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Oregon Jeepers battle deep snow to rescue a disabled rig

Posted in Events on March 5, 2016
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Oregon’s Myrtle-Creek-Canyonville Tour Route offers breathtaking backcountry views and is a favorite among the southern Oregon Jeep community for summer or early fall outings. The 68-mile loop heads east off I-5 from the little town of Myrtle Creek and then winds its way through thick stands of towering Douglas Fir, skirting steep slopes above pristine creeks, and climbing the western shoulders of the Cascade Range where it opens up to majestic views and great four-wheeling.

Winter changes everything, however. It turns the docile Scenic Byway into a treacherous, impassable route. What takes minutes in the summer can take hours in winter because of the deep snow. Sometimes those who do head up into the area for a little fun in the powder get more excitement that they bargained for, and have to leave their stuck rig stranded until help arrives.


The focal point of the day: a broken and stuck 4x4 on the edge of the Myrtle Creek-Canyonville Tour Route some 25 miles from Myrtle Creek, Oregon. It had been abandoned three weeks earlier when a sudden snowstorm caught the owner by surprise.

About half those in our impromptu recovery group trailered rigs to the staging area at the intersection of South Myrtle and BLM Rd 35-0.

Jeff Beebe had to leave his 4x4 sitting on the edge of the Forest Service road when a fast-moving snow storm caught him and some friends by surprise as they were enjoying the first snowfall just before Christmas. The engine lost oil pressure as they fought to make their way out of the ever-deepening snow. As day turned to night, the snow, now more than two-feet deep, made it impossible to tow out with the other vehicle. He had no choice but to abandon his rig and get safely down the mountain.

The next day he and a friend came back to the area with a big 4x4 pickup, only to find that three-feet of snow stopped them many cold miles from his stuck rig, which was sitting precariously perched on the edge of a steep drop-off.

Jeeps To The Rescue

When we arrived early in the morning, most of the group, including Mike Mitchell (foreground) and Milton Bernheisel, were already busy airing-down their tires for the snow trek.

Forty-four-inch tractor tires aren’t ordinary for snow running, but that didn’t stop Casey McMillan from getting right in the middle of the action with his ’75 CJ powered by a 390ci Ford.

When word went out that a local’s 4x4 had broken down along the popular tour route and was left abandoned in deep snow some 25 miles from town, it didn’t take long before a mixed bag of Jeepers from around the area set up an impromptu rescue.

Steven Montpas, a field mechanic for the Oregon Dept. of Transportation and die-hard Jeeper, pulled together a 12-pack of rigs to head into the rugged area. The rescue rigs were as diverse as it gets, ranging from a 1951 Willys flat-fender to a ’75 CJ-5, from a home-built ’77 Cherokee Chief to a ’53 CJ3B, and several different types of tricked-out YJs and TJs. Also in the group was of course Montpas’ own 2011 Four Wheeler Top Truck Challenge ’49 Willys pickup.

What all the rigs had in common was none were stock. The smallest tires in the group were the 33s under Michael Mitchells’ silver ’00 Wrangler TJ. Every other vehicle was siting on 37s or taller, with Montpas’ oversized Willys’ big Rockwell axles turning 54-inch Boggers. Nearly all had front and rear lockers, winches, and an assortment of other mods handy for year-around wheelin’ in southern Oregon’s widely varied terrain and weather conditions.

Breaking Trail

There’s no other options on the road but to follow in the single tracks of those breaking trail ahead. Milton Bernheisel had Detroit Lockers in both ends of his ’94 YJ. The 37-inch Swampers offer a yardstick of sorts to the rutted snow’s depth.

The Myrtle Creek-Canyonville Tour Route is beautiful in the winter. It’s also treacherous and unforgiving. Here Ed Sivik idles his well-equipped ’51 Willys up one of several winding uphill sections on the way back from the stranded vehicle, as Cory Dow follows in his JK buggy.

We accompanied the rescue team, convoying east out of town following CR 18 (South Myrtle) on the tour route for a dozen miles to the staging area where South Myrtle intersects with BLM 35-0. Just after 8:00 a.m., with trailered rigs unloaded, tire pressures dropped, recovery gear and warm clothes packed into Jeeps, the group headed uphill.

