Highway Thru Hell: What Goes On Behind the Scenes

The year is 1979, and AC/DC is truly rocking with their single “Highway to Hell” making it to the top of the charts. Since then, truckers have been glamorized and featured in films and documentaries such as Convoy, Big Rig, and Big Trouble in Little China.

Highway Thru Hell / Jamie Davis, Al Quiring / Leia Hutchings / Steve Pillai.
Source: Discovery Channel

While some films show truckers in their semis living in a dystopian trucker world, the Canadian reality series Highway Thru Hell takes us on an actual drive with truckers on some of the worst roads and most treacherous conditions in Canada. It features stories of sheer grit and courage, as well as the other side of the coin. The producers started work on it in 2011.

What Is Highway Thru Hell?

Highway Thru Hell is a Canadian docuseries. It premiered in 2012 and focused mainly on two truck drivers in British Columbia who operate along the Coquihalla Highway stretching 543.3 km (337.6 mi) and connecting the Canadian Rockies to Vancouver.

A still from a truck accident in an episode from the show.
Source: YouTube

It is a treacherous stretch with mountains rising on one side, below freezing conditions in winter, avalanches, and ice on the roads. Vehicles skid and get stuck in a ditch, and accidents shut down the road. Highway Thru Hell features the work of tow truck truckers clearing the roads and helping accident victims.

Coquihalla Pass Has a Dangerous Reputation

Coquihalla Pass is mentioned in various reports and on several channels such as the Weather Channel for being one of the worst mountain passes in British Columbia, responsible for 32 fatal crashes between 2004 and 2013 and about 500 accidents.

An image of Coquihalla Pass.
Source: Castlegar News

The Coquihalla Highway—Highway 5 or the Coq, as it is colloquially known—was constructed in a hurry, following the path of a 140-year-old cattle train, to provide connectivity to the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication. Poor planning and poor implementation have since cost truckers their lives and resulted in financial losses to truck owners and their clients.

Good News for the Producers: Filming in British Columbia Is Free

TV show producers have a lot of expenses for travel, gear, wag, and fees for licenses to film. There are pre-production hassles to overcome since they must visit the terrain, understand it, and take out insurance.

An image of Coquihalla Highway on a rainy and snowy day.
Source: YouTube

Fortunately for the producers, filming in British Columbia is free. All they have to do is apply for a permit, which is issued at no charge. What more could a producer ask for? They can do what they want and not have to pay heavy fees.

Highway Thru Hell Breaks Records

Highway Thru Hell has aired for seven seasons. It has broken viewership records and destroyed stereotypes. Through the show, people get to know the challenging conditions of the trucking industry. It’s a masterpiece of filming in hostile conditions, bringing to life rescue operations as well as behind-the-scenes work.

A still of a truck driver speaking in an episode from the show.
Source: YouTube

But it was not just the truckers and tow truck rescue teams that caught viewers’ fancy. It also highlighted the filmmaking techniques of a committed crew who were on standby 24 hours a day, as were the rescue teams.

The Inspiration for Highway Thru Hell

Neil Thomas, one of the show’s creators, got his inspiration to produce Highway Thru Hell when his truck broke down in the summer of 2010. That was when he met Jamie Davis and his rescue team. It was like divine intervention.

Neil Thomas speaks during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Neil and co-creators Mark Miller and Kevin Mills met with Jamie Davis the next year and proposed that he take part in their show. Davis was hesitant but agreed and became a spokesperson for the industry through the show.

It Takes Months to Film the Show

The production team for Highway Thru Hell always wanted to capture impressive footage. That meant they worked through the winter on location in British Columbia, taking as much as four to six months to film the show. It takes some serious dedication to film through a Canadian winter.

A photo behind the scenes of Highway Thru Hell.
Source: YouTube

Filming Jamie Davis Motor Truck & Auto’s truck rescue operations was only a small part since it was also involved in rescuing smaller vehicles. The Highway Thru Hell production team filmed other accidents and rescue work. They also filmed the life of tow truck drivers in the summer and how they repair their vehicles and prepare for winter.

Filming Crew Can Be Out of Touch with Others for Months

The treacherous locations, severe winter conditions, and unpredictable weather often kept filming crew members isolated and out of touch with each other. They had to follow the action.

A picture of one of the camerapeople during filming.
Source: YouTube

It was impossible to get cell phone reception since the area did not have cell towers. They used two-way pagers to keep in touch. For the most part, the crew members had to rough it and earned accolades for going beyond the call of duty. Sometimes even the tow truck rescuers had to leave the film crew behind.

