill into a village at all of 5km/h, ABS and ESP stuttering madly, speed increasing, me all but powerless at the wheel.

New Zealand turned out to be a non-event: the road to Mt Cardrona was gritty and needed no chains on our rented Toyota Highlander (Kluger). But it had caused my mind to leap back to an even earlier time, when I was maybe 12. We were away with the Sunraysia group on an off-road weekend. My mum’s Range Rover was using a set of road tyres, then a very new-fangled thing for four-wheel-drive wagons.

In light rain, slowly climbing a smooth, grassy hill, the Rangie started slewing, then sliding downhill. Mum was tweaking the throttle and the wheel, keeping the nose pointed uphill. I could see that mum was really concerned. We found enough grip to hold station until someone could tow us up.

It had hit me hard that there are situations in which no amount of power or skill – or for that matter, applying the handbrake and doing nothing – will prevent an outcome equivalent to a high-speed accident.

Compared with a high-speed situation, there’s no time, no traction, no friendly physics. And that, even as I sit in this castor-wheeled office chair, really terrifies me.

Glacial progress

If ever there’s an automotive arena that technology seems to have passed by – aside from windscreen wipers, anyway – it’s got to be snow chains.

Over the years, I’ve seen promising starts with various designs of moulded rubber and plastic webbing or textured ‘socks’ that fit like tyre-warmers. But none seems really to have, er, gained traction, partly because many ski locations insist on the old-school, knuckle-busting steel type for ‘chains required’ areas.


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Michael Stahl

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