A few years ago, Ruairi of Tin Top went on the #vanlife adventure of a lifetime. Here is his story.
The Shasta Snow Trip is held every winter in the mountain ranges of Northern California. The trip is the ultimate technical challenge for the VW Splitscreen and her driver. This trip involves up to 22 hours of straight driving in roads that are often officially closed due to the weather conditions.
I have known about the Shasta Snow Trip since I read a book by David Eccles which featured the trip under the heading "Not For Sissies". Mr Eccles seemed to imply that drivers who got involved were most likely going to die, and a quick look at the official Shasta trip website confirmed he was probably right. I read the article and thought to myself I would love to do that, but only so as I could say I did it! I couldn't see how driving a rusty bus in -20 degrees for the best part of a full day could be pleasurable. I also value my life to a great extent and ending it halfway up a volcano in California didn't appeal to me. Well maybe when I am 70 – that would be “pretty far out man”. The funny thing though is I kept picking up that book and reading the same article. Somehow my own face started peering back out at me from pictures, and I started dreaming up ways of figuring out that how was going to get to drive a bucket of tin along a strip of ice on the edge of a 400-foot precipice.
A year or two after I read the article I ended up in California for other reasons and whilst there I met a gentleman called Roadcow who is a big vintage VW fanatic. He showed me his collection of vans including one that had completed the Shasta Snow Trip. It turned out he himself had completed it for a few years running. A typical Californian gent, he didn't hesitate in inviting me back over for the trip any time I fancied. A short few months later I decided to do it!
Coming up to the trip I suffered 3 months of taunting by my non-VW friends who were convinced that these vans wouldn't get over a humpback bridge never mind a frozen mountain. The fact that most of their jibes were about remembering to bring the anti-freeze soothed my worried mind a lot though (vintage VWs don’t have anti-freeze!) What did they know? However, just before our departure date I was landed with an extra-large shock, and my friends were suddenly armed with slagging material that I had no answer for. On an internet forum Roadcow had taken up a dare to drive the infamous Bullet Bus on the 2008 Shasta Trip, and he asked his Irish friends to join him. We would be his team-mates and co-drivers for the adventure. The Bullet Bus is an old 21 window deluxe that was found abandoned in Area 51 in Nevada. To say it had been shot at a few times is an awful understatement – this thing is riddled with bullet holes. A few of the regular Shasta guys had rescued the van and somehow got it back on the road, but honestly just about. This bus was a pure wreck. I now had worse things than dying to worry about. I had to travel and sleep in artic temperatures, in a colander.
We arrived in San Fran in late January and we were duly picked up by Roadcow at the airport. On the way to his house he informed me that the trip started at about 11am the next morning and he would need my help with a few last minute jobs on the van. These included making some plastic windows, fitting the rear suspension, installing headlights, fitting seatbelts, and figuring out some way of keeping the cargo doors closed as the van kept flexing and popping them open during hard turns!! Just a few minor details then!
We slept well that night and prepared the van the next morning and headed for the "rampaging point". This is where the trip officially starts on Saturday at 4am. We drove on freeways and interstates for the best part of the day and picked up other vans along the route. Just after dark descended on us we took a turn off the highway onto a dirt road that in true Dukes of Hazzard style was clearly marked as being very much closed. The reason became clear after a good hour or two driving. A large tree had fallen and blocked the track completely. We all got out and I jokingly asked if anyone had brought a chainsaw. Americans don't really get sarcasm as we all know, so my question was duly answered by the roar of a rather large petrol-powered tree destroyer that someone pulled off their roof-rack. It took about 5 minutes for the road to be resurfaced with sawdust, and we were on our way again. I was going to jokingly ask if anyone wanted to go back and remove the road closed sign, but I kept quiet this time.
We had only made it a further 15 minutes down the road before one of the vans slid into a ditch at the grand speed of about 3 miles per hour. I momentarily doubted how good these guys (in this case a gal) really were at driving, but as I stepped out of the Bullet Bus for a look I managed to slip and fall into the same ditch. This was the strangest mud I had ever encountered – as you walked around it stuck solid to your shoes and kept doing so until you were eventually 3 or 4 inches taller and had absolutely no control over your legs. We dug the stricken bus out of the ditch and after one or two more hairy moments and a creek crossing that pretty much flooded the Bullet Bus we arrived at camp.
