Killer highway

Canada’s demonic and blissful Sea to Sky

By Deborah Jones
SQUAMISH, British Columbia, Canada. March 2001

This morning, the “Killer Highway” of British Columbia looks harmless. Blissful, even. Dawn creeps across Sea to Sky country as I drive south from Whistler to Vancouver. Hoar frost sparkles on winter-bare trees and the sunrise reflects dazzlingly off the mountain peaks above. Just south of Squamish the vista seems preposterous, a work of art by a delirious angel who paints Howe Sound blue and white-capped, sets pink and fluffy clouds dancing in a cobalt sky, flings into infinity an ethereal vista of ocean, mountain, air.

 It’s pretty, all right. But I’m not fooled. You see, I know this road.

If the Sea to Sky Highway were human it would be a Lothario: gorgeous as well as untrustworthy – and downright dangerous.

 The fact is, Highway 99 gets to you, in a purple prose kind of way, as does no other road.

 It’s a legendary 300-kilometre stretch that winds above Horseshoe Bay, skirts the wicked cliffs to Squamish, climbs into the Coast Mountains and briefly becomes a tourist promenade at Whistler. Going north, it drops into Pemberton ranch country, then ascends the giddy heights of the Duffy Lake Road, which spirits brave travellers all the way to Lillooet.  Parts of it run through urban areas, parts widen to three- and four-lane thoroughfares. Mostly, though, it’s a two-lane rural concourse, with tributaries from logging roads to hiking trails.

This is the road that spawns the “Killer Highway” newspaper headlines and tales of death and destruction. This is the road with the demonic reputation, the most dangerous in B.C. or, to hear tell from shaken first-timers, in North America.

That’s its reputation, anyway. Reality is somewhat different.

Those of us who spend, and risk, part of our lives commuting on the Sea to Sky, for work or pleasure, dream about it. We fret about weather conditions, laugh at its reputation and come to love and loathe it.


 Well, it’s a blast to drive. It banks, just so, on corners, so that a good car shoulders into each exhilarating turn and scoots through. (This effect is lost in a hulking sports utility vehicle, in which the high centre of gravity makes you feel like you’ll topple.)

It’s also drop-dead gorgeous. “I’ve been driving it for 12 years and still every time I look at the mountains, it still blows me away,” says Squamish RCMP Constable Pat Cost.  “It’s visually spectacular,” adds Lions Bay Mayor Brenda Broughton, who remains enthralled with the road even after her daughter was nearly killed in a head-on crash. “It’s so beautiful, there’s nothing like it in the world,” says road contractor Steven Drummond, who knows all its secrets.

The southern section is geologically unique, the only place in North America where a steep-walled fjord — Howe Sound — is easily accessed from a major population centre. “The other places where this kind of scenery is accessible are the tip of South America and Norway,” says Vancouver geologist Dirk Tempelman-Kluit, a former director of the Geological Survey of Canada. “It’s a spectacular thing and it is unique.”

Okay, so the road is loveable. What about the hate?

Blame physics, in part. Your spine tingles as you pass beneath sheer rock faces covered with metal mesh to prevent boulders tumbling down, and bright yellow signs that prohibit stopping and warn, “Rockfall hazard!”

The cliffs of the fjord are inherently unstable, says Tempelman- Kluit. Even as you read this, water is deep inside the rocks, expanding and contracting with temperature changes, inexorably widening fissures. Every day boulders tumble down, every year brings a few rock slides. One day — perhaps in our time, certainly in geological time — whole cliffs will sheer off and tumble into the ocean along with cars or communities in their path. “Mountains are ephemeral,” says Tempelman-Kluit. “They’re trying to reach equilibrium, where the land level is the same as at sea level. You know that the mountainside is going to come down. I don’t want to say you’re taking your life in hand driving the road, but it’s certainly not the safest place to be.”

The same geological factors cause debris to build up and pour down watersheds. In 1921 a washout killed 37, injured 15 and flattened 50 houses at Britannia Beach. In 1981 nine people died after debris took out the M Creek bridge; unwary motorists drove over the edge. 

