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Worst-Case Scenarios

Posted in Project Vehicles on October 1, 2005
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Contrary to popular belief (and the way we portray ourselves in the magazine, backcountry superheroes that we are), we do get stuck on the trail. And many times for us, as for you, getting stuck - and unstuck - is all part of the fun of four-wheeling.

And then there are times when we really get stuck. And broken. With no spare parts. In the middle of nowhere. In the Third World. Are we still having fun?What follows here are but a sliver of the worst-case recollections of past and present FW editors, as well as those of some of our favorite contributors.

Ned Bacon
The worst case ever
My Worst 'Wheeling Case Ever can be spelled with three letters: O-B-O. Obo is a village in the Central African Re-public (CAR). I once spent three and a half hellish weeks there.

In 1980 I crossed the African continent from Johannesburg to London in a 5-ton 4x4 Bedford Truck. There were 21 of us on that adventure and it took six months. We had adventures that could fill this magazine for a year, but the events surrounding Obo were some of the worst.

Crossing the border from Sudan into CAR, we were accused of attempted murder, which is another long story. Suffice to say, we got off and were escorted into CAR at gunpoint with a warning never to return to Sudan! Not 10 miles into the new country, on a horribly rutted, muddy track that passed for the main road through CAR, we attempted to climb a steep, rocky hill. With a loud snap, the rear axle ceased functioning. Upon disassembly, in the middle of the road, in sweltering heat and relentless flies, we discovered the spider gears and crosspin had grenaded, taking the carrier with them. The nearest town capable of producing any parts was Nairobi, Kenya, which lay over 1,000 miles behind us - through Sudan. Ahead lay the roughest 400 miles (read: four-wheel drive required) of our 17,000-mile odyssey. Sixty miles up this track lay the village of Obo, the nearest "civilization." We spent three days covering those 60 miles. Without a winch, we block-and-tackled, pushed and shoved, cussed and sweated that monster, front-wheel-drive-only truck over muddy ruts and washed-out log bridges. When we got to Obo, the news was good and bad.

The good news was there was a mission near Obo that had a shortwave radio which could reach Nairobi. The bad news was the supply plane came once every other month - and it was three weeks out. Waiting in Africa is a way of life, but waiting in Obo was a test of life. We ordered our parts via the shortwave, and with no confirmation that they would show up, settled in for the wait. We were almost out of food, and the natives weren't sharing what little they had. We lived on manioc leaves and mango bread, which we made from the mangos that fell from every tree, and rancid flour full of maggots and weevils. We bought the flour in the village in a 110-pound sack, which we carried on our backs the three miles to our camp. The bread was baked in a sacrificed diesel drum, cut in two by hand with a cold chisel.

Noontime temps hovered around 110 degrees F. It rained so hard every afternoon, you could soap up and take a shower in the downpour, which was wonderful - not so much for washing away the sweat but for driving away the flies for a while. The bad part about the rain was it brought out the mosquitoes. Several of us (including me) came down with malaria months later. The worst part was sitting around with nothing to do, feeling hungry, itching and nursing oozing sores and lumps we'd received from all the no-see-'em's that fed on us.

When the plane was due to arrive, we were given machetes by the missionaries and told we could help cut the runway so the plane could land! The jungle grows a lot in two months. A new carrier was on the plane, and we joyfully set it up using a hacksaw blade and a sparkplug feeler gauge to measure backlash, and mustard to run a pattern check. Over the next two months, before we finally made it to Europe, we endured many more ups and downs and bad scenarios. But all agreed that Obo in the rearview mirror was a highlight of the trip.

Willy Worthy
No substitute for horsepower
We were heading for a diving location off the Baja coast that looked promising - well, at least on the aerial photo I had obtained. "We" were my wife, three teenage daughters, a large Labrador, and yours truly. All in our 1987 Cherokee with a trailer in tow that had a week's worth of camping and diving gear inside. The "road" went from bad to worse, then to nothing more than a cattle trail. Committed to a steep winding climb out of an arroyo, we were halfway up when one of the 31-spline Ford 9-inch axles made that dreaded "snap" sound, and forward motion stopped. Luckily, it had broken just at the end of the spline area, so the shaft was still supported inside the Detroit Locker. However, we were now in a bad situation. A tow strap and assorted ropes wrapped around numerous mesquite bushes gave the winch just enough grab (support, assistance) to allow upward motion with the help of four females pushing on the Jeep.

