TRUCKEE, Calif. — National Geographic is airing a 10-part documentary that captures the trials and triumphs of keeping Interstate 80 open through the winter over the Sierra Nevada's Donner Summit.
"Hell on the Highway," running Wednesdays at 10 p.m., stars the treacherous winter of 2010-11 when more than 700 inches of snow fell — nearly 60 feet.
"We are telling the story of the men and women in tow trucks, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol who fight the snow every winter to keep Donner Pass and I-80 open," said Conal O'Herlihy, line producer with America's Star Media, which has created award-winning documentaries such as "Deadliest Warrior."
"An element to the story is how vital I-80 is not just to California, but to the nation. Wal-Mart sends 250 trucks over the pass each day," O'Herlihy told Truckee's Sierra Sun (http://tinyurl.com/a3gsbbu).
The heavy winter of 2010-11 and the history of treacherous, often tragic events on Donner Summit inspired the "Hell on the Highway" concept, which burgeoned forth from Gary Tarpinian and his business partner Paninee Theeranuntawat at Morningstar Entertainment based in Los Angeles.
Production crews stood at the ready for killer storms after promising snow accumulations in late fall 2011. They waited, and waited.
The lid finally blew off in February, after some of the longest dry spells in recent history, with back-to-back storms depositing up to 6 feet at the local resorts. Film crews braved the elements side by side with tow truck drivers, Caltrans and the CHP.
CHP Sgt. Randy Fisher said crews spent two weeks with them in late spring, capturing truck and car crashes, and wet, sloppy, spring snow.
Nine full-time film crews hit the Sierra roads, totaling more than 20,000 man hours, with safety also on their minds.
"We were following this one woman, going up and down the mountainside, in waist-deep snow, trying not to get hit by trucks," said Jonathon Berman, senior field producer with America's Star Media, a special company of Morningstar Entertainment.
Integrating the production crews into local life was easy: They lived at Northstar and Sawmill Heights, dined and shopped, skied and rode the slopes.
Chaun Mortier, research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society, helped with local history.
"The society provided the historical photos and information for captions," said Mortier. "My task was to interview drivers for personal bios, work with them on photos they provided and to work with local agencies or news media to get further details. I was a go between with CHP, Caltrans and news media on providing historical data on accidents, snow, etc. It was an interesting experience and I learned how to work in a whole new environment in the research field."
Caltrans Superintendent Bryan Carlson, who worked in South Lake Tahoe for 29 years and now manages the Kingvale station west of Donner Summit, gave the camera crews a taste of local snow removal life.
"I put them in the seats with operators — snow blowers, graders, sanders — to give them an overview of what we do," Carlson said.
As the film crews absorbed scene upon scene of rollovers, crashes and spinouts, they constantly downloaded to home base in Los Angeles.
"I think it will be both educational, and the same blueprint as 'Deadliest Catch,'" said Sgt. Fisher said. "Viewers will identify with characters and follow the people in it."
O'Herlihy said National Geographic and Morningstar Entertainment do a good job of telling "American stories."
"This area (Truckee) and its people embody the spirit of America," he said.