Lynden Oilfield Services' fleet of three PistenBully snowcats have been hard at work in Prudhoe Bay this past winter. In an average week, the cats delivered essential supplies to a remote drilling site 145 miles southwest of Deadhorse and hauled a propane truck to refill two remote tanks used to power a weather station. Operators Tony Warner, Joel Martens, James McSharry and Hunter Keogh operate the machines in severe conditions to serve Lynden customers. They received instruction in freight operations and survival as part of their preparation to operate the machines in extreme weather. The PistenBullys give Lynden customers over-snow options to move their cargo including heavy equipment, containers and camps.
Welcome to Lynden News!
Milky Way Driver Mike Jalomo calls it the winter that never ends. Another driver said, "I’ve thrown on more jewelry (truck chains) in the last month than most people put on in a lifetime."
Winter is never an easy season for the transportation industry, but some years are more challenging than others. "It feels like Mother Nature hasn’t backed down this year," says Kevin Greiner, Central Milk Dispatcher in Lynden, WA. From freezing rain and mountain pass closures to high winds and towering snow drifts, it’s been a tough few months for Lynden employees.
"We have seen close to 24 inches of snow at one time in Whatcom county this year but when the Northeast wind out of Canada blows 50-60 mph for a week straight, 2 inches of snow can drift up to 8 feet really quickly. At that point the county essentially shuts down," Kevin explains. "The only way we are able to get around is to put our own snowplow to work to open roads up."
To prepare for winter each year, LTI, Inc. incorporates winter driving awareness into monthly safety meetings starting in September. Everyone takes chain-up refresher classes – from brand new drivers with no mountain pass experience to 40-year veteran drivers. Coming to work prepared is heavily promoted in anticipation of the first snowfall.
"Mother Nature never sends us an email saying that a storm is headed our way," Kevin says. “We try to watch forecasts as much as possible but sometimes you go to bed and everything is normal only to wake up to the wind howling and the snow blowing sideways. Our LTI, Inc. team is made of professionals who understand that rain or shine, commodities still need to get there."
Driver safety is always a concern. If conditions warrant, two drivers will be sent out in one truck so the primary driver has a spotter and an extra set of hands. According to Kevin, "Our line of work is more than just getting in the truck and driving down the road. Local farm pickup drivers could be in and out of the truck 20 times during a shift so we really stress the importance of slowing down. Making smart decisions instead of knee jerk reactions when things get tough is what sets us apart from our competition."
Lynden is known for having some of the best drivers in the industry. "They are seasoned, know the local areas, and know exactly what to watch for when they are out in the field. We always tell new hires that this is a 24/7 company and the cows don’t care that it’s Christmas. As a company, we do a really good job of focusing on our critical customers and areas."
Mike Jalomo was stranded on the west side of Washington when both mountain passes closed. He laid over in Mount Vernon and went to work helping out Whatcom County drivers on their routes until he could make it back over to home base in Moses Lake. "I don’t think the average person realizes how much it takes to get the milk over the pass," he says. "We don’t have the luxury of sitting out a storm."
"Mike and so many others are all stars who have gone above and beyond this winter," Kevin says. "The LTI, Inc. office in Lynden, WA lost power in January for about six hours and several administrative employees were still here working. At the beginning of January, there was a record snowfall in Caldwell, ID and Jason Jansen and Bob Griggs both suited up in insulated coveralls and rode around with Milky Way’s Caldwell drivers helping chain up and navigate roads until 2 a.m."
"Our drivers and the team supporting them did the extraordinary, working safely through tough conditions and long hours to serve our customers," says Lynden CEO Jon Burdick. "I’m proud of their dedication and what they accomplished."
Broken thermometers, frozen brakes and landing gears, and frostbite. These are just a few of the challenges Alaska employees dealt with during the record-setting winter. The record high snowfalls and low temperatures made operations challenging for employees throughout the state. According to John Jansen, Terminal Manager at Lynden Transport in Prudhoe Bay, the challenges on the North Slope were not unique but more extreme than usual.
“Prudhoe Bay doesn’t get a lot of snow, maybe a foot or two a year, but the little bit we do get doesn’t melt for seven months,” he explains. “It just blows back and forth all winter causing extreme whiteout conditions, the strongest of which halts all outdoor operations on the oilfield.”
The winter was so brutal that even ice road construction was affected.
“At 30 below zero, the water they pour to create the ice roads freezes so fast it becomes difficult to form a smooth surface. It’s been too cold this winter to make good ice,” says Bering Marine Captain Jack Rasmussen. “It’s also been tough on the hovercraft. We’ve had some 68-below days that became 80-below with the wind chill,” he explains. “Our heaters and thermometers stop working in the hangar.”