Jamie Davis and the Tow Truckers Were Always Well-Prepared

When Jamie Davis and his team go out on a mission, there is uncertainty and no way to know what they will be up against. Being well-prepared is the key to success and also survival. Not being prepared is something no one wants to deal with.

A promotional portrait of Jamie Davis for the show.
Source: YouTube

Jamie Davis always kept his trucks loaded with snacks, survival provisions, extra blankets, and anything else they might need. The tow truck drivers involved in rescue always kept their fuel tanks topped off. No one wants to run out of gas on these long, desolate roads.

Individuals Such as Leia Hutchings Work Alone

It’s not easy to accommodate an entire team on a truck. Some of them often work alone alongside the tow truck rescue team, capturing intimate moments in the process. They also had the chance to showcase the personal side of drivers and rescue personnel.

A still of Leia Hutchings holding a camera while riding on a truck.
Source: YouTube

Leia Hutchings is one of the camera people who often worked with the tow truck drivers. She was a one-person band, using both the camera and the sound systems. The Highway Thru Hell team members, like the tow truck drivers, are on standby 24/7, ready to go when they get the word.

Innovation and Ingenuity Mark the Working Methods of the Filming Crew

The filming crew was out there on their own with no assistance, capturing some breathtaking moments through ingenuity and innovation. The scenery and nature shots themselves are breathtaking, irrespective of the action going on during the episodes.

A picture of the filming crew on location.
Source: YouTube

One example of cool filming techniques was when camera operator Dalyn Forsythe attached GoPro cameras to tall posts to capture a variety of angles. The camera crew also relied on a car battery–powered inverter to keep the cameras running 24 hours a day to capture events as they took place. He made sure not to miss a beat.

Filming Team Members Become Celebrities in Their Own Right

Under ordinary circumstances, a filming crew doesn’t get much attention, either because they work in studio conditions or play a passive role. In Highway Thru Hell it was different; they were actively involved with the rescue teams and even bonded with them.

A photo behind the scenes.
Source: Discovery Channel

This bonding led to capturing some superb footage that showed another side of the rescuers’ lives. Their personal side was captured quite vividly. After the first season’s success, the production and film crew became popular with the truck drivers and rescuers as they built friendships and lasting relationships.

Even the Narrator Gains Name and Fame

Off-screen narration is an important part of Highway Thru Hell. It sets the tone and explains what the crew is doing. David Pettitt lent his voice for the narration, giving the show an extra boost.

A photo of David Pettitt at a recording studio.
Source: Pinterest

Pettitt’s voice is well-known since he had worked on productions such as Dragon Ball and My Little Pony. Of course, My Little Pony is not exactly comparable to a truck driver reality show, but a good actor knows how to adapt. Pettit’s resonant voice added a lot of weight to Highway Thru Hell.

Back-End Production People Are Kept Busy

Leia Hutchings is just one person who worked to capture footage. Several others did the same. That resulted in thousands of hours of footage that needed to be edited to present an engaging visual with continuity and interest.

A still of Leia speaking to the camera.
Source: YouTube

The back end was a beehive of activity with story producers working on thousands of hours of footage. Led by Jason Keel, they put together a compelling story, relying on sticky notes for the final cut culled from footage from various cameras. The end result was phenomenal.

The Crew Must Always Be Prepared to Go at a Moment’s Notice

Weather conditions can change from calm to blizzard to fog in a moment. The filming crew of Highway Thru Hell was always ready to take on severe weather conditions. But these are Canadian drivers, so extreme weather conditions are something they are used to and prepared for.

A still from an episode.
Source: Wikipedia

For instance, Director Tim Hardy always had handy a reflective vest and a pair of snowshoes, and he always dressed in multi-layered clothing with warm winter jackets. The crew would nap, only to be awakened to swing into action minutes after receiving a call.

Collateral Damage by Way of Dozens of Broken Cameras

The harsh weather takes its toll on vehicles and humans, but it also damages the crew’s valuable camera equipment. Tim Hardy went behind the scenes to record that kind of collateral damage. The equipment was not the only thing damaged by the weather; sometimes even film footage was damaged.

A photo of the filming crew on a stormy, snowy day.
Source: Discovery Channel

Hardy had a box of GoPro cameras always ready since these cameras suffered the most damage and often had to be discarded. Fortunately, GoPros don’t cost much. But it does show the commitment of the production team to capture interesting footage.

Jamie Davis’ Business Suffered

The show brought fame to Jamie Davis who ran a small, tow truck business and helped the Highway Thru Hell team. However, his public participation had unexpected consequences he didn’t anticipate, but maybe it was all for the good in the end.

