Like an ATV driving over rough terrain, the snowplow bounced and jarred with every pothole in the road.
“There’s nothing to it. It’s just like driving a great big pickup truck,” Bob Wheeler said as he guided the massive vehicle’s steering wheel. “By the end of the day, you get out of one of these things feeling like the truck ran over you.”
Though Wheeler is a seasonal employee with Summit County’s Road and Bridge Department, he also runs his own business, Wheeler’s Trucking and Grading. With Friday’s storm looming on the horizon, the department was gearing up with all staff on call.
“It’s been roughly six to eight years since we’ve had a good winter,” Wheeler, a Summit County native, said. “It’s like trying to cram 10 pounds of potatoes into a five pound bag. It just isn’t gonna happen. That’s how Summit County’s gotten to be.”
Having worked for the department for about 30 years, Wheeler remembered he first turned in an application in search of a winter job.
“For some reason, they hired a snot-nosed kid,” he added with a laugh.
Summit County’s snowplow crew is divided into three shifts: mornings, evenings and weekends. For the morning shift, Wheeler is on the job by 5:30 a.m., working about eight hours, though in the case of a large storm, as long as needed. When he gets home in the afternoon, he shovels his driveway.
The County employs a crew of 18 operators in the winter, 13 full-time and five seasonal working from November to April. They also have a total of 18 pieces of equipment: eight snowplows, six road graders and four front-end loaders.
“We are so spoiled here in the county,” Wheeler said. “We get a lot of top notch equipment.”
Still, for him, the best part of the job is the crew, which he described as a second family.
“It’s a nice group of people — very eclectic,” he said. “These guys all take pride in their work. They do good work.”
LIKE A RUBBER BOOT
When he’s not on the roads, Wheeler works as a welder and a fabricator, helping secure the plow attachment to the vehicle. In addition to features specially made by Wheeler and another welder, Summit County’s four-wheel drive plows also have heavy-duty snow tires, an unusual feature for such a large piece of equipment.
“These things are kind of like a rubber boot, ugly and uncomfortable but they never wear out,” Wheeler quipped.
Traction is a key feature for the 45,000 lb trucks that often travel up steep roadways in Montezuma, Heeney, Boreas Pass and neighborhoods just east of Breckenridge.
“(Denver) doesn’t have as steep of roads as we do,” Summit County Road and Bridge Director Tom Gosiorowski said. “In the winter months, we’re kind of in the snowplowing business all the time.”
As commercially licensed drivers, there’s a limit to how many hours the snowplows can stay on the road at a time. During the worst storms, a few drivers get close to that number. But the most challenging part of the job is maintaining steep, narrow residential roads, under the 120 miles of roadway plowed by the county.
One problem area in particular is Moonstone Road, a steep, 15-degree pitch of pavement east of Breckenridge.
“I’ve slid down it backwards,” Wheeler said. “That’ll get your heart going.”
On another occasion, one of the massive trucks got stuck near Montezuma. It took a loader and two tow trucks to move it.
The trickiest of all is the Dillon Dam Road, perennially closed as storms sweep large amounts of snow onto the exposed road.
“The snow blows in so fast,” Gosiorowski said. “It’s not unusual for the wind to stack the snow as high as the guard rail all the way across.”
When the road isn’t closed for visibility, spring brings the occasional rockslide. Once, Wheeler said they also saw a substantial snow-slide blocking the way.
“Some days, probably, you can just see a car ahead of you,” Wheeler said. “There’s no sense in us being out there in a whiteout driving a 50,000 lb piece of machinery with a 12-foot blade.”
In preparation for large storms, Gosiorowski said crews will put down a mixture of salt and sand at intersections, where roads tend to get slick. In total, the county uses about 6 million pounds of the mixture every year.
Wheeler added they had tried chemical deicers in years past, but had less success with the antifreeze chemical being diluted by the continuous snowfall, not to mention the cost. Each snowplow has a panel of controls for the depositing of sand, directing the plow, and of course, a radio. The cup holder, Wheeler said, is not for holding coffee.
“You could, I guess, but you’d end up wearing more (coffee) than drinking it,” he added as the truck bounced over a particularly large bump.
In the calm before the storm, Wheeler was confident in the crew’s ability to get the job done, well.
“I would put our crew against any (private) crew, just as far as their skill and integrity in doing the job,” he said.
On the worst of days, frustrated homeowners leave angry remarks, and even shovels are thrown. But on Wheeler’s daily route, a few familiar faces will stop and chat while walking the dog, or even invite him in for a cup of coffee.
“There’s always something going on,” he said. “You never sit still.”