Bill Sniffin: Terrifying Tales Of Treacherous Driving On Interstate 80 In The Winter Time

Bill Sniffin writes: Two and a half years ago, a horrific crash involving hundreds of big trucks and dozens of cars and pickups found themselves slamming into each other on Interstate 80. Four people were killed and dozens were injured. I-80 in the winter time is not to be dismissed."

Bill Sniffin

November 29, 20226 min read

I 80 trucker

To Wyoming drivers, this is the time of year when holy terror describes our feelings when sandwiched between giant semi-trailer trucks barreling down Interstate 80 in blinding snowstorms. 

Every resident of the Cowboy State has their own terrifying stories of close calls and miraculous trips going down an area dubbed the Snow Chi Minh Trail. 

Weather forecasts by Don Day and others predict tough sledding over the rest of the year 2022 on Interstate 80. Winter driving at its worst will be out there. Snowfall, high winds, slick spots, ground blizzards, and thousands of fast semi-trailer trucks being driven by poorly-trained jockeys, who have no experience with mountain roads in winter, is what is waiting for the nervous traveler. Whew! Now that long sentence is a mouthful, but it tells the true tale. 

Living in Lander, I have the option of going to through Casper, Douglas and Wheatland if I need to get to Cheyenne. It takes about an hour longer but is worth it. If you doubt it, go back and read that long sentence above. 

The Snow Chi Minh Trail

And then there is John Waggener’s great book about Interstate 80, which he calls the Snow Chi Minh Trail, explains why federal highway officials picked the mountainous site rather than the longer U.S. Highway 30 route.

He recalls there were some very stubborn federal officials, headed by a rockhead named Frank Turner, who were obsessed with the new road cutting off 19 “unnecessary miles,” compared to the route used by U. S. 30 through Rock River and Medicine Bow.

He writes that Wyoming people fought valiantly in the 1960s to keep the new road out of the mountains. The federal people would not listen to them and threatened to not build it, unless it could be built on their route through the mountains. 

Waggener says there are other places in Wyoming along Interstate 80 that offer problems, such as the summit between Laramie and Cheyenne, but nothing compares to that daunting 77-mile trip from Laramie to Walcott Junction.

Old-timers recall a famous CBS TV newsman named Charles Kuralt, whose specialty was traveling the country and reporting on out-of-the-way places.

He famously declared that the stretch from Laramie-Walcott Junction was “the worst stretch of interstate highway in America.”

Waggener also discloses the Union Pacific Railroad chose not to build along this route because of the obvious wind and the snow issues.  

He reveals studies, which explained why there are such vicious winds near the Elk Mountain area. Due to the gap next to the mountain being the lowest elevation of the Rocky Mountains, wind blows at abnormally high velocities as the air rushes through there, causing havoc in the roads and stirring up the large amounts of snow that pile up.

Wamsutter Was Site of Killer Crash

Who is David Cuarezma? He was a trucker who happened to keep his cool and shot a video of that infamous May 3, 2020, horrific crash on Interstate 80 that killed four and injured 30 near Wamsutter. 

He posted on Facebook that his video had 500,000 views and 80,000 shares. He called Interstate 80 “the most dangerous road in the United States.”

Most drivers experience their worst winter traffic nightmares on Interstate 80 in an area from Elk Mountain to Laramie. 

Yet, this biggest crash in recent years occurred on a lonely desert section of road near Creston Junction.

This barren lonely stretch of highway includes a small population of oilfield folks, who populate the nearby town of Wamsutter. It is a home of man camps and trailer villages. It can be a brutal place in winter with unrelenting wind, icy roads, never-ending traffic, and the desolate feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.

Into this fray hundreds of big trucks and dozens of cars and pickups found themselves driving too fast and slamming into a huge string of vehicles that had crashed ahead of them. 

It must have been horrible for the victims to know that it would be a long time before highway patrolmen, EMTs, and wreckers could get to them, when you are located so far out in the Big Empty in such terrible weather conditions. 

Trying to get somewhere as fast as possible sounds familiar to me. In my life, it seems like I always needed to be somewhere at a specific time. Wyoming’s roads and winter weather rarely cooperated with my schedules. Today, I am able to monitor the weather and the roads and leave a day early or perhaps even re-schedule.  

Most of those folks involved in that 2020 crash were on deadlines.  They rolled the dice and took the chance that they could get through those awful conditions and say a prayer afterward for their good luck.  But this was not to be their lucky day. 

The video of that crash scene and after viewing it, you again ask yourself why you would put yourself into harm’s way by driving a car or a pickup amongst all those gigantic trucks? What chance has a 5,000-pound car have when colliding with a 70,000-pound truck?  In that video, some good Samaritans were trying to get a person out of a small black car that was unrecognizable, smashed so much in the front and in the rear. Truly a scary thing to see. 

Wyoming Voted No. 1

By the way, Wyoming was voted the No. 1 for being the most dangerous state to drive in during winter weather. The nine other worst states for winter driving are: 2. Vermont, 3. Montana, 4. Idaho, 5. Maine, 6. Michigan, 7. Iowa, 8. New Mexico, 9. Minnesota, and 10. Nebraska. Not sure why Colorado was missed from this list.

Although this column has focused on how scary driving can be, especially on Interstate 80, there is another side to that story.

One of the deepest, darkest secrets about the Cowboy State is that winter driving can be easy – most of the time. 

We have spent a lifetime driving Wyoming roads and the key is just watching and avoiding bad weather if you can. 

The combination is incredibly accurate winter weather forecasting and fantastic systems in place by Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) can make travel easy during winter months.

Note: Two of the best innovations in recent years are those digital message boards across the state foretelling what kind of weather you can find ahead of you and the cameras giving you a real time image of what is ahead. 

I also think weather forecasting has become an exact science these days. If it says it’s going to snow 6 inches, you can pretty much expect a half foot of the white stuff. 

Safe winter travels folks. Be alert. 

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.