I slept zero hours that night as I unfortunately found out that an expensive artic sleeping bag provides no heat whatsoever if you are too fat to fit in it! I ended up walking around most of the night and hoping I'd meet a mountain lion. In my mood I would have given him a right good battle. At 3.45am, 45 minutes before the trip officially started the last vans arrived. Being Irish I assumed that like at home we would leave at about 11am after a huge fry-up and some nice warm tea so I told the new arrivals to get some kip. They were woken up 15 minutes later with people shouting that we had to be on the road in thirty! And we were.
We set out up and over a mountain pass that was completely covered in snow. For the first time I experienced the joys of putting snow chains on a vehicle. It is a horrible job and one that leaves your hands bloody and cold for hours afterwards. Fortunately Roadcow had the right snow chains and we experienced no issues, but another driver called Corey was not so lucky and we believe that loose snow chains caught in his axel and caused it to break a few miles up the mountain. Anyone who knows Roadcow knows what a gentleman he is and he was the first to offer Corey a tow to the nearest town for repairs. Unfortunately, the Bullet Bus was not enough towing power on its own and we ended up with two vans towing the stricken panel van over the mountain. This is a sight to behold, and the driving skill required to keep two tow ropes taut on an icy road at the edge of a very deep precipice is hard to describe. Needless to say, I was not driving at this stage. I had handed the wheel to Roadcow, and my job along with any other spare hands was to push the broken van from behind whenever the two towing vans lost traction. When the vans eventually gained traction again they obviously couldn't stop to allow us back on board so we had to jump on the rear bumper of one of the vans and hold on to the roof-rack. I can promise you that you have not lived until you have hung on to the back of an iced up van as it uncontrollably slips and slides around hairpin bends and all you can see is trees that look the size of matchsticks hundreds of feet below you. It was the biggest rush of my life.
It took about seven hours to complete the thirty-mile journey to the nearest town, and we probably spent 4 of those pushing the vans up frozen inclines. We made it however, but we were still a good 20 hours from Shasta itself and some hard decisions had to be made. Did we continue over snowed in mountains or did we take the interstate and cheat a bit to catch up with the others? We decided eventually to take the apparently easy route and go for the main road. However, the weather in January this year was the worst California had witnessed in many years and despite our best efforts we only made it as far as the Bigfoot Motel in Willow Creek, about 5 hours from Shasta. It turned out that a lot of other vans had also only made it this far. Here at about midnight, we retired to a nice warm bed for the night.
The next morning, we got up and decided to hit the road nice and early to meet up with everyone in Shasta. I drove the Bullet bus for the first hundred or so miles, but after fishtailing on ice one too many times my nerves were shot and I abandoned ship for another warmer van and left Roadcow to drive. I was just getting relaxed and enjoying the view down into the valley beside us when the CB radios suddenly burst into life with a shout that "The Bullet Bus has gone over". The CB then crackled into life with Roadcow saying simply "We're OK". We stopped to help, and it became obvious that the van was precariously rested against two small trees about thirty foot above a raging creek. Everyone was safe though.
The Highway Patrol turned up and winched the Bullet Bus back onto the road. The CHP officer told Roadcow that he had one turn of the key and if the van did not start it would be towed away and destroyed. It started almost before the key was turned. They truly are amazing vehicles.
I'd love to finish this story off by telling you we arrived later that day in Shasta and that we got really drunk and partied with everyone else to celebrate the trip of a lifetime. However unfortunately the only people who made it to Shasta were the people who braved the mountain passes and frozen dirt trails. Luck took a turn against the seven or eight vans that decided to make up lost time and race up Interstate 5. That evening I5 was closed due to treacherous snow, and we ended up stuck in a traffic jam for many hours. We eventually did get drunk and celebrate, but it was in another motel in the city of Redding. I have no regrets though – the highlight of this trip for me was the seven-hour rescue effort and that was what sacrificed the finish point for us.
That is my story of Shasta. However, there were twenty vans on the trip, and each has a story to tell. One van picked up a couple who had been lost in the mountains for two days and had frostbite, another two vans crashed into each other, another van had an engine in and out on the side of the road in less than an hour, and so on. I would highly recommend you do the Shasta Snow Trip if ever the chance arises.