Then, 20 feet from the top, we ran out of bushes to make another pull to. Now the situation had gone from bad to definitely very bad. Even if we had another vehicle with us, the narrow trail would not have let it get past us in order to offer assistance. Backing down with the trailer was not an option due to the condition of the trail. It was at least 35 miles to the nearest ranch, so a "walk-out" wasn't feasible, at least not at this time. We considered many solutions that even included unhooking the trailer and letting it crash into the arroyo, 100 feet below, and then try to either back down or continue up the hill.

Our last-ditch effort was to somehow make enough of a depression in the hard packed adobe soil to bury our spare tire as a winch anchor. Four hours of laborious digging hadn't accomplished much, when just like out of a movie, four mounted cowboys came riding out of the west. Seems that they were out looking for stray cattle and just happened upon us. Believe it or not, they lassoed the ARB bumper and again, with the girls pushing, the horses pulling, and one front and one rear tire driving, we made it to the top. After a shared early dinner with our rescuers, along with a gift bottle of tequila and a bunch of "muchas gracias," we headed off along a flat mesa in search of lobster, abalone, and fish.

And yes, we drove 500 miles home with that broken axle still in place.

Sue Mead
A doorslammer on a 4x4 trail
I've floated down a river in a vehicle on more than one occasion, hung a wheel off a cliff more than twice, and had bears show up for a remote trail dinner while wheelin' in the wilds, but the worst stuck I ever experienced was prerunning a 4x4 trail out of Palmer, Alaska, for a Jeep Jamboree I was organizing for Mark A. Smith. A late snowmelt meant that my local guides hadn't been able to do their homework. Flying in a week early to "take command," I grabbed local guide Diane Gustafson, along with a Hi-Lift jack, shotgun, chainsaw, cell phone, and some minor provisions, and we set off to check out some trails in a rental Grand Cherokee. (All the guys were working and had their rigs with them!)

We were 12 miles from the nearest road on the Ptarmigan Trail, when I approached a wide, but everyday-looking mud puddle. Navigate to the high side, throttle slow and steady, steer slightly uphill, I reasoned. It was the noise that the chassis made when it slid sideways and settled at an odd angle in the water that alarmed me. Keep your wits, I thought, and try some of your old tricks! Saw the wheel from side to side, forward- and reverse-rock the Jeep, Diane on the front and back bumpers (jump, Diane, jump!), use the floor carpets under the tires, lift the back end with the Hi-Lift, collect debris to stick under the wheels, and line the gigantic puddle (it was mighty deep!) with as many rocks and branches as you can find ... you know the list.

Our low moment came when Diane climbed onto the roof of the Jeep to enhance cell phone coverage, and left her hand exposed in the open door. Climbing in to give it one more try, I slammed the door onto her fingers. The good news? Her scream scared away any bear within miles. The bad? Having practically swum in the puddle before we extracted ourselves after three hours of work, I was now late to pick up Mark Smith at the Anchorage Airport. Arriving straight from the trail, I will always remember his quizzical look and wry comment: "Well, have we been prerunning the trails?"

Ken Brubaker
Not paying attention
I was going to relate a story about getting hit by a rockslide on a Colorado trail, but that probably happens to everybody. Instead, I'll tell a humbling story that demonstrates that stupid is what stupid does.

Since I live on a farm, 'wheeling is as close as walking out my back door. Never did I imagine that I'd get stuck (and injured) within sight of my living room, but that's what happened several years ago. I had been 'wheeling with friends in the pasture around my house, and we were just about to call it quits. After getting out of my rig to chat with my buddy, I didn't put my seatbelt on to drive back to the house (first mistake). On the way back, I was going way too fast (second mistake), and decided to take a new route through some tall grass (third mistake). Since I wasn't paying attention (fourth mistake), I didn't notice that the tall grass hid a creek with towering banks on either side. My International Scout (some would argue that was my fifth mistake, but I liked that truck) launched like a rocket off the creek bank. For a moment I triumphantly thought that I would actually clear the creek, but no dice. The truck stuffed violently into the rock-hard bank on the other side, almost flipping end over end. The collision threw me face-first into the windshield, which I remember thinking shattered quite easily. But worse, the top of my head was ripped open by the steel clip that held the sun visor. At that point, the truck was nose-down in the creek, spewing antifreeze, with shattered glass and blood everywhere. Not a good way to end a great 'wheeling day. On the upside, I didn't black out until I got back to the house, the ambulance ride was nice, and my friends pulled my annihilated truck out of the creek while I was at the hospital enjoying a CAT scan.