Sea to Sky drivers still haven’t learned.

One bright winter Sunday we (my husband, kids, dog, myself) head from Whistler to a family event in Vancouver, our vehicle part of an orderly line all moving south at Cheakamus Canyon 30 kilometres south of Whistler. The passing lane vanishes into a four-kilometre gap that twists and turns through a gulch blasted into a solid rock. Right at the start of this treacherous area an oversized truck barrels up on the dwindling passing lane, scattering the vehicles behind, and nearly rear-ends us. For a few edgy moments his front end almost grazes our bumper, then he dekes over the double yellow line into the opposite lane, guns his engine and passes us as well as a white van ahead. We hold our breath until he’s back in the southbound lane, miraculously missing an oncoming car, then hit 911 on our cell to call Squamish RCMP.

 Such driving is common on the Sea to Sky. In their blind hurry, people are oblivious to the fresh flowers and crosses laid along the road where people died, and ignore statistics. Last year alone there were 400 crashes, 10 people died, 123 were injured. Crashes occur up to three times more often than the provincial average, and average annual ICBC claims for the road are over $11 million.

I commute between Whistler and Vancouver several times a week, and don’t worry about the road per se. I’ve travelled many kilometres on many roads. I’ve mainlined caffeine to stay alert on the monotonous Mackenzie Highway from Edmonton to Yellowknife, criss- crossed North America on various routes, turned to jelly on Europe’s narrow and fast roads, lost traction on the Trans-Canada in Prairie winters too often to count. I’ve only known one truly evil road, a snaking two-laner on the Nova Scotia coast where I once watched a young man, some other mother’s son whom I happened across one horrific night, exhale his last breath on the gravel shoulder because his sports car was no match for ice and hairpin turns.

 By comparison, the Sea to Sky Highway is well designed and maintained, has character in spades and exudes as much zest as is possible for a strip of asphalt.

 Unfortunately, it also demands respect, of a culture where respect (and manners) is lacking. A typical vignette: One morning in Whistler I need newspapers, and drive a kilometre to the store, partly on Highway 99, which was never designed for residential errands and nowadays is chock-full of logging trucks, tourists’ cars and impatient locals. I wait for a break in traffic, nip into my lane and quickly hit the 60-kilometre speed limit. Behind, a man in a truck carrying snowmobiles races up, tailgates for the few metres to my turnoff then pulls over to mouth at me, pointing at his head, “Think, bitch, think.”

 “It’s the people, not the road,” says Blair Smith, a Lions Bay firefighter whose department responds to virtually all of Highway 99’s carnage because the strip between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish is the most crash-prone. “It’s a shame that I can’t get through what I’ve seen and what I’ve done on this short piece of road. I’ve seen a lot of death and destruction in my day. I wish there was something I could do to tell people.”

One of his most haunting visions is of tire tracks through leaking fluid at a horrific crash early one morning before Christmas, at Porteau Cove. When the fire department got there, several vehicles had passed by without stopping to help, swerving around the place where two trucks collided head on, killing both drivers.

If the Sea to Sky didn’t lead to Whistler, it would be simply another treacherous and scenic road in a mountainous province that’s full of challenging roads. But the popularity of the resort makes all the difference and proponents of the Vancouver-Whistler bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics view transportation as key to success.

ICBC and the province have nearly completed a $400,000-study on the road, the BC Rail line and air alternatives. Proposals range from an improved light-rail line from Seattle to increasing the number of passing lanes on the Sea to Sky Highway; there is even sporadic coffee-shop talk of reviving earlier dreams of an inland highway, through the area supplying Greater Vancouver’s drinking water.

Some politicians along the route want more passing lanes built, the road widened, while others want better rail service, especially for the tourists travelling to Whistler.

Most notions are mere dreams. And, considering the imminent provincial election, it’s unlikely B.C. will spend big money on the Sea to Sky anytime soon.

