Because I spent the first 24 years of my life near Toronto, Canada, I have seen my fair share of winter driving, occasionally in some pretty extreme conditions. So it was to my surprise today to find myself in the middle of the most terrifying winter driving experience I’ve ever had, in the North of England, with only a couple of inches of snow on the ground.
Wandering into the North Yorkshire Moors for a lazy morning of recreational motoring, I found myself on a rather narrow, snow-covered road. The road had a few hills, but was relatively flat, and I was having no trouble with traction in the E39. Following the map, I could see that I was about to rejoin a proper two-lane B-road, so decided to press on. What I wasn’t expecting was for the last half mile of the road to feature a 15-20% downhill grade. Or that it would be covered in a sheet of ice.
The drop came rather suddenly, and by the time my front wheels had gone over, there was no turning back. I had no choice but to go down. The car started sliding, and time stood still.
I wasn’t going fast at all, so I immediately put the car in first gear. The back end was hanging off a little to right, and the ABS module was firing incessantly. As I looked down the hill, I could only wonder where I was going to go off the road. To the left was a rather deep ditch with a large hedge beyond, to the right, a bank with a lot of trees. Hitting the bank seemed preferable, and would probably hurt less. Faced with the seeming inevitability that the car would be written off, my concern shifted to how far I would have to walk to find help.
The car was accelerating, despite the combined efforts of myself and the car’s electrics to try and slow it down. This is not how I thought my time with the E39 would come to an end. But about halfway down, with the tail now hanging to the left, I suddenly spotted my one chance to save this car – a patch of snow-free asphalt. I did all I could to point the car towards it. And it worked. The instant the front wheels hit the asphalt, I nailed the brakes, and the car slowed right down.
And that was it. Time started ticking again. The grade was levelling out, and I had regained control of the car. Somehow it had stayed on the road and, mercifully, no one had come from the other direction (though I’m not even sure the most advanced 4×4 could have made it up). I coasted down the rest of the hill in first gear, and stopped at the bottom to catch my breath. Though the whole incident only lasted a minute, I felt like I had spent an hour battling down that hill.
All of this was my fault, I know. I should have studied the terrain on the map more closely and chosen a different route. Further, given the temperature, I should have anticipated the kind of conditions I would encounter. But I have lived and learned, and both the car and I escaped unscathed.
And tonight I am thankful for anti-lock brakes, low first gears, and traction control systems. Without those, I would be left scraping pieces of a German saloon of the side of a hill in North Yorkshire.