Sean P. Holman
When trails attack!
It was spring of 2003 when I got a group of good friends together to explore one of my favorite 'wheeling destinations, Death Valley National Park. We decided to make it a four-day trip, so we could get a couple good days of backcountry exploration in. With the complete examination of Death Valley in mind, we conquered such trails as the Lippencott Mine Road, Pleasant Canyon, the Race Track, Saline Valley Road, Echo Canyon, Surprise Canyon, all without any issues, saving the easier Goler Wash for the end, putting a more relaxing cap on an otherwise excellent and challenging trip.

With just a couple hours of daylight left, we departed the ghost town of Ballarat for Goler Canyon Wash, where we were looking forward to seeing the infamous Charles Manson hideout, Barker Ranch. After a while of exploring the ranch, everyone's curiosity was satisfied and our group charged hard down the trail, trying to make it back to the highway before sunset. Goler Canyon is a hard-packed dirt road with sections of washes, and we were making good time traversing it as a group.

With just over 25 miles to go, dusk was hot on our tails when, with a loud bang and a sharp jerk, my truck took an unexpected heading change skyward. Stopping immediately to survey the damage, I saw the intact tire and forged wheel, which only received minor cosmetic damage from the impact, momentarily setting my mind at ease. Looking around for what I had hit, it was apparent I came around the corner a little too hot in my 2002 Ford Ranger FX4, and never saw the boulder jutting out in the road, which I struck with my right tire and wheel. As I turned my attention to the underside of the truck, I could see that I paid the price for failing to abide by one of a 'wheeler's most important rules: Know what is on the other side of a rise. From the look of all of the power steering fluid on the ground, the collision forced the tie-rod into the steering rack, cracking the rack's body in several places, effectively stranding us in a lonely place known worldwide as Death Valley. Wanting desperately not to prove the name correct, we had to think fast and work as a team.

In typical Murphy's Law fashion, the weather started getting cool and the sun was setting fast, making each passing minute critical to our problem solving. At first glance, we thought we could bypass the power-steering pump by removing the serpentine belt from the pump's pulley, but we quickly discovered that the tensioner would not be able to take up that much slack. So much for Plan A. Our next path of reasoning had us digging through each rig's spare parts for a shorter belt, to no avail. With daylight waning and options fading fast, our last chance of making it out of the wash under our own power centered on being able to isolate the power steering-rack, while still keeping fluid in the power-steering pump. Our last hope was to connect the pump's high-pressure and return hoses to each other, effectively bypassing the rack. With fingers crossed, we filled up the pump and started the truck. As the truck idled, we cleaned up the trail of puked ATF from the desert floor, and verified our makeshift fix was holding pressure. With everything buttoned up, we started out cautiously down the trail.

Sure that we weren't leaking any more contaminants into the environment, we picked up the pace, experiencing a steering effort about 10 times worse than what you would expect from a fluidless power rack turning 33s. In fact, my Dad, who was riding shotgun with me that day, had to help grab the wheel around the sharper turns.

Amazingly enough, our temporary fix held, not only off the trail, but the whole way home. After seeing the rack out of the truck, to this day I am still amazed it didn't blow on the 350-mile trip home. The moral of the story: Know what's on the other side of a rise--or know how to get yourself home safely when you are careless and ram a boulder at speed.

Douglas McColloch
How many editors does it take to open a garage door?
I was going to write about getting stuck in downtown Detroit the night the Northeast Power Grid went out, but I'll stick to an example of how some basic "trail smarts" can bail you out of some unlikely places. In this case, it was my own garage.

It happened in 1991. One morning as I left home for work, I opened the door to the garage where I kept a Mitsubishi Mighty Max I'd been testing for Four Wheeler. (One of the truly great mini-trucks, I might add.) The garage, which sat behind the 1930s fourplex where I lived, was a rickety old hull - with an ancient waterlogged door and rusty coil springs to match - and when I jerked the door upward, whannnnnggggg!!!! A coil spring snapped, and the door collapsed on the left-hand side, coming to rest on the left-side spring bracket, halfway down the doorjamb.