Jamie Davis speaks as he rides a truck.
Source: YouTube

Davis’ clients didn’t want the public or their clients to know about their wrecks, and many stopped using Davis. That forced Davis to explore work in Alberta. Fame does have a downside.

Highway Thru Hell Crew Follows Jamie’s Struggles

Jamie’s venture into Alberta proved disastrous due to a downturn in the economy, and he had to start over from scratch. Highway Thru Hell’s production crew kept up with him on the fifth season of the show, despite the fact that it was grueling and something they hadn’t experienced before.

A cameraman follows Jamie in an episode from the show.
Source: Discovery Channel

The support of Highway Thru Hell’s production team proved invaluable for Davis. He got hope, support, and encouragement to start over with renewed confidence. He found that he preferred driving trucks to managing people and that downsizing was a blessing.

Highway Thru Hell Creates a Rift in the Quiring Family

Perhaps in their attempt to inject a bit of drama, the show’s producers may have gone a bit overboard. That had an adverse impact on some of the show’s participants, including Jamie Davis and members of the family who ran Quiring Towing. They were the two main operators that participated in the show.

The Quiring Family in an interview behind the scenes.
Source: YouTube

The Quiring family had issues with outraged fans and their clients due to the way they were depicted on the show. The Discovery channel fabricated a drama between Al Quiring and Jamie Davies that led to this misunderstanding. After that, the show depicted the Quirings in a better light.

Powerful Trucks Are in the Limelight for Rescue Missions

Rescue teams are often called out to handle toppled trucks or semi-trailers. These overturned vehicles must be flipped up, and powerful trucks are definitely needed.

A still of a truck stuck in the snow in an episode from the show.
Source: YouTube

Adam Gazzola and his Heavy Rescue 52 team is an operator that owned eight standard tow trucks, a fixed 30-ton crane, and two 25,000-pound winches. The other vehicle to star was known as the Rotator that was equipped with a rotating crane that could lift 75 tons. It was part of Jamie Davis’ fleet.

Highway Thru Hell Boosts the Local Economy

Apart from bringing to light the life of tow truckers and a team of rescuers, Highway Thru Hell also helped revitalize the local economy. Some crew members were continually on site, and they traveled a lot. They also needed food and accommodations.

A promotional still for the show.
Source: Tv Guide

The village of Hope, which was at the center of filming activities and located at the entrance to the Coquihalla Highway, saw a number of small businesses emerge. The production also hired local people to work on the show, paying them and increasing their income.

Real-Life Tow Truck Operations Can Be Quite Different

Highway Thru Hell showcases the heroism of rescue units on the treacherous Coquihalla Highway—Highway 52. However, real-life tow truck operations don’t always encounter these types of dangerous situations. But films and television shows do tend to dramatize situations that are rather mundane and even boring in actual life.

A promotional photo for the show.
Source: YouTube

The Ontario Provincial Police charged three of their own officers and suspended four others for alleged corruption in the tow truck industry. It is alleged they gave preferential treatment to some towing companies in the Greater Toronto Area.

Sithambarpillay Charged by the Ontario Provincial Police

Sithambarpillay, also known as Steve Pillai, owns Steve’s Towing located near Highway 400 north of Sheppard Avenue in North York City. He was charged with aiding and abetting breach of trust and secret commissions that contravened the Criminal Code of Canada in January 2021.

A still of Steve Pillai sitting behind the wheel in an episode from the series.
Source: YouTube

It appears that Steve Pillai had also appeared on the television show Heavy Rescue: 401 that aired on Discovery Canada. Fortunately, this type of situation didn’t happen in the Coquihalla Highway rescue operations. Highway Thru Hell was another type of show in a far more challenging situation where integrity was required.

Jamie Davis Provided Vital Insights into the Towing Business

Jamie Davis agreed to participate since he wanted to change the public perception of how the towing business operates and its importance in saving lives and doing business. He adopted a positive and proactive approach without focusing on the negative aspects.

An image of one of Jamie Davis towing trucks.
Source: YouTube

The crucial Coquihalla Pass is a connecting lifeline that helps move tons of products, from food to consumer electronics to life-saving medicines. It keeps businesses supplied, and interruptions can be frustrating and even disastrous. Davis brought to life the role rescuers play in keeping supply chains open.

It Is Reality Like No Other Show

Jamie Davis and the Quirings provided crucial services that were captured in real time as action unfolded anywhere and at anytime of the day or night. Highway Thru Hell ranked as the No. 1 series on the Discovery Canada channel and was telecast on other channels internationally.

Jamie Davis and Al Quiring speak to the camera in an episode from the show.
Source: YouTube

In a way, Jamie and the Quirings are like unsung heroes, and Canadians have much to thank the Highway Thru Hell show for. It presents the reality of the harsh conditions where the rescuers operate throughout the severest of winters.

