TRUCKEE — Winter rages across Donner Summit, 100 mph wind gusts blow Pacific storms of blinding snow that ravage the 7,240-foot pass on Interstate 80 above Donner Lake. The brutal storm systems dump an average snow accumulation of 415 inches yearly — the 2010-11 winter a massive 700-plus inches with 250 inches still piled high by May 23, 2011.
Who better to capture the trials and triumphs of keeping the pass open for travel and commerce than National Geographic, airing the 10-part documentary “Hell on the Highway” Wednesdays at 10 p.m.?
“We are telling the story of the men and women in tow trucks, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol who fight the snow every winter to keep Donner Pass and I-80 open,” said Conal O’Herlihy, line producer with America’s Star Media, an outfit that creates award-winning documentaries, such as “Deadliest Warrior.”
“An element to the story is how vital I-80 is, not just to California, but to the nation. WalMart sends 250 trucks over the pass each day,” O’Herlihy added.
Towing the line
Edgar Allen “Tow” Stratton, owner of Dependable Tow on Truckee’s West River Street, has been working the industry since November 1982.
“I needed a job,” he said of his Sierra arrival.
Since then, he and his wife, Galeen, purchased the company now operating 14 trucks and can “tow anything out there.”
Dependable is ready to go at all times, whether it’s hectic or calls are slow.
“We wait for calls,” said Stratton, “we don’t go chasing them.”
The heavy winter of 2010-11 and the prolific history of treacherous, often tragic events on Donner Summit inspired the “Hell on the Highway” concept, which burgeoned forth from documentary whizzes Gary Tarpinian and his business partner, Paninee Theeranuntawat, at Morningstar Entertainment, based in Los Angeles.
“They thought of, developed and pitched the idea, and it was approved by National Geographic,” said O’Herlihy. “When you have a record like Gary and Paninee, they listen.”
Production crews stood at the ready for killer storms after promising snow accumulations in late fall 2012. They waited and waited, as did skiers, the community, the visitors and resorts.
The lid finally blew off in February, after some of the longest dry spells in recent history, with back-to-back storms depositing up to six feet at the local resorts. Film crews braved the elements side by side with tow truck drivers, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol.
According to CHP Sgt. Randy Fisher, crews spent two weeks with them in late spring, capturing truck crashes, cars over I-80’s banks, an AWOL military man with illegal weapons and thousands of ammunition rounds and snow — wet, sloppy, spring snow.
“The CHP’s job is to serve the community, to see they get where they want to be expeditiously and safely,” said Fisher. “We are not SEAL Team 6 — safety is the bottom line.”
Nine full-time film crews hit the Sierra roads, totaling more than 20,000 man hours, with safety also on their minds.
“We were following this one woman, going up and down the mountainside, in waist-deep snow, trying not to get hit by trucks,” said Jonathon Berman, senior field producer with America’s Star Media, a special company of Morningstar Entertainment.
Mike Sweet, production assistant, hooks cameras to cars for a different perspective, gets the “fiveWs” as field notes and keeps safety as a No. 1 priority.
Filmmaker Adrian Belic put it this way: “It’s important he watch the back of the car so we don’t get hit.”
Really, it’s the backstory
On a snowy Friday the 13th in April at the Kingvale Caltrans complex, Alejandro Smith, whose business card touts superhero ability and “works great with humans,” put his particular spin on the project, beyond extreme snowfighting footage.
“We capture the intrigue, the personal intricacies of companies and the personalities, the effect of doing tows in extreme conditions.”
Smith has been in the film business for 17 years, and doesn’t find a lot of things exciting. He’s seen death, he’s seen tragedy, major surgery — what he does find interesting is not necessarily the tow or the accident.
“It’s about what the drivers risk to do a tow … that they put their lives in danger not thinking of the risk … and they do it without panic,” said Smith.
Sweet agreed: “These guys get out there with a cavalier attitude, not concerned for their own safety.”
The glory of the backstory also inspires Belic.
“The magic of the outside story, the layers of lives, it’s like an extremely challenging chess game,” he said.
Inside the big stories are the subtleties of each person, you have to be fully aware, connected, every bit of new information incorporated.
“You need to have a flexible mind, stitching the threads together — it’s a very dynamic process,” Belic continued.
Hurry up and wait
The toughest part of the job, said this crew of three, is being on alert. “You can’t do anything until Mother Nature gives you the beautiful white stuff,” said Smith. It might be white at Nyack, rain at Boca, nothing at Donner, as Truckee Tahoe residents are well aware.
Integrating the production crews into local life was easy: They lived at Northstar and Sawmill Heights, dined and shopped, skied and rode the slopes.
Integrating local history pointed to an obvious source: Chaun Mortier, research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society.
“The society provided the historical photos and information for captions,” said Mortier. “My task was to interview drivers for personal bios, work with them on photos they provided and to work with local agencies or news media to get further details. I was a go between with CHP, Caltrans and news media on providing historical data on accidents, snow, etc. It was an interesting experience, and I learned how to work in a whole new environment in the research field.”
Caltrans Superintendent Bryan Carlson, who worked in South Lake Tahoe for 29 years and now manages the Kingvale station, gave the camera crews a taste of local snow removal life.
“I put them in the seats with operators — snow blowers, graders, sanders — to give them an overview of what we do,” said Carlson. He joked about the public perception that Caltrans doesn’t “do anything.”
If you got a look at the substation, you would be impressed with what goes on October through May. A 90-room dorm accommodates a 24/7 staff with kitchens for crews pulling 12-hour shifts and a staggering 200-plus employee payroll. It’s a nerve center of operations evaluating and staying ahead of winter storms.
As the film crews absorbed scene upon scene of rollovers, crashes and spinouts, they constantly downloaded to home base in L.A.
“I think it will be both educational and the same blueprint as ‘Deadliest Catch,’” said Sgt. Fisher. “Viewers will identify with characters and follow the people in it.”
“National Geographic and Morningstar Entertainment tell American stories,” said O’Herlihy. “This area (Truckee) and its people embody the spirit of America.”
Amy Edgett is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of The Union based in Truckee.