Great! I had a garage door hanging on one spring, tilted askew and dangling diagonally at a neat 30-degree angle. It was easy enough to crawl underneath and clamber inside the truck, but when I tried to back out ... damn! The bed of the truck cleared easily enough, but that dangling door kept banging against the back of the cab. I tried backing out at various angles, but no matter which line I tried (it was a one-car garage, so there wasn't much room to maneuver, even for a mini-truck), I kept hitting that damn door. I was already late for work, and didn't have the time - or the tools, most likely - to remove the door altogether (and even if I had, it would've been far too heavy to move on my own). What to do? Assessing things closely, I surmised I only needed 4, maybe 5 inches of clearance to get the roof of the cab safely under the door. This was followed by several minutes of head-scratching.

Then ... Eureka! The four-wheeler miracle cure! Out came the ballpoint, jammed into the valvestems, and out went the air in the tires. Ever run a Mighty Max with stock tires at 3 psi on pavement? That's what I did - after the now-lowered Mitsu slithered under the garage door, eased down the driveway, and crawled half a mile to the nearest filling station (yep, in low-range). Maybe not a genuine "worst stuck," but a new twist on the concept of "airing down to get out." Thank goodness Super-Dutys hadn't been built yet.

John Stewart
Not just stuck, but stranded in a blizzard
For the well-prepared four-wheeler, getting stuck is a brief puzzle to be solved, and half the time, all part of the fun. But getting stuck someplace freezing, in the middle of an astounding blizzard, on a glacier in Iceland the size of the state of Rhode Island, where nobody can find you, much less rescue you ... well, you begin to wonder.

In this case, we had taken advantage of fine weather to successfully winch to the top of a 7,000-foot mountain, the highest place in Iceland, and plant a flag. Heading off the glacier that night, our caravan of five vehicles got hammered by a blinding blizzard, gusts that rocked the vehicles, and in the zero-visibility cold, broke down. Vaporlock claimed my vehicle. Another ran out of gas, another wedged into a crevice, and the next thing you know, we were all disabled in the middle of a wind-driven snowstorm so vicious, it packed snow into every crevice of the engine compartments. We holed up in the vehicles, unable to run the engines, with a few candy bars and a case of frozen Coke for food. After 24 hours, I was learning Icelandic by reading a copy of the telephone book. By the end of the second day, the frosty condensation from our breathing inside the Bronco was half an inch thick. By the third day, we were taking pictures of ourselves so that, when they found us - if they ever did - they would know what we looked like when we were alive. We could probably have lasted another week, maybe more. But fortunately, we didn't have to.

The next day, the weather broke and we were located by an Arctic Cat snowmobile. A team of four-wheelers reached us with gas, and in the clear sunlight, repairs were made. Aside from a case of snow-blindness and an involuntary crash diet, we were all fine.

Jimmy Nylund
Upside down and (not quite) on fire
It was in 1980, on a trail outside of Gorman, California. Technically, my Jeep wasn't stuck - I was. The seatbelt wouldn't unbuckle with my weight on it, and I couldn't reach the ground to push myself up enough to get loose. I also had a hard time reaching the ignition switch to turn the engine off. Meanwhile, battery acid was dripping down my back, but my thoughts were primarily focused on how the Holley carb could possibly keep the engine at a near-perfect idle while upside down.

Friends eventually helped me with the seatbelt, and the lessons I learned include: Don't use regular car-style seat belts; a rollcage would've protected me and the vehicle better than just a rollbar; and don't install wet batteries behind the seat (or anywhere near the occupants). Also, don't worry about how a carb can function upside down, or on its side -- just be glad it does and accept it.

Bruce W. Smith
Look before you leap
More embarrassing than anything in my career photographing feature vehicles for four-wheel-drive magazines or four-wheeling around the world was the time I sent a truck owner across a muddy area to get some good mud-slinging shots of his beautiful Dodge Ram. He stood on the throttle and went sailing into the smooth mud. Moments later, it instantly sank to the frame in thick, black goo. Unbeknownst to either of us, he'd driven straight into the Indiana equivalent of quicksand, in gumbo form.

After two solid hours of futile attempts by at least a half dozen other trucks with winches to drag the just-restored 4x4 out of the black quagmire, a D8 Cat rolled in from a nearby construction site to help. The dozer almost suffered the same fate, and it had to be hooked to a second dozer before both it and the Dodge were free. It cost me $200 for the extraction and another $100 to have the Dodge owner's truck pressure-washed. Lesson learned: Make sure you know what you're driving into before standing on the throttle.

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