Highway Thru Hell Leads to Offshoots

The success of Highway Thru Hell led to Mark Miller deciding to create offshoots. He launched another TV series called Heavy Rescue: 401, a documentary showcasing towing in the Greater Toronto Area on Highway 401. After all, there is nothing like building on the success of a previous show.

A still from the television series Heavy Rescue: 401.
Source: YouTube

Heavy Rescue: 401 invited people connected with towing operations on Highway 401 to participate in the show. It featured personnel from the Ontario Provincial Police and the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario. It was created in 2016 and has aired four of its 36 episodes.

Popularity of Highway Thru Hell Spawns Competitors

Jamie Davis became famous, and people even waved to him as he drove his rescue trucks. The Quirings also gained fame. The show also spawned competitors. That was to be expected since TV producers want to cash in on an opportunity and the popularity of a show in the same genre.

Jamie Davis stands holding a t-shirt that reads Jamie Davis.
Source: Pinterest

The show gave the impression that there were only two rescue tow truck companies, but there were others—Mission Towing, Aggressive Towing, and Reliable Towing. Quiring Towing is a family-owned business that has been in operation since 1962.

More about Jamie Davis, Star of Highway Thru Hell

Jamie Davis agreed to cooperate on the production of Highway Thru Hell and thus became the star of the show. He too has been in the truck towing business for decades, since he was a child, in fact. He lives in the area and knows the conditions.

A video still of Jamie Davis in his garage.
Source: YouTube

Jamie Davis was born in 1962 in British Columbia and worked on trucks along with his father since his childhood days. He entered the towing industry in 1979 and made a mark for being available at all times of the day and night, regardless of the severity of the weather.

Another Reality Truck Show but Not So Impressive or Reality-Oriented

The popularity of Highway Thru Hell was possibly an inspiration for other shows. The History channel launched Ice Road Truckers that was said to be a reality show but had a lot of drama and manufactured reality.

A still from an episode of Ice Road Truckers.
Source: History Channel

Ice Road Truckers ran for 10 years, from 2007 to 2017, and was watched by millions. But the show took liberties with reality, which was not the case with Highway Thru Hell.

Ice Road Truckers Shows Only One Driver

One driver on Ice Road Truckers was a fundamental error. No driver who drives a semi on a treacherous, long-haul road would ever set out alone. They always travel in a convoy. They know the dangers out there and are always alert. This is rookie error 101.

A driver from the show poses for a promotional portrait.
Source: History Channel

Truckers prefer to travel in a convoy that can stretch for a distance, and they always use CB radios to stay in touch. A convoy usually has an escort comprised of a group of people with a satellite phone to summon help if needed.

Ice Road Truckers Shows Rookies Being Taken On

No trucker or a trucking company would entrust a million-dollar rig and expensive commodities in the hands of a rookie driver who knows next to nothing about driving long distances or dangerous icy stretches.

A still from a truck accident in the snow in Ice Road Truckers.
Source: History Channel

Ice Road Truckers departs from the established protocol just to add interest. The usual way is for truckers to be close friends or know each other, respecting each other’s experience and abilities. When a new truck driver is hired, that driver usually knows someone in the business and has years of experience.

Ice Cracking Is Presented as Dangerous

Liam Neeson’s The Ice Road shows scenes similar to Ice Road Truckers where a truck breaks through the ice. The sound of cracking ice is presumed to be dangerous. It certainly thrills viewers, but real-life experienced truckers are unfazed.

A still of Liam Neeson in the movie The Ice Road scene.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Netflix

They know it is normal for ice to crack underneath their tires and for water to fill the crack and freeze, making the road even more solid. If the ice does not crack and make a noise, it signals danger since the ice is soft.

It Is Not a Race against Time

The Ice Road and Ice Road Truckers emphasize the urgency of delivery and that truckers must drive fast in order to get to their destinations on time. Nothing is further from the reality of trucking.

A still from the film The Ice Road.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Netflix

Real-life drivers plan and have knowledge and experience on their side to judge how fast to travel and how many days it will take to reach their destination, usually on schedule. Only accidents such as those showcased on Highway Thru Hell break up the schedule. Rescuers are important to restore normal operations on the road.

Accidents Happen Despite the Speed Limit

Ice Road Truckers shows drivers operating large trucks on icy roads and going over the speed limit. But truckers know that to prevent water under the ice from building up enough pressure to explode, they have to drive very slowly, even 10 miles per hour.