The trucks were left running around the clock. “Besides the issues of freezing braking systems and valves, we have the additional challenge of hooking up to our trailers,” John explains. “We do this 20 to 30 times a day and it usually takes three to five minutes. At these temperatures, it can take 30 minutes. Instead of being slippery, the grease on the fifth wheels becomes stiff and tacky. It sometimes takes a blowtorch to warm up the landing gear cranks.”
And equipment isn’t the only thing that freezes. Employees on the North Slope sometimes needed to come inside to melt the frost off their clothes and faces. Dressing the part for these temperatures is serious business. Cell phones don’t always work in remote, frozen delivery areas, so John enforces a policy that employees check in every 30 minutes to let the team know they are o.k. “We are dealing with critical conditions up here and safety is our No. 1 priority for customers and employees,” he says.
Lynden’s oilfield customers enforce safety shutdowns at 35-degrees below or colder for any hydraulic powered equipment used outdoors such as forklifts and loaders. When this occurs, the Prudhoe Bay team spends the downtime organizing and stripping loads to build one-stop and two-stop drops so they can quickly deliver freight to the waiting customers in the short window of warmer weather. “We had a situation this winter where we couldn’t deliver for six days. As soon as it warmed up we had all hands on deck to make as many deliveries to our customers as we could before the temperatures dropped again,” John says. “The whole crew will be glad when this winter is over.”
Historic storms hit Alaska and Washington this winter and Lynden companies pulled together to keep the freight moving and equipment operating in the harsh temperatures and record snows. Hardest hit is the Railbelt in Central Alaska while Whittier, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Kenai have had adverse weather for most of the winter. Whittier has had 380 inches of snow this winter, and Valdez has received 403.9 inches of snow and is considered the snowiest locale in America. Cordova and Whittier are not far behind. Anchorage has had over 10 feet of snow this year. “With snowfall expected to be heavy in March*, we have a shot at the all-time record,” says Scott Hicks, Vice President of Operations for Alaska West Express.
Conditions at the Alaska Railroad Corp. yard in Whittier, AK.
Compounding problems was a cycle of storms which hampered barge arrivals off and on since October. The Whittier terminal has been dealt further blows by storms which bring heavy snow, then melting conditions. The cold temperatures cause train wheels to freeze onto the tracks and make rail, truck and forklift operations very difficult. “We have experienced crippling conditions for rail and cargo operations,” Scott explains. Excessive ice buildup throughout the terminal shut down all rail movement in or out of Whittier for days. Avalanches caused train delays extending the time required for loading and unloading our barges, and tug crews have battled through storms, rough seas and lengthy voyages.
“Our crew in Whittier has worked very hard to keep the freight, trains, trucks and barges moving,” Scott says. “They have worked almost every weekend since the first part of November. This includes our drivers shuttling and trucking loads on the weekends to take care of the priority freight for customers. Anchorage yard crews have also worked around the clock to unload trains and keep the trains and trucks moving. Fairbanks crews have battled temperatures as low as minus-60 degrees.”
The Nana Provider has been cycled in as a fourth rail barge which has helped maintain weekly service. “We have received help from multiple Lynden companies and I would like to thank them,” Scott says. “Our partners Western Towboat and the Alaska Railroad also deserve much credit for helping us ‘weather the storm.’” Lynden employees have done an outstanding job through this very difficult time with manpower and schedule changes. It truly is a team effort and a great example of what Lynden is capable of.”
In Washington, winter storms also brought freezing rain, heavy snow and extended road closures on Snoqualmie Pass due to avalanches. The governor declared a state of emergency and waived the hours of service limits for drivers hauling milk from farms to processing plants.
“Our Sunnyside and Moses Lake Milky Way drivers did an extraordinary job given the challenges they faced. They received help from the Portland, Chehalis, Skagit, Whatcom and Seattle services centers to deliver loads and keep our customers from having to dump milk,” says LTI, Inc. President Brad Williamson. Dispatchers met twice a day via teleconference and worked around the clock coordinating with the milk plants. It was an outstanding display of teamwork throughout the organization.”
As a side-note, LTI, Inc. delivered a record amount of road de-icer salt this winter to the Washington Department of Transportation and the City of Seattle. During January, LTI, Inc. trucks moved 30,771 tons of bulk salt from stockpiles at Seattle and Moses Lake to maintenance sites around the state.
* Note: This article was originally written in mid-March, 2012.