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4x4 Colorado Adventure - Continental Divide Expedition

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on November 30, 2006
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Contributors: Scott Brady

Colorado is a majestic place, with the massive ridge of the Continental Divide bisecting the state's two agricultural regions and providing over 14 million forest acres for recreation. 14,000-foot mountains grow like trees, and the winter snowpack provides water for six U.S. states and some of Mexico. Colorado also provides nearly endless off-highway recreation opportunities, from technical rockcrawling trails to extensive exploration above the tree line.

Our camp would have made any African explorer proud, with several roof tents, volcano kettles, awnings, and a great diversity of overland trucks.

For us the adventure started on Interstate 70, with my Tacoma gasping for air trying to pull 6,000 pounds up the 6-percent grade to the exit at Dillon. This massive highway with its Eisenhower Tunnel is an incredible engineering accomplishment and one that allows quick access from Denver to the mountain towns and trails in the national forests on the west side of the Continental Divide.

Our camp for the first night was at over 11,000 feet along Deer Creek just up from the one-stop-sign town of Montezuma in the Arapaho National Forest. The trail to camp provides some challenges early on that essentially function as a roadblock to the armies of RVs which flood the Divide in the summer. K.C. took the lead on the trail with his T100 Toyota fitted with a Four Wheel camper, 32-inch BFGs, and an ARB locker in the rear. I was impressed with how easily the T100 negotiated the cambered sections, large rocks, and a series of rutted holes. Near the tree line, the trail opened into a small valley with spectacular views of Glacier Mountain and a meadow filled with wildflowers: a perfect place to camp.

Within a few hours the rest of the crew arrived, and we had a group of vehicles that would appear more at home in the Kalahari than the mountains of Colorado. In attendance were three Land Rovers, including Graham Jackson's TDI 110 (see The Toyota contingent included two Tacomas, two FZJ80 Land Cruisers, a third-generation 4Runner, and a T100. Rounding out the group was a Nissan Pathfinder and a diesel Ram. Within a few minutes of arrival, the camp started to take shape. Several Eezi-Awn roof tents were deployed, along with Hannibal awnings, showers, elaborate kitchens, and the glow of a perfect fire. Leave it up to a bunch of overland types to set up a great bush camp.

Part of the team hit the trail early the next morning, hoping to break trail into several snowdrifts above the tree line on the route to Radical Hill. With most of us having traveled together, we made short work of the drifts and put the first tracks of the season on Glacier Ridge. Climbing well above the treeline, we continued to the top of Glacier Ridge where the group was greeted by several mountain goats and a view of the western flank of Red Cone. Radical Hill was closed by a series of 100-foot drifts, requiring us to turn southwest and into Breckenridge. This route proved only marginally better as it too held several deep drifts, the longest being over 100 feet. Fortunately, it was slightly downhill and not on a shelf road. Being in the lead, I had the first chance to bust through the drift. I wanted to balance momentum with some caution, as I did not know if any big rocks were just below the surface. I engaged the rear locker and slid the Tacoma down the first section of snow. Traction was good and I had not broken through the surface, but I knew some speed would be required for the last stretch. Dipping into the throttle, the 5.29 gears pulled the Tacoma forward and also started breaking the tires through the surface. Not enough momentum - I was stuck.

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Being stuck is not really a bad thing (in most situations) as it gives a chance for everyone to work together and work with the recovery gear. Shovels came out and so did my Black Rat recovery bag. My tree strap was secured around the biggest rock available and the Warn M8000 started to pull - pull the rock out of the ground that is. Plan B was for Nathan in his Camel Trophy Discovery to pull me backward, allowing for another run at the drift. This worked great, and combined with some digging and more throttle, the Expeditions West Tacoma was on the other side.

For the next hour, we worked at getting the rest of the vehicles through the drift. Each driver had a different style, which made for an exciting show. Within a mile, we had encountered several more drifts, all of which were easier than the first. Fortunately, we had gravity to our advantage as we dropped into Georgia Gulch and followed the middle fork of the Swan River. Losing a few thousand feet of elevation, the drifts lightened and the trail improved to a wide graded route and eventually our lunch stop at the Breckenridge Brewing Company.

From Breckenridge, it was over Hoosier Pass to South Park and on to Weston Pass. Even though the trail surface was in good condition, Low range was still required for most of the trucks because of the thin air. Weston Pass provides quick access to the San Isabel National Forest and our camp for the second night. Several of us had planned to climb Mount Elbert the following day, so a campsite was chosen within a few miles of the trailhead. It was another great campsite in the trees with good food and even a few stories of Africa from Graham. It was another great adventure with friends, in one of the most beautiful regions of the world.

Mount Elbert Climb
At 14,433 feet, Mount Elbert is the second tallest mountain in the continental U.S. and provides a challenging trek for any adventurer. While the climb is not technical, the 4,000-meter elevation taxes the heart and lungs, and progress is measured in feet on the summit ridge.

Chris, Brian, Chuck, and I left the trailhead just after 6 a.m., giving us ample time to reach the summit before the afternoon storms clouded the mountain's flanks and obscured the majestic views from this famous highpoint. The trek is 9 miles in all and involves a 5,000-foot gain from 9,400 feet to the summit. As expected, the first several miles came easy, climbing through the trees with occasional views of the craggy flanks of Mount Massive to the north. Above the tree line, our progress began to slow as we fought for each switchback and every lungful of air. After clearing the only false summit, the peak was in full view and a short distance away. Standing at the top of the Rockies was a thrill: it combined the rewards of a successful hike with one of the most incredible views imaginable. Whether by foot or 4WD, these mountains are a joy to explore.

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