Snow Closed the Highways. GPS Mapped a Harrowing Detour in the Sierra Nevada.


The highway as soon as carried stagecoaches throughout the Gold Rush, twisting its manner by what’s now a nationwide forest and an space of the Sierra Nevada identified for snowmobiling.

In the winter, the rugged passage, generally known as the Quincy-La Porte Road or County Road 511 in Plumas County, Calif., is closed.

But Wendy Becktold, an editor from the Bay Area who was on her technique to go to an ailing relative in Reno, Nev., on Monday, stated that she had been unaware of that when she navigated her rented Toyota Corolla onto the backcountry highway throughout a record-setting snowstorm.

Google Maps had guided her that manner as a result of two main highways close to Lake Tahoe have been shut down, she recounted in an interview on Wednesday, echoing issues of different drivers and public security officers about the potential hazards of relying too closely on GPS purposes.

They stated that Google Maps and Waze, which can also be owned by Google, together with different mapping applications, wouldn’t at all times account for seasonal highway closures or treacherous terrain, emphasizing non permanent highway closures as a substitute.

“There were a lot of cars behind us,” Ms. Becktold stated. “Clearly, Google Maps was routing everyone the same way.”

Ms. Becktold, 50, a senior story editor for Sierra, a journal revealed by the Sierra Club, stated she and her cousin had seen a tree limb on a energy line and had handed many cabins as they unknowingly pressed on. They had stopped to place chains on their tires. Then, a employee in a security vest waved them off, stated Ms. Becktold, who lives in Berkeley, Calif.

“He said, ‘Everybody just keeps showing me their phones,’” Ms. Becktold recalled. “He was just like exasperated.”

A Google Maps spokeswoman stated in a assertion on Wednesday that the tech firm was taking steps to offer drivers with correct route data.

“In light of the unpredictable conditions from the current snowstorm, our team is working as quickly as possible to update routes in the Lake Tahoe area using details from local authorities.” the spokeswoman, Madison Gouveia, stated. “We currently show a winter storm warning to alert drivers in the area, and encourage everyone to stay alert and attentive.”

Google Maps didn’t reply questions on what sort of safeguards for drivers it makes use of, together with warnings about winter highway closings or unpaved roads. earlier reported the white-knuckle detours.

In Washoe County, Nev., which incorporates Reno, a household of 5 from Southern California was stranded for 2 hours on Monday night time when their rented pickup truck acquired caught in the snow on a two-lane filth highway, the county sheriff’s workplace stated.

The household had sought an alternate route on the technique to go to relations for the holidays in Truckee, Calif., throughout the storm, which closed an 81-mile stretch of Interstate 80 and contributed to the snowiest December in the Sierra on report.

More than 17 toes of snow had fallen throughout the month as of Thursday, in accordance with the Central Sierra Snow Lab of the University of California, Berkeley. The storm additionally closed Highway 50 for about 50 miles in the Sacramento Valley and the Lake Tahoe Basin earlier than it and I-80 reopened.

In a Facebook publish on Tuesday, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office stated that the household had ignored illuminated warning indicators telling drivers to not use the Dog Valley-Henness Pass Roads.

“However, the family’s GPS won the battle of which technology to listen to,” the sheriff’s workplace stated in a Facebook publish on Tuesday, including that the household had been rescued.

It was not clear what GPS utility the household had been utilizing.

In a public warning final week, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office stated that drivers had incessantly taken the identical detour when utilizing GPS. From November 2020 to final February, emergency responders have been known as to 11 rescues, in accordance with the sheriff.

Raquel Borrayo, a spokeswoman for Caltrans, California’s state transportation division, stated in an e mail on Wednesday that the company had tried to bolster that overreliance on GPS apps may very well be dangerous.

“When people try to use mapping apps like Waze or Google Maps to avoid highway closures, they can sometimes be put in very precarious and dangerous situations with unplowed roads/dirt roads, heavy amounts of snow and zero cellphone service,” Ms. Borrayo stated. “We always tell people to stay on highways and find alternate routes that way vs. using rural roads. We also recommend people just stay put and wait until the interstate or highway closure has been lifted.”

During this week’s storm, a number of folks posted display photographs on Twitter of Google Maps and Waze instructions sending customers to the Henness Pass Road, which the Sierra County Historical Society describes as a secluded and winding mountain highway that rises to an elevation of 6,920 toes. The highway, a main emigrant path from Virginia City, Nev., is “left off many maps,” in accordance with a description on the historic society’s web site.

The Donner Pass, named for the doomed snowbound pioneer household, a few of whom resorted to cannibalism throughout the 1840s, is about 40 miles from the detour.

A spokeswoman for Waze stated in an e mail on Thursday that the firm was dedicated to serving to drivers navigate effectively and safely.

“In light of this week’s snowstorm and changing weather conditions, Waze Community Map Editors continue to keep our maps updated with the latest real-time routing information,” the spokeswoman, Caroline Bourdeau, stated. “We encourage drivers to exercise caution and to stay alert on the road,”

Waze has a filter that enables drivers to keep away from unpaved roads.

Crystal A. Kolden, a geographer and catastrophe scientist who teaches at the University of California, Merced, stated she couldn’t consider it when she noticed that Google Maps had steered Henness Pass and different backcountry roads to drivers looking for alternate options to I-80.

“They’re barely drivable in the summer,” Professor Kolden stated on Wednesday. “How reliable do these companies have an ethical responsibility to be?”

Professor Kolden, 44, who was at her dwelling close to Sonora, Calif., in the foothills of the Sierra throughout the storm, criticized Google maps on Twitter. Some commenters mocked her publish, saying that drivers ought to take accountability for monitoring situations and that she appeared like a Prius-driving millennial.

“Blaming vulnerable people for going down the wrong road is the same as blaming some of those poor vulnerable people who drowned in their basement apartments in New York City not long ago,” she stated in an interview, referring to lethal flooding in September.

On Wednesday, Google Maps confirmed purple dots with dashes in them on the highway that Ms. Becktold had taken throughout her circuitous journey on Monday. The highway closure warnings hadn’t been there two days earlier, she stated.

“It wasn’t like we were just frolicking along, looking for a day in the snow,” Ms. Becktold stated.

Ms. Becktold stated she had no alternative however to return to Berkeley when she had been about 150 miles into the 200-mile journey. Her cousin, who had been making an attempt to succeed in her ailing brother in Reno, finally resorted to flying from San Francisco to Reno — by Los Angeles, she stated.

“It seems kind of silly in this day and age,” she stated, “that there can’t be clearer information online that these roads are closed.”