The evolution of the off-road hobby can be seen everywhere you look. From your neighborhood Jeep dealer to the Outdoor Channel, the recreation and competition sides of the wheeling world are currently making great strides. While the aftermarket continues to churn out new and inventive ideas, we are also fortunate to still have OEMs taking wheeling seriously and building vehicles with much more than flashy off-road sticker packages.
Like our hobby, we as a magazine continue to evolve. This is especially evident with our annual wheeling crusade known as the Ultimate Adventure. What was once a small wheeling outing with a few friends and editors has transformed into one of the most well-known and respected 4x4 trips in North America. For those who have been abducted by aliens or are too busy looking at what your BFF had for lunch in Mybookfacetwitter land, please allow us to catch you up on what the Ultimate Adventure is today.
For the genuine wheeling enthusiast the Ultimate Adventure is the trip of a lifetime. Each year we pick a part of the country to invade, head there with cameras, 4x4s, and camping gear, and attempt to conquer the toughest trails the region has to offer over the course of a week. The idea is to have fun while wheeling new places with a group of likeminded people, and ultimately test you and your rig’s ability to adapt to whatever obstacles lie ahead.
Since you must drive your rig (no trailers allowed) you and your copilot must be completely self-sufficient for the week. This includes camping gear, tools, spare parts, food, and a copy of Kenny Loggin’s 1986 hit “Danger Zone” for when the going gets tough. Trust us, the going will get tough. There is a mind-set that you learn to live by on the UA: Wheel for the week, not for the day. That being said, there are no bypasses or excuses—and above all, No Whining!
As for the participants, the trip includes a handful of sponsors to help pay the bills and show off their wares, a few old cronies to help with unforeseen problems, 4WOR staff, a video crew to document your every move, and most importantly a dozen diehard readers that have been handpicked to partake in the adventure. There is no magic formula to participate. To apply, simply go to our website (www.4wheeloffroad.com), look under the Ultimate Adventure section, and submit your application.
Leading our group of off-road gypsies for over a decade is Editor-in-Chief Rick Péwé, who coordinates this logistical juggernaut. This year he used the Ultimate Jeep JK to guide our group through the twisty trails and trees of the Pacific Northwest. With Jeep as the title sponsor of this year’s UA the off-road legacy brand helped not only with a new vehicle for us to modify, but Jeep also sent along two of its top engineers to come wheel side by side with us for the week. The unconventional-looking two-door Wrangler Rubicon was the brainchild of Tech Editor Fred Williams. Working with the crew from Hazzard Fabworx in Spokane, Washington, Williams transformed the ’12 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon into an ultra-unique and nimble wheeling machine (“OJ the Ultimate Orange Jeep,” Aug.-Nov. ’12 so far). Sure, even we couldn’t tell at times whether it was coming or going, but it somehow always managed to go in the right direction—whichever way that may have been!
This year’s Northwest adventure kicked off in Redmond, Oregon. Over the course of a week we snaked our way through the scenic landscapes of Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho. The week presented plenty of challenges for the crew, but not even a blown engine could stop the trip’s momentum (more on that later).
This month we recap the first half of the adventure, and next month we will pick back up with the final leg. Those who can’t get enough of the UA can check us out on the web at www.4wheeloffroad.com and www.facebook.com/4wheeloffroad for web-exclusive extras, including behind-the-scenes photos and video.
Day 1, Saturday, June 31:
Check-In & Vehicle Inspections
The first day of the adventure is a parking lot party of sorts. Everyone is arriving from their own neck of the woods (some as far as Chile!) and getting to know one another. It’s a time for vehicle inspection, last-minute prep, and the always fun free T-shirt and sticker corral. This year’s kickoff was held in the parking lot of the Sleep Inn hotel in Redmond, Oregon.
Unlike past UAs, summertime heat was replaced by cool and rainy weather. As usual the crew arrived in steady waves, some a tad later than others. In the midst of laughter and old wheeling tales, the sounds of hammering, grinding, and wrench turning are a constant buzz. A broken ring-and-pinion in the rear of the Hazzard Fabworx Jeep sent the guys scrambling for parts and kicked off our damage report early in the week. While they were able to get a fresh set of gears, the swap in gear thickness forced them to change out their old locker for an open carrier with a set of spider gears. Since lockers are mandatory on the UA, they found a welder and fused the free-spinning spider gears into a makeshift spool to get them through the week. Meanwhile, long hauler Chris Durham swapped out the highway differential gear ratio for a more trail-friendly ratio after the road trip from South Carolina.
