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Up Lion’s Back

Posted in Features on February 21, 2017
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One of the most iconic off-road obstacles on the planet is the famous Lion’s Back in Moab. Located on private property, it has been closed to the public since it was sold in 2004. With special permission from the current owner, Jeep was able to coordinate one more run on this amazing piece of rock.

It started with a passing conversation between the property owner and Scott Brown of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles about how cool it would be to do something really special for the 50th Easter Jeep Safari and the 75th anniversary of Jeep. Out of the blue comes a call from Scott that all the legal paperwork had been done and to ask if I am available to guide the climb in just a couple of days (Thursday, March 24, 2016) for a sunrise photo shoot on Lion’s Back. Yes was the only answer. This was a big secret, as neither the property owner nor Jeep wanted to attract a crowd.

We met in the predawn hours of Thursday morning to prep the Jeeps and their drivers for the endeavor. I was to right-seat for Mark Allen, head of Jeep design, in a 75th Anniversary Edition Wrangler. Tyler Ruby, Jeep Wrangler brand manager, was to follow us in the Wrangler Red Rock Limited Edition. Jim Repp, vehicle development manager, would tail gun in the 75th Anniversary Grand Cherokee, with John Marshall (a friend and guide) as his right-seat. On cameras were Chris Collard, Jay Bernard, Brad Stanley, and a few other social media team members somewhere off in the bushes. After a quick driver briefing and a cue from the photographers that all was ready, we started our ascent in the twilight. We were all very excited, with a keen appreciation for the uniqueness of the circumstances.

Lion’s Back is one of those obstacles that looks much more intimidating than it is difficult. In fact, if you have driven the gatekeeper fin on Moab’s Hell’s Revenge, you have survived much narrower rock than Lion’s Back. If you have driven up Kenny’s climb on Moab’s Fins N’ Things, you have driven much steeper than Lion’s Back. However, Lion’s Back is tall. Very tall. Very, very tall. It’s about 350 feet tall.

The Grand Cherokee, piloted by Jim Repp and John Marshall, was the last Jeep down. Note the sugary crust that has formed on the rock from 12 years of no traffic. It made the drive just a bit more interesting.

All went smoothly as our Jeeps slowly crawled up the fin. I was excited to be there, but it didn’t give me an adrenalin rush—yet. The view from the top was breathtaking. We reached the turnaround spot, and I glanced down off the side—now the adrenalin was flowing! The emotional and physical impact of just how high in the air we were struck me. There are parts of your body that clench up and refuse to go anywhere near the edge. I stepped out of the Jeep to help Mark turn around. The physical reality is that the two-door could easily do a three-point turn on top, but the sphincter takes over and it becomes an 11-point turn to avoid looking down into that chasm of certain death.

We took in the sunrise view, posed for photos, congratulated each other, and then took a collective deep breath and started down. It always seems steeper on the descent than it does on the ascent, but we reached the bottom uneventfully. While we were all celebrating the first drive on Lion’s Back in 12 years, Tyler said something that really struck me as significant. “These are the first JKs to ever drive on this!” he remarked. And they are likely the only ones that ever will.

As I drove away from this momentous event, it occurred to me that Jeep is not just selling vehicles. From design to engineering to marketing, the key people at Jeep really do live and breathe the Jeep lifestyle of four-wheeling, outdoors, fun, family, and friends. They too want all the cool gadgets, to run the cool trails, and respect and preserve all of it for future generations to continue to enjoy.

Special thanks to Lionsback Resort, a full-service hotel and conference center soon to open, for allowing this all to happen.

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