Less than a mile from the staging area the smooth dirt/gravel road was already under a foot of snow. A week of warmer weather and temps in the high 30s to low 40s made traction dicey. Early on, several of the smaller-tired Jeeps took the lead breaking trail. That didn’t last long. By the time we reached Tater Hill, following the road that winds above South Myrtle Creek, the snow pack was nearly double, and the icy snow required the taller-tired rigs to move up front.

Montpas’ 7,200-pound Willys packed down a nice two-track for the rest to follow. But following didn’t mean not getting stuck. Several times over the next mile of the upward climb, a winch cable or tow strap was required from a fellow Jeeper ahead or behind. All the while we wound our way along a narrow white ribbon of snow-covered road through majestic stands of Douglas Fir. The roadside ditches and streams trickled with snow melt as the temperature sat at a comfortable 40 degrees.

The downside of this warm winter day meant breaking through the packed tire tracks of the leaders was easy with the slightest over-exuberance on the throttle. Those who dared venture outside the two-track instantly found tires spinning uselessly.

Help Arrives

The hat says it all: Douglas County 4x4 Search & Rescue. Some members of the group regularly donate their time and vehicles when help is needed.

Working our way down the mountain as darkness set in, and a heavy snow falls. Jeremy Moore’s custom Toyota pickup was the only non-Jeep in the dozen-vehicle convoy. It fit right in with the group.

Nearly five hours after we departed Myrtle Creek, our eclectic band of Jeeps came upon the abandoned Land Cruiser. Any sane AAA Roadside Assist driver would have turned around and told the owner to wait until the spring thaw. Recovery was going to be tough at best. The Cruiser was parked on the very edge of a steep slope with a rock wall on the uphill side and more than two feet of icy, heavy snow packed around it. Once free, Montpas’ Willys, the rig being used to yank out the stuck rig, would have to make a half-mile-long dead-weight pull uphill to retrace our inbound path. On top of that, snow was now falling and getting heavier by the minute.

Thirty minutes later, after shoveling snow, moving vehicles into position, and rigging the Cruiser to the rear of the big Willys, all was set. Cory Dow used a Snevey’s Off-Road synthetic winch rope to attach his JK buggy to the front of Montpas’ Jeep for a little more pulling muscle. As the enveloping snowstorm continued to roll over the Cascade’s foothills, we slowly wound our way back down the mountain. Montpas and Dow, with Cruiser in-tow, played Tail-end Charley just in case everything went south and left the road behind them blocked.

Safe and Sound: Almost

Alan Paulson scoots ahead of fellow Jeepers in his Ford-powered ’53 CJ3B. Light to heavy snow fell on and off during the daylong recovery mission on the northern end of the Myrtle Creek-Canyonville Tour Route.

Forest Service NF2792 heading north from “The Pond,” required our biggest rig to break trail through three feet of the icy, heavy snow that would have otherwise stopped our rescue convoy in its tracks.

It was now well past dark. The recovery mission had taken 10 hours. Our band of four-wheelers were back in the staging area, airing up tires, stowing gear, and loading towed Jeeps back on the trailers. Beebe’s Cruiser was the only vehicle missing: It’s still parked on the side of the snow-covered road, this time in a safer place and a miles closer to being free from the winter snows.

Despite the all-out efforts by Montpas and Dow, despite the size and muscle of the big Willys, despite using the power of two Jeeps, they just couldn’t beat the deep snow. Our revised game plan: Go back in a few days with the big Willys and several other monster-powered specialty 4x4s from the area to finish what we started.

Leaving a rig behind is disappointing, for sure. However, Beebe knew we had given it our all, and everyone in the group felt a certain sense of pride. They put out the maximum effort on the recovery mission, but this time Mother Nature was not to be bested. Along the way everyone had a great day of ‘wheeling and Jeep comradery. It was one of those days that all present would remember long after the snow had melted away.

The Jeepers in our group represented a half-dozen little towns and communities around the Roseburg-Riddle-Myrtle Creek area.

Cory Dow’s four-seat JK “buggy” takes the lead of one part of our convoy, following in the tracks of some of the bigger-tired Jeeps. The heavy, icy snow pack is close to three feet deep, so staying on top is mandatory.

A snatch strap and Snevey’s Off-Road synthetic winch rope are used to free one of our group from the deep snow just above Tater Hill on the Myrtle-Creek-Canyonville Tour Route.

