A three-day storm had deposited a foot of snow over Donner Summit. A blanket of white continued to fall. Professional chain installer Charlie Row stood off the roadway of the Donner Lake Interchange. Thick, moist flakes wag together and form a cornice on his raingear. Cars and trucks slowly pass by him for inspection at the chain control location.

He’s been at it throughout the morning and afternoon, chaining cars and trucks higher up the pass, but as darkness approaches, the weather turns harsher, sending controllers and chain monkeys to a lower elevation close to 6,000 feet in elevation. Underneath his raingear Charlie wears a chemical warfare suit he found in an Army/ Navy store. He dotes Navy ‘Bunny’ boots on his feet complete with air bladders designed for duty in Antarctica.

‘Sometimes it feels like you’re in a plastic bag, but it keeps you dry,’ laughs Charlie, 47, a world class speed skier who has been installing chains along Donner Pass on and off since the early 1980s.

Advertisement

All-wheel and four-wheel drive sport utility vehicles dominate the long line of traffic. Occasionally, a two-wheel drive sedan pulls over. Wearing bright orange crabber gloves Charlie quickly installs the car’s chains and sends the driver off on his way towards the whiteout up Donner Summit. He walks back counting wet money.

How much money installers make is information ‘chain monkeys hold close to their heart,’ says one, who declined to be named talking about the subject (we’ll call him Joe). He did say, ‘an average of $200 to $300 per day is normal.’

‘But it’s like playing a poker game, there’s no promise that you’ll make anything when you head out,’ says Joe, who’s been chaining for 20 plus years. ‘I’ve gone out more times and made nothing than times I’ve gone out and made a lot.’

The key to bringing in the cash is capturing ‘Pole Position,’ the first spot chain installers are stationed when driving up the hill, Joe says. Drivers exhibit ‘crowd mentality’ – when they see the first signs for chain control, they pull off, following other cars. Even though there may be dozens of chain installers, it’s the first three, closest to the beginning, who see all the action. Smart chain installers track the weather to know the anticipated snow level since this is the first point where road controls will be in place.

In days past, some unseemly chain installers would camp out days before a storm in the ‘pole position,’ living out of their vehicle and leaving trash by the roadside, Joe says, prompting installers to create rules to prevent such shoddy behavior. All installers abide by the self-determined system, which includes a 24-hour rule that keeps people from camping out. The unseemly installers have for the most part been weeded out and the rest of the crew – mostly men – work really well together, Joe says.

‘We raised the price this year for the first time since 1989 – $30 on and $15 off per car. Thank goodness they still make two-wheel drive automobiles,’ Charlie says. ‘If it wasn’t for them and the tractor trailers ($50 per tire) I don’t know if it would be worth missing a powder day.’

For Charlie, Joe, and the other 138 permitted chain installers who work the dozen or so chain control locations between Newcastle and the Nevada border, the SUV has become a bane for a once lucrative income.

Americans continue to buy sport utility vehicles (SUV) at record levels, with sales up almost seven percent last year and up 42 percent during the past five years. ‘SUVs probably account for 60 percent of traffic now. It used to be that a chainer could pick and choose the vehicle. A lot of guys shied away from doing semis because they’re a lot more work. Now you take what you can get,’ Charlie admits.

When U.S Highway 40 opened over Donner Summit in 1926, motorists could finally reach the eastern Sierra in hours instead of an arduous two-day trip over rutted dirt roads and rocks. Two years later, with the urging of Wendell Robie, President of the newly formed Auburn Ski Club, the California Department of Transportation made the first efforts to keep 7,200-foot Donner Pass open.

Possibly, that was the beginning for professional chain monkeys, the group of hardy blue collar workers that chase storms, willing to work long hours in weather as savory as a dog’s breakfast.

They come from a cross section of the local Tahoe communities, from lumberjacks and carpenters to auto mechanics and ski bums. Each has to cough up a $480 annual permit fee. For the individual who has one, the reward is cash money, plenty of it when the canyons below the Pacific Crest, carved by the forks of the American river, funnel coastal storm fronts into the heart of the Sierra and directly over Donner Summit. In past decades, chaining was such a popular way of making a good living the only way for someone to obtain a permit was to luck out in an annual lottery.

The permit, dispensed by the California Department Encroachment Office cannot be transferred, and they are not just scarce but nonexistent. No new permit has been issued since 1991.

‘These guys work in the worst of conditions,’ says California Highway Patrol Sergeant Steve Carmichael, a veteran of 15 winters along Donner Summit’s stretch of highway. ‘It’s not easy work. It’s wet and cold and at times can be dangerous. They definitely earn their living.’

Exposure to the harsh weather, car fumes, and road grunge is physically taxing, Joe says. Not to mention the cars slithering around on the slick highway. He’s seen many cars slide out of control toward a chain installer, working on a stopped car.

The only way to withstand the conditions is to have a ‘rolling home’ that is heated to an extreme, Joe says. ‘You stay out in the elements for as long as you possibly can, then jump into your ‘home’ to warm up, fuel up, and maybe even change clothes.’