Humans first travelled the Sea to Sky corridor as a native Indian trading route. In the 1800s it became known as Pemberton Trail, and cattle-drivers briefly tried it. No one could have dreamed it would become a multipurpose thoroughfare linking Western Canada’s biggest metropolis, the old-economy forestry and agriculture areas of Squamish and Pemberton, two First Nations bands and the frenetic international tourist resort of Whistler.

At the turn of the century, a trip to Whistler involved taking a steam ship to Squamish followed by a two-day hike. In 1914 the Pacific Great Eastern Railway — now BC Rail –reached the valley later called Whistler, but it wasn’t until 1964 that the province paved a road into the area.

Even with improvements, the route is woefully inadequate for modern demands.

In recent years, parts of the Sea to Sky corridor have grown faster in population than anywhere else in B.C. On an average day, 13,700 vehicles travel the highway, mostly people commuting between the Lower Mainland and Squamish, a large number driving to and from Whistler and a handful moving farther north. Compared to the 100,000 people who cross the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge daily the numbers seem low, but considering the design and terrain of the Sea to Sky the numbers are distressingly huge.

“I don’t think Highway 99 was ever designed to accommodate so many vehicles,” says Constable Cost. “With so many on the roads there are always a few people who think they can drive better and want to pass, so they pass on a double line, sometimes on a blind corner, and end up in a head-on collision.”

And sometimes the road is dangerous even without the idiotic drivers, because it’s unforgiving. Make one error, become momentarily distracted, and court death. “If you stray over the midline today, statistically it’s likely you’ll hit an oncoming car,” says Mayor Broughton.

I remember her words one Friday night heading north, the sky inky black, and rain pounding on to my windscreen. The lights of southbound vehicles glare off the wet reflective surface of the road and as I manoeuvre by a cliff I am suddenly disoriented, unsure of where my lane ends and the oncoming one begins. I can’t stop because the car behind is tailgating, so desperately I follow the red taillights of the car in front, hoping against all logic that the driver ahead can see. Miraculously we make it around the hairpin turn. As the road straightens and I breath, I glance at the cliff to my right. Tail lights reflect red off the streaming rock face, for all the world like streams of blood.

Some of the danger of the Sea to Sky can be alleviated by keeping the road well-groomed, a job that falls to Capilano Highway Services Co., which has the provincial road contract for a vast swatch of area including the Lions Gate and Ironworkers Memorial bridges right up to Duffy Lake.

The company employs 50 workers to pour 7,500 tonnes of sand and 5,000 tonnes of salt on the Sea to Sky each winter, repair its 141 bridges, drive 24 giant snow plows and graders and scramble to do traffic control during emergencies.

Drummond, the company’s general manager, has a different perspective of the Sea to Sky than the average motorist. Much as he loves the scenery, he really admires its skeletal structure. “It’s got an awesome foundation for building a road, all rock,” he says. On top of the natural igneous rock left behind from glaciers in the ice age, road crews pour gravel, then top it with asphalt.

At the Lions Bay public works department, firefighter Smith has a vivid image of many of those fatalities, so vivid that he can’t get the images out of his mind when he tries to sleep at night. “You close your eyes and that’s what you’re thinking about.”

For those who drive it, work on it or rescue the hapless souls who come to grief on it, the sinuous curves of Highway 99 become embedded in memory, an indelible filament of black asphalt.

As a driver who’s explored it occasionally for two decades, and commuted on it for several years, I know every corner, every straightaway. My car, almost unbidden, leaps ahead on the wide stretches and rolls around the curves like a quarterhorse racing rodeo barrels.

I hate the road for its stresses and dangers, and I love it for its beauty and roller-coaster fun. I’m also weary of the hype about the so-called “Killer Highway,” because despite all the carnage, all the superlative descriptions of its beauty, the Sea to Sky highway is neither intrinsically good nor bad.

To borrow a phrase from the gun lobby, roads don’t kill, people do.

There’s not much motorists can do about the Sea to Sky’s geological dangers, but otherwise, when all is said and done, it’s just a road.


Copyright © 2001 Deborah Jones

Originally published by The Vancouver Sun, March 3, 2001

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