Icy roads, whiteouts and crushed metal are common sights on the Coquihalla Highway every winter.
The transportation route features some of the steepest and most treacherous terrain in North America, which thousands of truckers must travel every day. Climbing the eight per cent grade during the winter, truckers often spin out and pileup. During the worst storms, big wrecks can come as often as every 12 hours.
When backups shut down the highway, its up to Jamie Davis and his heavy rescue crew in Hope to get traffic moving again.
“It’s guaranteed to happen,” said Davis, who also started Aggressive Towing in Abbotsford.
“During the winter, you sometimes don’t even sleep. The volume of calls that happen within a short span are very hard to deal with because it pushes your resources to the max. It’s very common for us to be on a wreck and have to split crews to handle a second wreck.”
The busiest time for Jamie Davis Heavy Rescue is between October and February, where there can be up to 35 drivers on the payroll. Davis said it’s a big time commitment and mental challenge for his staff as they work on-call and mostly at night.
“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the business, pulling up on a major accident there’s still shock and awe,” he said.
“No two accidents are ever the same. These guys probably see more carnage and wreckage then all the emergency services put together. It really gives you a respect for life and what you do every day.”
Davis owns a fleet of custom-built heavy rescue trucks with some of the most sophisticated equipment on board. One of the trucks features a fixed 30-tonne crane and two powerful winches, which extends the truck’s reach for hundreds of metres. It would take eight standard tow trucks to match the capacity of this heavy rescue truck.
This specialized equipment and the drivers that operate it will be showcased in a new original eight-part series called Highway Thru Hell.
Produced by Vancouver’s Great Pacific TV, the show follows Davis and his heavy rescue crew as they work to clear the Coquihalla Highway under unpredictable winter conditions. Filming for the series took place between Dec. 1 and March 31, when the route was covered in nine metres (30 feet) of snow.
“There’s nothing made up about anything in this show – it’s all day-to-day, minute-by-minute,” said Davis. “How the crews head out, what we do and where we go is all determined by what happens on the road. There’s no scripting whatsoever.”
He admits filming was hard to adapt to at first, but the drivers eventually formed a close relationship with the production crew. Cameramen were stationed in Hope and on-call for 12-hour shifts. Great Pacific TV leased cars from Gardner GM, rented a house and motel rooms for the crew. In total, 65 people worked on the project, either in the filming or editing stages.
“We wanted to capture real life and real people doing difficult things in difficult places,” said producer Mark Miller. “There were so many variables. It’s really interesting to watch them work through a problem. I think when people see this show and see what it’s really like in a blizzard up there, they’re going to think twice about showing up in their cars with summer tires on.”
While there are other organizations involved in keeping the highway open, such as the Ministry of Transportation and Emil Anderson Maintenance, Miller said Jamie Davis Heavy Rescue appears to be the last line of defence.
“It’s sort of inevitable that when all else goes by the wayside, it’s most often felt that Jamie has to scrape up the broken metal and get the road clear enough to maybe get one or two lanes open,” he said. “The highway goes through a very difficult terrain and it speaks to mankind’s ability to conquer mother nature. But sometimes mother nature pushes back and tries to take the highway back.”
Highway Thru Hell premiers Sept. 4 on the Discovery Channel at 10 p.m. Viewers can also catch full episodes online at discoverychannel.ca as well as behind-the-scenes web extras and video diaries from some of the Jamie Davis crew.