No other area in North America has averaged more snowfall over the last one hundred years than Donner Summit. Records go back to 1878, when Southern Pacific employees began recording how much snow they were shoveling off the railroad tracks. According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Central Sierra Snow Lab in Soda Springs, Donner Summit averages 34 feet of snowfall annually with an average maximum depth of nine and one-half feet.

‘Over one-third of California’s commerce passes in or out on Interstate-80 over Donner Summit,’ says Jeff Waters, the Superintendent for Caltrans who oversees the Donner Summit district. ‘Over 27,000 vehicles pass over Donner Summit daily, 30,000 on weekends. It’s a Main Street of California and therefore is a priority to keep open.’

Waters deploys approximately 155 pieces of snow removal equipment each winter to help keep Donner Summit clear, yet he’s the first to admit that chain installers have just as important a job in keeping the flow of traffic moving.

‘We absolutely have to have them out there. A percentage of people have no idea of driving in the snow nor how to put chains on,’ Waters says. ‘No doubt, the SUV has increased in numbers, so much that we haven’t seen a need to increase the number of permits for some time. That’s not to say we want to see professional chain installers disappear.’

For Charlie Row, what once was a full-time job has become part-time. A contractor and year-round builder, the lure of instant cash of chaining vehicles is no longer as great a pull as a steady paycheck and warmer working conditions.

‘Chaining used to pay the bills,’ he says. ‘But between the last few years of inconsistent winter weather and modern SUVs, we can no longer rely on the income. I doubt I’ll ever give up my chaining permit, but I choose the days I chain vehicles along Donner Summit.’

Facts on Main Street’s chain control
If California skiing had a Main Street, it would be the 100-mile stretch of Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Truckee, including 7,200-foot Donner Pass.

• In 2002, $5,246,221 was spent clearing this stretch of highway and Caltrans drivers drove 1,435,687 snow and storm plow miles.
• 5,900 tons of sand is used during the winter season.
• 12,000 pounds of salt are used during the winter season.
•155 pieces of equipment are deployed on I-80 during the winter.
• 27,500 vehicles pass over Donner Summit daily: 30,000 per day on weekends.

Chaining Tips
Charlie Row can remember receiving a 100-pound bag of onions as a tip from a trucker bringing a crop across the summit. Another time, he discovered a beautiful young woman, whose station wagon he’d just chained, had no money, only credit cards. A lingerie salesperson for Frederick’s of Hollywood, she allowed Charlie to pick several undergarment items from her sample displays for his girlfriend in payment. Charlie has chained people’s vehicles from all walks of life. Besides having cash on hand to pay a chain monkey, here are a few other tips from professional chain installer Charlie Row.

• Carry chains in winter even if your car has four-wheel drive.
• SUVs brake under control only 50 percent as well as chained vehicles. Always control your speed in snow conditions. An SUV is not a Sherman Tank.
• Do not ever question chain controls. If you see chain installers along the roadway, chain controls are in effect. Chainers must leave their roadway positions immediately if controls are lifted so if they are visible, road controls are in effect.
• Cable chains are lighter, cleaner and easier to install, and hold up better on black pavement than traditional chains.
• The pricey Spider Chains ($200) are user friendly, but actually take as long as regular chains to install.
• When installing the chain to the tire, place the chain around the tire. Do not lay the chain out and drive over it. Carry plenty of chain adjusters to tighten the chain around the wheel.
• Let pride take a back seat. For just a little bit of money, a professional chain installer can get you quickly and safely down the road and keep you dry and clean at the same time.

~ Mayumi Elegado contributed to this story.

Author

  • Robert Frohlich

    Former writer

    1955 – 2010

    “If Lake Tahoe ain’t heaven, then heaven can wait.”
    ~ Fro fighting for his life

    “The next morning I arose early to watch the setting moon. The sun hadn’t quite broken out of the dreamy foliage of morning, and all was still: the blanketed dells, ridges, and granite domes. No sound. Something almost creepy hovered over the motionless surroundings. The landscape had a fierceness that made the Alps look tame.

    “There is a small stone fortress built in the 1920s that guards the actual point lookout. I noticed the fellow who’d bragged about skating the 11 miles in two hours. He was probably doing yoga, but he looked more like he was praying. Maybe he was praying not for his deliverance alone, but for mine, too, for our mutual enlightenment. Maybe he embodied the form that transcendent figures assume these days. I felt unaccountably cheered that this guy was a sort of postmodern angel, complete with a caption for people too dense like me to know a vision when they see one. How could it be otherwise? Many people wilt when their lives have been gutted. I’d refused to wilt. I’d been given a second life. In my first life I tried to do everything expected of me and had failed somewhat. Now in my second life I’d try to attempt things not expected of me.”

    ~ “Seeking Mojo at Glacier Point,” published in Moonshine Ink, March 8, 2010

Advertisement
Previous articleIf I Can Do It, You Can Do It
Next articleBegin Within: The Art of Living