A still of a truck breaking through ice.
Source: History Channel

Truckers know about the dangers of exceeding that 10-mile-per-hour limit, especially when they face trucks coming the other way on those icy roads. Despite their expertise, accidents do happen as Highway Thru Hell shows in stark detail.

Ice Road Truckers Created Reality; Highway Thru Hell Is Actual Reality

The point of mentioning Ice Road Truckers is to show that it is only partial reality mixed with some fiction, some non-facts, and a lot of drama to add a bit of tension. As the show seeks to gain ratings and popularity, it misinforms the public.

A still of a wrecked and turned around truck in Highway Thru Hell.
Source: YouTube

Highway Thru Hell, on the other hand, is pure reality with no manufactured scenes. It shows the rescuers’ and truckers’ lives as they navigate the treacherous Highway 52. That is where Highway Thru Hell stands apart and stands tall.

Most Trucker Reality Shows Are Anything But

Ice Road Trucker is just one instance of a television network mislabeling a show a reality show. The popularity of Storage Wars on A&E spawned Shipping Wars, a purported reality TV show that showcases shippers who transport odd, bulky items through timed auctions. The show used the services of a well-known online logistics company.

A promotional still for the show Ice Road Trucker.
Source: History Channel

In real time, the shipment auction is attended by a variety of participants. However, Shipping Wars shows only cast members bidding on a job. It was scripted and rehearsed, unlike the gripping reality of Highway Thru Hell.

Trucking and Truckers Do Not Need Blockheads

Blockheads can do more damage than good and would be shunned in the trucker’s world and the rescue tow truck world. It would be a disaster to have blockheads on your team or involved in the work. They can do more harm than good, and no trucker employs these people.

A promotional still of a female truck driver in Ice Road Trucker.
Source: History Channel

Shipping Wars uses Jarret Joyce as a blockhead to add lighter moments to the show. That’s all good for the show and for audiences but certainly not for tow truck rescues where nothing is a laughing matter, as Highway Thru Hell shows.

Truckers Go Bust after Shipping Wars Is Canceled

Shipping Wars came to an end in 2015 after seven seasons. The shipping companies associated with the show also went bust. This raises doubts and suspicions about the entire operation and the involvement of companies in the show.

A promotional still from the show Shipping Wars.
Source: aetv

It is obvious that the shipping companies in the show earned revenues through publicity and being paid for their involvement, not through their actual operations. Contrast that with Jamie Davis and the other operators who are all real with real businesses whose income and success didn’t depend on Highway Thru Hell. The show just feels like real life.

Ken Monkhouse Passes Away

Ken Monkhouse was featured as a worker for Jamie Davis Motor Truck & Auto featured in Highway Thru Hell. Sadly, he passed away in May 2020 when he was based in British Columbia. Local papers carried reports of his death, showing just how popular he was as well as important to the show.

An image of Ken Monkhouse taking a picture of himself in front of a mirror.
Source: Pinterest

Ken was often called Monkey and was loved by his castmates and colleagues. When he passed away, he was working for Mario’s Towing in Hope, British Columbia. People remember him fondly as a person and an actor.

Mark Miller Went on to Achieve Success

Highway Thru Hell was just a steppingstone to success for Mark Miller, who helped conceptualize and create the series. As president of Thunderbird Entertainment until December 2020, he perfected the blue-collar reality genre. We cannot, however, underplay how he crafted Highway Thru Hell.

A still of Mark Miller during a televised interview.
Source: CTV News Vancouver

In his Discovery documentary series Air Show, Miller showcased the lives of pilots. He bought a plane for the show and still flies it and loves to do stunts above his kid’s summer camp in Vancouver. Miller remains a class act, whether as a person or a director.

Miller Says He Doesn’t Want to Make a Show He Can’t Watch with His Kids

In an interview, Miller said he would never want to make a television show he couldn’t watch with his kids. That is just one endearing quality about him. He is one of those rare, forthright individuals with very little hypocrisy.

A still of Jamie Davis and Miller during an interview.
Source: YouTube

He also goes on to say that the show should appeal to everyone, and he has succeeded in doing that with several shows. Highway Thru Hell is the high point of his work and has made Canada famous for its reality shows.

Miller Put Together a Sizzle Reel Sales Pitch

It was not easy for Miller to find a network for his shows. He put together a sizzle reel sales pitch with a budget of $50,000 and talked some artists and crew members into joining him in what would prove to be a master class in reality shows.

A promotional still for the show.
Source: Discovery Channel

He pitched to National Geographic, the History channel, and the Discovery channel. They all gave him offers. However, he chose to go with Discovery, and the rest, as they say, is history. The show premiered in 2012. The world will always remember him for creating the show, and the world will always remember Highway Thru Hell.