Here’s where we found the stranded Land Cruiser. The passenger’s side wheels were just six inches away from the drop-off into the tall timber. The vehicle had been left in this spot for three weeks, with snow more than five feet deep covering the area a week before we arrived.

A number of those in the group got to work in the close confines, digging around the Cruiser and getting it rigged for towing. Montpas used the rear Warn winch of his big Jeep to hoist the front of the Land Cruiser up and close to the fairlead like one would do with a wrecker.

Montpas used the Warn 9000 on the rear of his Willys to hoist and lock the front of the Land Cruiser off the ground like wrecker.

Beebe was fortunate his Land Cruiser didn’t slide over the steep slope and into the big Firs during his initial effort to get down the mountain. The snow doesn’t look that deep, but the 54-inch tires of the Jeep pickup are sitting on top of another two feet of pack.

Montpas puts the hammer down, letting the 406ci stroker, 54-inch Boggers, and 2-1/2-ton Rockwell axles under his 7,200-pound Willys pickup drag the broken Land Cruiser from its three-week parking spot high on the shoulders of the Western Cascades.

Trail leader and rescue organizer Steven Montpas’ ‘49 Willys Pickup is almost unstoppable. A 406 Chevy stroker resides under the hood driving 54-inch Boggers hanging off 2.5-ton axles. Dual Warn winches and dual transfer cases aid its off-road prowess.

Cory Dow’s custom, four-seat Jeep JK buggy seldom needed help busting through the deep snow. The turbo Chevy 5.3L turned heads every time it was wound up, slinging snow off the 44-inch Swampers

One of several Wranglers running the stock 4.0L drivetrain, Milton Bernheisel’s ’94 had few traction issues with seven inches of lift, 37-inch Swampers and Detroit lockers at both ends. When traction ceased, he rolled out the cable on the Warn winch.

Beadlocks, ARB Air Lockers, and 42-inch Swampers helped Nathan Hopkins fair pretty well on the rescue mission. Here he plays at Tater Hill, showing off his ’92’s custom suspension.

Ed Sivik’s 1951Willys, shod with 38.5 Swampers and lockers at both ends, was one of best snow rigs in the group.

This super clean 1991 TJ belongs to Virgil Osborne, owner of Twin Peaks Off-Road in nearby Roseburg, Oregon. It runs an Atlas 2 transfer case with an Alcan custom spring-over leaf spring setup to handle the Dana 60s and beadlocked 38/13.50-17 TSL Boggers. The 4.0L is “mostly” stock.

Casey McMillan’s ’75 CJ-5 hides a 390ci Ford under the hood mated to a Chevy four-speed and NP205 transfer case. The 5.13 lockers in both ends, along with a triangulated three-link, quarter-elliptical suspension, help plant the 44-inch Agi tires.

This is a sweet Junk Yard Dog. Jeremy Magar’s ’77 Cherokee Chief with a 383ci Chevy stroker and 42-inch Swampers has a custom suspension that consists of four 52-inch Chevy leaf packs, cut in half, and mounted to ¾-elliptical shackles at the ends. Dana 60s have lockers, the rear one a backyard “Lincoln Locker.”

Alan Paulson’s ’53 CJ-3B is a little go-getter in the snow. It has a PTO winch, Power Lok’d Dana 44s, and runs 38-inch TSL Boggers with power from a 300ci Ford straight-six delivered via a T-98 4-speed and a Dana 20 transfer case.

Jeremy Moore fit right in with the Jeeps with his rock/mud-ready ‘95 Toyota T100 (with ’83 body). Power from the Toyota 2 .7L 3RZ heads through dual transfer cases to the lockers at each end and out to 39.5x15x15 TSL Super Swampers.

Trev Carlson brought along his ’58 M38A1 powered by a Chevy 350. The old Jeep’s Dana 44/60 combo, turning 40-inch TSL Swampers, kept it on the straight-and-narrow all day long.

This is the only rig in the group that never got stuck. Kenny Chambers’ 03 Jeep TJ Rubicon, with stock drivetrain, front/rear lockers, and a 5.5-inch long-travel suspension, showed how patience and finesse can get you through tough snow that brings others to a halt.

Michael Mitchell’s ’00 TJ was the littlest in the group, with 33 Toyo M/Ts. But he was always staying up with the bigger Jeeps, albeit working his stock 4.0L a little harder at times.

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