It’s Been A Hard Road for SNC Commuters
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Spring break has come and gone, bringing a tentative sigh of relief from SNC commuters. During this semester’s first eight weeks, drivers have been pushed to their limits while enduring the Tahoe basin’s slick and icy thoroughfares. The Sierra Nevada’s record-breaking snow levels and multiple big storms of 2017 have made getting to campus a challenge for students and faculty who commute each day from South Lake Tahoe and Reno.
“It normally takes me 40 to 45 minutes from South Lake, but with bad weather it can take upward of two hours,” student Laura Schlim said. Schlim has faced many anxious drives to school, including one in which she tried to pass a stopped big rig near Highway 28 by driving off the road and into the side median.
“I just want to drive smooth and steadily. Driving up here is a challenge, but I’m grateful that at least I don’t have to drive out of the basin,” Schlim said. She added that drivers coming to SNC from Reno on the treacherous Mount Rose Highway have it worse than she does.
SNC junior Benjamin Lewis drives that road from Reno a few days each week. “It is so stressful it makes me want to drink,” he said. “The pass at Mount Rose is often in whiteout conditions—anywhere above 7,000 feet is—and that’s a big stretch of the drive. You’re going only 10 miles per hour, max.”
Mount Rose Highway has been periodically closed during snowstorms due to avalanche safety concerns, and occasionally due to actual avalanches. When Lewis took the Wildnerness First Aid course in January, the massive storm didn’t cancel the class and he had to to show up each day.
“I spent eight days trapped in Tahoe because of the avalanches during the last big storm on Mount Rose. I had to sleep in my car for those eight days. It’s freezing and super boring,” Lewis said.
Despite how the weather impacts the Tahoe region, SNC’s classes must go on. The college has had its share of snow days this year, giving commuters a break on some of the stormiest days. In order for SNC to call off school, several staff members who are part of a long chain of command wake up around 5 a.m. to check the conditions.
SNC’s facilities department starts the procedure by checking the weather on the morning of a storm. They look to various weather stations to find out the expected road and snow conditions and see what the local public schools are doing.
“On a really bad day, when Mount Rose is closed and all local schools are closed, the facilities director calls the college president, and then they make a decision,” said Lizzie Thibodeau, director of student affairs and housing.
However, on March 6, the first day of midterms week, a snowstorm dumped 26 inches of snow on Tahoe’s north shore and 20 inches on the south shore. The wind was as strong as 40 mph and Interstate 80 remained closed for 16 hours due to whiteout conditions, yet the campus remained open—much to the surprise and dismay of many SNC commuters.
“I didn’t come to school Monday because I’ve been too scared of the other drivers,” SNC senior Hannah Greene said. “I live in the Grid in Kings Beach and it’s still one-lane streets. You can’t see around any corners. You can’t even see the stop signs, and people are driving like idiots.”
English professor Ann Marie Brown had to cancel her Monday morning class because she was driving from Auburn, California, and Interstate 80 shut down completely. “I left Auburn at 7 a.m. knowing that I had to be at SNC by 11:30, but the freeway was closed near Colfax because of blowing snow and low visibility. So I drove south on Highway 49 to Placerville, then up Highway 50 to South Lake, and then around the east shore of the lake to Incline. All together, it took me about five hours to get to the college Monday,” she said.
But Brown added that she takes the bad driving in stride because this winter has been unprecedented. “I’ve been commuting to Incline from South Lake for seven years, and it’s never been as bad as this year,” she said. “I’ve never had to cancel class because I couldn’t make it to school. But there have been so many unusual challenges this year, like in February when when both the east shore and west shore roads closed due to rockslides and avalanches. I had to drive from South Lake over to Carson City and then back up and over Spooner Summit to get to Incline. It’s been a crazy winter, but I’m really happy we’re out of the drought.”
Thibodeau said the reason SNC remained open on that Monday was because the local public schools had only a delayed start. Also, most of the roads were open, including Mount Rose Highway.
“If a teacher can’t get here, the teacher will call off the class. A few classes canceled versus a campuswide closure is very different because a closure will affect all the staff and faculty across the board,” Thibodeau said.
One faculty member who lives in South Lake enjoys her daily commute to SNC despite the seasonally dangerous road conditions. Outdoor leadership director Rosie Hackett drives to and from campus to South Lake Tahoe during the iciest times of the day.
“I come here in the morning and leave i the evening around 5, right when it’s getting icy again, so my drive is like a white-knuckle drive most days,” Hackett said. “But I love my commute. The drive gives me some ‘me’ time.”
Hackett is a full-time professor and a full-time mom, and her commute gives her time to “breathe and think through” her day. Amid all the crazy weather, Hackett has experienced stunning sunsets and rainbows. “I’m not commuting in Sacramento traffic,” she said. “I’m commuting around this gorgeous lake, and I get to see these views that I might not have seen otherwise.”