Navigating Santiam Pass in winter
Last updated 11/22/2022 at Noon
Driving “The Pass” — as in Santiam Pass — doesn’t have to be a nerve-wracking or potentially hazardous undertaking, if you follow the rules.
For Central Oregonians heading westward we have many routes that have a “pass.” This includes Santiam Pass — Highway 20, joined by Highway 126 to Eugene, Highway 22 to Salem, and Highway 20 to Sweet Home-Tombstone Pass. To the south is Willamette Pass, Highway 58 to Eugene, and northbound Highway 26, Government Camp, to Portland.
All of these passes have their own challenges; however rules and laws apply to all of them. Oregon State Troopers see the same violations over and over again, often resulting in crashes, minor to fatal.
Senior State Police Trooper Lieutenant Jason Hansen states that the biggest violation is not having the right traction tires.
“What is I see every year is that folks just don’t have the proper tires when they go through the pass, and understanding Oregon chain laws and what a traction tire is and isn’t,” he said. “That is probably problem number one. If people properly prepared with the right tires, would probably save 90 percent of our problems.”
All of the information on what constitutes a legal snow tire and what vehicles they must be installed on can be found at the excellent resource: Tripcheck.com.
“To meet the traction tire qualifications it has to have the mountain symbol with the snowflake. A lot of people have all-season tires and think that it must be good. An all-season tire is not a winter tire,” Hansen said.
Another violation leading to crashes is speed.
“The basic rule (for speed) is that you should always drive at the reasonable speed for the conditions on the highway,” Hansen noted. “If you are driving at 55 mph and can’t see the roadway on packed snow, it’s not the speed you should be going; 35 miles an hour or less is the reasonable speed with good winter traction tires. If you have an all-season tire, 10 or 15 may be the reasonable speed. It really just depends on the conditions on the vehicle.”
There are very few passing areas on Santiam Pass. The lane stripes are often hidden beneath snow and ice.
“And it’s very easy to have those head-on collisions,” Hansen noted. “So slowing down, having the proper tires, putting your chains on when required. All those rules are there to keep people from being injured in serious motor vehicle accidents.”
A very aggravating and illegal action State Police see too often is passing snowplows on the right.
“They have a wing plow and the front plow and they are evacuating snow to the right as they are plowing, and these people come up there in a hurry and they don’t want to go slow, because obviously the snow plows are going slower, 15 to 20 miles per hour,” the trooper said. “People (are) getting (in) a hurry and they wanna go faster than that, and so they pass the snowplow on the right!
“You cannot make a more unsafe pass, in my opinion, than blindly going through plowed snow around a snowplow with all with signs saying, Don’t pass snowplows on the right.”
Not only are you driving into a wall of snow, but also ice and gravel and doing it blindly. Drivers have no idea what is on the other wall of flying snow. It could be an embankment or a stalled truck.
“Wait; take your time,” Hansen said. “I think that’s the biggest thing up there on the Santiam Pass is if people took their time and slowed down for those 20 or 25 miles to get over the pass and down the other side. A lot of our crashes would be reduced.
“People get stuck behind a slow moving vehicle and they get anxious and they want to get from point A to point B, they get in a hurry that just spells a recipe for disaster. In 23 years, I’ve seen it all. Slow down!”
Paying attention to mixed conditions is paramount as you drive any of the passes.
“We have shaded areas up on the pass, where the shade will hold the snow and ice all day long,” Hansen noted.
A car may go from dry or wet pavement to a curve in the icy shade, and that’s where trouble starts. Caught by surprise, the driver may overcorrect the slide, and end up crossing into oncoming lanes and traffic.
On Santiam Pass there are a few spots where drivers must be extra cautious. The narrow, steeply inclined area winding around Hogg Rock is dangerous, with its blind curve and a downhill grade where braking can be difficult. If you have the ability to downshift, keeping positive torque on your wheels, consider using that technique to stay in control and save your brakes.
Hogg Rock is also an avalanche zone. And yes, there are avalanches. About 10 years ago a local business consultant was doing his weekly drive over the pass. When paralleling Hogg Rock an avalanche let loose. It buried his Range Rover up to the windows. He sat there for 45 minutes until ODOT could dig him out. It would have gone faster but avalanches continued, even burying some of the ODOT vehicles.
Note: If buried in an avalanche at Hogg Rock, stay calm. Stay with your vehicle. Help is on the way. If you have any doubt whether your exhaust pipe is free, turn off your vehicle to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
Before starting out, make sure you have at least two extra hours’ worth of fuel on board. You never know when you will end up at an accident site, waiting sometimes hours to move. Likewise have extra-warm clothing; consider even a sleeping bag.
Drivers may sigh a breath of relief as they come down the straightaway to Lava Lake. Not so fast. This low- lying and often shaded area will pull that icy air off the lake and put it on what looks like a dry, benign stretch of road. Many drivers have been surprised when they lose control on the Lava Lake stretch and end up on their top.
Some of the best tools are available even before starting your drive. Tripcheck.com, with its road cams and road reports, will give you an idea what you’re driving into. A weather app, with conditions by the hour, may help you stay out of any active snowstorms. Consider your departure time. Early afternoon, when the sanders and plows have been at work for hours during the warmest part of the day, is often the best time to consider driving the pass. It should also get you to the valley before dark.
Trooper Hansen also states what should be obvious, especially in such challenging conditions: “There is distracted driving. People playing on their phones (on the pass). I’ve seen people taking selfies, reading the news!”
Another danger Hansen warns about is combining distracted driving with drugs and alcohol: “That is a double, triple whammy!”
Ninety percent of the fatal accidents the State Police investigate have drugs or alcohol, or both, and even distracted driving involved.
“Again, best advice: Slow down,” Hansen said. “Having the proper tires, putting your chains on when you’re required, those rules are there to keep people from being injured in motor vehicle accidents.”