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Winter Fun Festival Snow Wheeling - Frostbite in the High Sierra

Posted in Events on January 1, 2010
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If you are like us, there are certain events that trigger an irresistible urge to blow the summer dust off our rigs, load up the Gore-Tex and winter survival gear, and head for the hills. It usually happens when the first late-fall storm blows in and we hear the ski report hype on the news. In a moment of spontaneity, we forget about editorial deadlines, honey-do's and feeding the dog. We power down the PC, double-check our winter wheeling punch list: Sleeping bag, maps and GPS, winter clothes, shovel, emergency food and water, and our SPOT emergency GPS locator, and head to the garage. Winch function, check. Lockers, check. Heater, check. Coolant and engine fluids, check. Now, where to go? When the snow reports came over the airwaves last January, we were looking for big mountains and big snow. And if you are on the West Coast, the place to find big is Winter Fun Festival (WFF).

O'dark-thirty Saturday morning: We made the long haul to Grass Valley, California, checked in with the WFF crew and gorged ourselves on a country-style breakfast. I handed my keys to a friend (an occupational hazard of being a photographer is that you can't drive and shoot at the same time), then bummed a ride with 17-year-old Grass Valley local, Wade Corbett, and headed for the Frostbite Extreme Trail. Old Man Winter had blanketed the Sierra Nevada with a hefty layer of the white stuff. This day, however, after we scraped the frost off the pumpkin, it would be a day for sunscreen and Blistex

We were digging Spencer Scott's '76 Blazer and its soft top, tube doors, and beat-'em-back-with-a-hammer body panels. Sporting an ARB'd Dana 60 and Detroit-locked 14-bolt, 40-inch Goodyear MT/Rs, and a driver with a heavy right foot, what we liked most was the 'tude.

Take two rigs. If things get bad, stay with your rig rather than walking out. When the weather clears in a couple of days, you can dig your way out or burn the spare tire as a smoke signal (start it with the Presto log). Our favorite new piece of survival gear is the SPOT personal locator.

Rolling off the pavement near the rough and ready mountain town of Allegheny (population: about 35), we turned east towards Henness Pass. Deeply chronicled in the lore of the California Gold Rush, the Henness Pass Toll Road, which was pioneered by Patrick Henness in 1850, was safer than the ill-fated Donner Pass trail and became one of the main routes over the Sierra Nevada. Eventually developed into a toll road in 1859, it thrived until the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad commenced in 1862. In any account, we were here for snow, and Henness Pass was the place to find it.

The Winter Fun Festival is sponsored by the California Association of Four-Wheel Drive Clubs and held each January near the gold country settlement of Grass Valley. Offering a dozen different trail rides ranging from extreme high-elevation snow-slogging to mild SUV and historic runs, it is the quintessential winter family trail event.

As the GPS clicked 6,000 feet and the snow got deeper, an all-day game of follow-the-leader ensued. Tow-straps and winches were implemented with regularity as axles spun and tires sunk past the point of traction. Our trail crew, the Grass Valley Four Wheelers, labored like cattle hands on a winter roundup, making sure that none of their flock went awry and became a permanent part of the landscape until the spring thaw.

In the lower elevations, the SUV and Historic tours visited lost settlements with colorful names like Rough and Ready, French Corral, Moonshine Road, and Brittany Springs, and the North Star Mining Museum. Evenings at Winter Fun are all about . . . the fun. Back at HQ, the WFF cook crew was dishing up a home-style roast beef dinner with all the fixin's. After the raffle, which included gear from BFGoodrich, Warn, Tuffy Security, and Advance Adapters, the adults tried their luck at a Las Vegas-style casino night. Never getting enough, the next morning we headed out for day two on the Siberian Express

Arriving at the higher elevations on the Sunday run, the WFF trail crew cut us loose for some serious snow play. We bummed a ride with Sean Carmichael, owner of Carmichael Customs, in his ultra-clean 1970 Bronco for a high-speed game of follow-the-leader.

The Winter Fun Festival, which kicks off the California snow-wheeling season each January, is one of the West's premier winter events. For information on the January 2010 WFF, check out: or call 800/4x4-FUNN.

Winter Survival Guide
Snow wheeling is great, but when spending the night means bedding down in the front seat of a Jeep, or hacking an igloo out of a snow bank, having the right gear is essential. Here are a few tips:

The next generation of four wheelers are guys like 17-year-old Wade Corbett. We caught a ride with Wade in his home-built, solid-axled '91 4Runner, which he and his dad spent two years building with gear from Marlin Crawler, ARB, Parnelli Jones, and Bilstein.

Let someone know exactly where you are going and when you'll be back.

Pack extra clothing, sleeping bags, and a three-day supply of food and water for each occupant.

Outfit your rig with the proper emergency equipment: a reliable winch, tow strap, clevis, tarp, tools, fire starter (Presto logs are awesome), a map, compass and GPS, CB radio or cellphone.

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