Nothing says “mountain driving” like the smell of burning brakes.  I was reminded of this one more time this past week while spending time on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.  A car was reported as disabled coming off the top of Trail Ridge Road heading downhill towards the Estes Park entrance.  The car had completely lost its brakes, and the only way the owner could stop, was to pull the emergency parking brake, and drive up the side of the embankment.  Pretty scary stuff.

I’m reminded of the wear and tear steep mountain roads can have on your car each time I drive I-70 as well.  Signs at the bottom of Loveland Pass say something like “If experiencing brake failure, DO NOT exit at Georgetown.”  Also, in both the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra in California, there are numerous runaway truck ramps, something I had never seen while living back east.  These ramps are steep uphill ramps, usually at a 45-degree angle, placed intermittently on long downhill stretches of the highway coming off high mountain passes.  I’ve never actually seen a truck use one, but I can only imagine the heart-stopping fear a trucker must feel when using one.  I did talk to someone once who had seen a truck use one, and he said the truck hit it with such speed, the gravel and rocks went flying every which way before the big rig came to a stop.

Highway 119 through Boulder Canyon drops about 3000 feet over seventeen miles, with stretches of road where the grade reaches more than 10%.  We regularly drive this road either for commuting purposes or just to go shopping or run errands.  Driving mountain roads on a routine basis, has taught me that low gears on my car are my friend, or else I would be spending a LOT of money to replace my brakes often.  Even though I have an automatic, I frequently use the Low-3, Low-2, and even Low-1 on my car.  If I’m really on it, I can get down Boulder Canyon strictly using the low gearing without even using the brake at all.

It’s just another challenge for tourists to deal with, and can be particularly daunting, as they are nerve-wracked enough by keeping the car on the road while eyeing the steep drop-offs alongside them..  Learning to downshift is just one more thing to process, but it’s an important one.  So as I work at the pullouts off Trail Ridge, I’m tempted to yell out to tourists navigating the 12,000-foot road, “Don’t forget to use low gear!”  It can literally be a life-saver, and will definitely save wear and tear on your car, as well as on your nerves.