With tech inspections and a few trips to the local Wal-Mart for some last-minute camping gear and supplies, time quickly faded into the chilly evening air. At the start of many Ultimate Adventures there’s usually a rig or two MIA. This year’s two absent rigs at check-in happed to both be Toyotas, one belonging to invited reader Jody Ardrey and the other to old cronies Dave Chappelle and Tom Boyd. Both were driving from afar and wrapping up fresh builds. Maybe it was a Toyota thing and we just didn’t understand?
Day 2, Sunday, July 1:
As the sun sprang into view early in the Northwest sky we rounded up the crew for the first day of wheeling. The first set of missing Toyota guys (Joe Eaves and Jodey Ardrey) showed up in the wee hours of the morning. With only a few hours of sleep the ’Yota guys arrived in high spirits, ready to wheel. Early-morning drivers meetings are part of the UA routine, and as the week progresses sleep tends to diminish and morning meetings become earlier and earlier.
Meeting us at the hotel was the day’s trail leader and local shop owner Graeme Tydeman of G-Fab Motorsports in Bend, Oregon, along with OHV Specialist for Oregon’s Forest Service Matt Able. Tydeman, in conjunction with his 4Locked Crew and Able, helped create the fresh trail our group was getting ready to christen.
While trail closures are an increasing problem for our hobby, Able is one of the good guys working hard behind the scenes to protect and develop new and exciting places for wheelers to explore.
With our introductions to the trail and crew out of the way we gathered up our gear and set out on the roughly 30-minute drive to the Cline Buttes Recreation Area, which is controlled by the Bureau Land Management. With over 20 rigs in our group a seemingly short trail can and will take all day. For some of the freshly built rigs it was the first time their tires ever broke dirt.
As we broke away from the pavement and peeled off onto the forest service roads it was apparent that rockcrawling was on the day’s agenda. The fresh trail offered little guidance or insight, which made for some very interesting first tries. The Oregon trail was also a great way for the full-bodied rigs to see how they measured up to a trail carved by extremely built tube cars.
Some of the more intense optional lines were definitely not for the faint of heart, and the extreme side hills elevated the pucker factor immensely. Amazingly, most of the crew managed to stay planted over the loose rocks and dirt, and the first trail day’s damages were kept to a minimum. There was a bit of minor mechanical damage in the group, but the best carnage of the day was claimed by returning reader Paden Saracino in his ’89 Jeep Cherokee. It seems as though the Jeep’s new 40-inch Nitto Mud Grapplers got a little more bite than his 9-inch rear axle could handle. The result was an exploded third member that would send his rig limping back to the hotel and searching for a new gearset in the morning.
Overall, the clear skies made way for a warm and enjoyable day of technical rockcrawling and helped the group shake out those first-day jitters. So with the light fading into the dust we aired up at the trailhead and made our way back to town for our last night in Redmond.
Day 3, Monday, July 2:
On the Road
Monday kicked off our escape from civilization as we said goodbye to the climate control of the hotel and hello to a full week of camping. With the crew complete (the other Toyota guys, Chappelle and Boyd, finally arrived the evening before in the barely finished Hilux), we gassed up, loaded in our gear, jumped onto the highway, and headed into the winding mountain roads and luscious green landscape. Making our way out of Redmond, it didn’t take long before snowcapped mountains came into view. A snow sighting in the summer was another UA rarity, along with the cool weather.
For the open-topped and doorless rigs the morning was a bit colder than expected. Luckily the picturesque mountain scenery helped to keep minds off of the piercing wind.
Not long into our highway spell we drove into the town of Sisters, Oregon. Here we laid eyes on the massive Three Sister Mountains. Nicknamed Faith, Hope, and Charity, the Three Sisters Mountains are a must-see for those in or around central Oregon.
As we exited Sisters a few rigs began to notice some new squeaks and groans echoing from under their rigs. To play it safe, we swung onto an old logging road and checked things over. After rummaging through toolbags and checking a few fluid levels we hit the highway again. As we threaded our way through the mountains we roared by many of the lakes and rivers that spider across Oregon. “Scenic” is an understatement for this part of the country.
One often overlooked rule in the UA is the minimum fuel range of 150 miles. If your rig cannot make it 150 miles, you must carry spare gas! Since our rigs don’t run on good intentions, stopping for fuel is an everyday affair. Along the backcountry roads, unique and small gas stations are a mainstay. This often means two pumps, limited supplies, and occasionally some of the wall items like pump-action pellet guns and wooden placards painted with “Gone Fishin’” slogans.
