Staff’s Scary Moments While Off-Roading
Things don’t always go to plan when you’re on the trail.
Yeah, we do this for a living, but we're also human, and humans make mistakes. And whether by our own hands or by the circumstances we've put ourselves in, we sometimes get the short end of the stick. Here are some of the staff's tall tales of their scariest moments when playing truck, Jeep, and 4x4.
I've had my fair share of scary moments on four wheels and some two-wheel scary moments, too, a couple of which didn't end well. In the end, the scary moment that is burned into my brain, similar to the road rash that was burned into my skin after a two-wheel mishap, wasn't in a race truck, monster truck, rockcrawler, mudder, or trail rig, and it wasn't a moment. It was several hours, and it was in a rental S-10 Blazer. I was in Colorado and needed to get from Ouray to Telluride. The younger me didn't want to do the long paved highway route, so I figured I'd hop over Imogene Pass. I had done the trail numerous times and was very comfortable with the drive. I didn't stop to think that the rain in Ouray would turn to snow at higher elevations and that I was driving a little stock S-10 Blazer. The drive turned out to be a real eye-opener with a couple of "oh, crap" moments when the stock tires slid, threatening to toss me and the Blazer off the edge of the trail. Visibility near the summit became almost nonexistent, and the wind was screaming. When I wanted to reverse course, I couldn't due to low visibility and the narrow trail. The drive took forever, but as I dropped in altitude near Telluride the snow turned to rain and all was good. I recall making a beeline to the Last Dollar Saloon. I gotta give props to that Blazer, though. It may be one of the reasons that even today I have respect for the little things. The picture here is of that Blazer, on a different trail a couple days later.
I've written in one of my print editorial columns before about the time I almost four-wheel-drifted a Jeep Cherokee SRT8 off the Circuit of the Americas F1 racetrack at speed in the rain. That was definitely less than fun. And riding with John Cappa in his flattie, I've flopped on my side in a vehicle a few times, but it was all low-speed in secure rockcrawling canyons with no death tumble to worry about, so nothing that really got my blood pumping. Riding shotgun with Verne Simons one time in his flattie at TDS Verne dropped the nose of the Willys off a 6-foot vertical ledge. That gave me a pretty good boost of adrenaline considering the wheelbase on his Jeep is less than 7 feet long. By some miracle after the nose augured into the desert floor, the front tires were able to grab enough ground that his full-throttle stomp pulled the Jeep forward at a 70-degree angle for about 15 feet before the rear finally came crashing down, snapping the Dana 44 rear axlehousing like a twig. And I've had several near rollovers in any number of my own hardcore trail rigs that I was able to avoid by quickly stabbing my manual transmission into reverse and getting back down to level ground. But my scariest moments weren't behind the wheel, but behind the camera lens. As an off-road cameraman, it's often necessary to put myself in places I'd rather not be, and I can think of two very close calls that could have resulted with me drinking my meals through a straw for the rest of my life.
The first one was back in 1999 shooting the Warn Rockcrawl Championship in Johnson Valley. Ken Brubaker and I were shoulder to shoulder shooting the action: me for Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road and Ken for Four Wheeler. We were both crouched low shooting the rear of the vehicle as Sam Patton attached a climb in his LT1-powered "Heepee" CJ on 38-inch Boggers. Sam goosed the throttle—hard. Way harder than anybody we'd seen in the dry world of rockcrawling, but Sam is from Oklahoma and drove that sucker with a lightswitch throttle like he was in the mud. From about 10 yards in front of us, Sam lit the fuse on the hot-rodded engine, and the Boggers picked up a rock the size of a cantaloupe and chucked it our way. Before Ken or I could react, the boulder passed right over both our shoulders, cleanly splitting the air between our skulls. If that rock had travelled just 1 foot to the left or the right, either Ken or I would've had our cameras smashed deep into our heads courtesy of a 10-pound cannonball hurled at us at 50 mph.
The second incident was during another rockcrawling event. I think this one was in Johnson Valley, as well, but I forget which exact competition it was. Chris "all throttle" Durham was in his CJ-10 and trying to make it through an exceptionally difficult line that required a huge amount of throttle while turning. Chris is an exceptional driver, so I knew he'd most likely make it, but back then I was overconfident in a Dana 60's storied bombproof strength. I was in a half-crouch with my Nikon F4s up and ready positioned where I assumed I'd be safe 10 yards beyond the obstacle. Chris would've had to stop and reposition the vehicle before continuing after the turn, so I was sure I was safe from getting run over. But as it turned out, I wasn't safe from exploding debris. In a make-or-break stab at getting up over the obstacle, Chris mashed the throttle and the CJ literally leapt into the air, but when it came down it shattered the front axleshaft. The U-joint cap shot from the axle like a bullet and whizzed about 10 inches past my head before hitting a flat rock wall face a few feet behind me hard enough to leave a -inch-deep divot in the granite. That one could've been really bad, and after that I stopped stepping in the line of fire, good shot or not.
I was driving my friend's JK Wrangler on the Kane Creek trail in Moab, Utah. First mistake: I left the trailhead with the gas tank 33 percent full and no extra fuel. Second mistake: I began the oftentimes-four-hour-long trail in late afternoon. Third mistake: We were alone on a Sunday. As we rolled into the final mile of the trail, the "fill the gosh-darned tank with gas" light had been on for an uncomfortable amount of time and the sun was low on the horizon. Also, if you're familiar with Kane Creek, the final mile holds almost all the obstacles. We decided there was not enough gas left to turn around and get back to town, avoiding the obstacles. Fourth mistake: The JK, shod with 31-inch Goodyear DuraTrac tires and its factory suspension, began Hamburger Hill. With a significant bypass blocked by a stranded UTV, we attempted to climb a ledge and became high-centered, with fumes in the tank. Skidplate on slickrock. Stuck. Lack of momentum, lack of tire diameter, lack of skill, stuck, nonetheless. With no winch, we began futilely stacking rocks, which were only spit from beneath the tires until we heard the unmistakable sounds of a carbureted engine behind us. Thoughts of hiking back into town quickly turned to cries of gratitude as the friendly 1986 Suburban pilot offered to 'strap us up the ledge and guide us to the main road. Tragedy averted!