While sunny skies have returned to the Santa Clarita Valley, a month ago this week, snow was falling in the surrounding mountains. The heavy snow and ice left conditions perilous through the Grapevine Jan. 25, prompting the California Highway Patrol to put “Operation Snowflake” into effect, shutting down traffic on Interstate 5 through the pass.
For most travelers, this meant waiting, with hundreds of big-rig trucks lining up along Castaic roads awaiting the freeway’s reopening, but for others, it meant finding ways around the blockage.
Some, who were reportedly either advised by their GPS or law enforcement to seek alternate routes, found themselves on Old Ridge Route as the sun began to set.
As conditions worsened, one by one cars began to get stuck, and with a jackknifed big rig blocking the return, they were left with nowhere to go.
It was the SCV Sheriff’s Station’s deputies and Search and Rescue team who came to their aid, rescuing dozens of stranded people, along with a couple of dogs, from the icy road that night.
Pyramid Lake resident Jong Lee had traveled to Magic Mountain that day with his 78-year-old mother so she could get her first COVID-19 vaccine.
“Because we knew we were not going to get another chance to get the shot, despite the weather, we went down,” Lee said.
After being advised by law enforcement at the I-5 roadblock to take the Old Ridge Route, Lee found himself driving nearly 45 minutes before he came to a locked forest gate.
“So after that huge, long, windy trip — and the weather was already turning a little bad — we were stuck,” he added. “We turned around, and on our way back, we saw a whole line of other cars behind us. There had to be maybe a couple hundred cars on Old Ridge Route, including some completely insane — I think younger, newer — commercial truck drivers, who had driven their fully loaded 18-wheelers up there.”
It was then, Lee said, he knew he had to call for help and began to reach out to a few of the local Gorman-area deputies he knew personally, who asked him to begin telling others to turn around and go back.
“By that time, it was dark and getting very, very cold, and of course, the semitrailers had gotten themselves stuck,” he said, adding that he encountered cars sliding on the ice and others with dead batteries.
SCV Sheriff’s Station deputies in the Gorman area responded quickly and were able to begin doing what they always do, according to Deputy Snover: Tackling the problem.
“It was some bitter cold, gusting wind,” Snover said, adding that he arrived and found a number of big rigs, including one that had slid down an icy curve before coming to rest on an embankment. “Fortunately for him, it didn’t go over the side — it would have been a good 75- or 100-foot drop.”
Deputies got to work, figuring out which stranded drivers had food and fuel, and which needed help turning around on the icy road.
Hours later, SCV SCV Search and Rescue team leader Tony Buttitta said the team got a call from another group of people who had traveled down the very same road and were stuck on the ice.
“They said, ‘We can see some other car behind us,’” Buttitta said, adding that he believed they had traveled from the north, unlike the other group. “By the time we got to them, there were eight or nine cars, 11 people and two dogs.”
Most said they’d followed their GPS, and found themselves stuck starting at 4 p.m. until SAR reached them around 2 a.m., Buttitta added.
“We couldn’t drive anymore, so we went out on foot,” he said of their arrival. “We were slipping and sliding on our feet. The wind was blowing like 40-50 miles an hour.”
Once they encountered the group of cars, the team got to work, escorting people one by one to a van waiting to the north where the Ridge Route meets Templin Highway.
Lee ended up checking into a hotel for the night, but looking back, he said it could’ve been much worse.
“(I’m) super, super grateful to our local Sheriff’s Department … who stepped up to make sure that everyone was taken care of, and at the end of the day, made sure that everybody got down safely,” he added. “In particular, the deputies that we work with in this area are just amazing.”
What to do if stormy conditions return
While it may be sunny now, winter is not yet over, and these winter storms could return, so here are some tips from your local law enforcement:
- Be prepared for the approaching winter storm. If you live in the area, CHP Officer Josh Greengard, spokesman of the Newhall-Area Office, suggests most times to shelter in place, because if you come down from your home at a higher elevation, you will not be able to go back up if the road is closed, though the southbound I-5 remains open.
- Do not follow a GPS. The only maintained road that crosses the Grapevine is I-5, and trails shown on maps often aren’t maintained as roads and have forest gates. A lot of places don’t have cellphone data, which means Google doesn’t know the terrain.
- Don’t go through forest gates, as they are not always safe routes of travel. The Angeles National Forest spans thousands of miles, so there’s no way they have the ranger capacity to open and close those gates in a timely fashion for each storm.
- Have your car packed with the right supplies. If it’s cold, be sure to bring a jacket and pants. Buttitta advises those driving long distances to stop for gas at a half-tank rather than waiting until they’re down to a quarter-tank or less. Also, make sure you have food and water, as well as those same essentials for pets, if you have them.