Sometimes gas is merely part of the big picture, as was the case this day. Péwé managed to find us a pretty amazing gas station atop a hill that happened to overlook a lake few would even know existed. While no stop at the pump is a pleasure on your wallet, at least this one was easy on the eyes.
With our tanks full of fuel we continued our trek into the Mount Hood National Forest, which extends from Mount Jefferson to the Columbia River Gorge and accounts for over 60 miles of streams, lakes, and mountains. Making our way through the tall trees and along the Roaring River we landed in Clackamas, Oregon. What’s special about Clackamas is that it is home to one of the leading winch manufacturers and the oldest UA sponsor, Warn Industries. Since we were in the area, our crew dropped in at Warn’s headquarters for lunch and a guided tour of the factory. Rolling out an average of 250 winches per day, Warn’s American-made products were a great reminder of the people we employ and the great things we make here on U.S. soil.
It didn’t take long for the Warn powers that be to start checking our pockets for winches and to decide that we had parked on their grass long enough! So with a couple rigs now equipped with fresh winches (thanks for the help, Warn crew!) we kicked things back into high gear. After a brief freeway jaunt we crossed state lines and continued our path in the direction of Cougar, Washington.
This path would lead us to a well-known and much anticipated highlight, Mount Saint Helens/Gifford Pinchot National Park. For those of you too young to remember, Mount Saint Helens is a volcano famous for its 1980 eruption that impacted nearly 150 square miles. Mount Saint Helens is now a National Volcanic Monument and continues to be observed and studied. Fortunately, there were no exploding volcanoes or rigs on this day. After dining on the rich views we kept the convoy moving.
As nighttime fell, our twisting path led us to Erind Conden’s property, which quickly acquired the name Camp Conden. The Conden family counts among its members many Flex-a-lite employees and true wheeling enthusiasts. And while camping at Flex-a-lite’s massive warehouse would have kept us a little dryer, we were happy with the soft grass and gracious accommodations that the Condens provided. So with our tents set and the rain beginning to roll in, we all wrapped it up after an extremely long but enjoyable road day.
Day 4, Tuesday, July 3:
Wet & Wild Wheeling
After a long night of unrelenting rain the crew crawled from their tents to make breakfast and get their rigs ready for the day. The cool air and cloudy skies were telling signs that what we figured would already be a muddy trail day was going to be even slicker. Gathered around the massive fire pit we got the day’s briefing and conjured up a little warmth. Our trail destination for the day was a short distance down the road from Camp Conden in the Elbe Hills OHV Area.
To offer local insight, Marc Bowers, along with Mitch Carter and Bill Carter, took time off from their day jobs at ARB USA and agreed to show our group the way. The black diamond trail we would be attacking is known as Busywild Trail. Named for Busy Wild Creek, which runs through it, the trail is one of the most challenging in the area. While Busywild starts on the mild side, it quickly becomes more treacherous as deepwater passes and mud-filled gullies work to get the upper hand on your rig. Many of the gulch walls clutched the 4-bys in-between as they worked to power through without getting damaged. This would be a day where wheel speed and light weight would be king and the all-important recovery winch would be used frequently.
With rain falling continuously throughout the day, the trails were constantly slick, which required careful footing both inside and out of the vehicle. As we progressed farther into the trail, the vehicle-to-tree magnetism intensified. With the combination of slick ground and full-bodied rigs, body damage became more frequent. With close to 70 percent of the trail complete, nearly half of the group had sustained some level of sheetmetal carnage. From smashed sideview mirrors to completely crushed doors, the Busywild Trail continued to gift the group with serious trail scars.
For the locals, the trail typically takes only a few hours to complete. With our group we managed to make it an all-day affair. We actually eked out every inch of daylight we could on this day, and as the last rig finished airing up for the road back to camp the sunlight disappeared. Ultimately we got everyone through with minor mechanical damage but plenty of new body bruises.
As we returned to Camp Conden with headlights blaring we were treated to a wonderful surprise: a ready-to-eat meal sponsored by Flex-a-lite. The nice guys from Butcher Boy Steaks selected delicious rib-eye and T-bone steaks, and the local M.T. Head Brewing Company knew we liked suds. Overall, it was a rainy but exciting trail day, and we couldn’t think of a better way to end it than at the Conden family’s camp.