Saturday, October 6, 2012

Taylor Pass Decent All Day

Sometimes even when it is cold outside, and the wind is still blowing, you know that the world outside of your warm tent is going to be so different you just have to get up to explore. This morning we woke up to 6 inches of the first snow on the top of Taylor Pass. It was a beautiful sunny day and the blowing snowdrifts made it seem other worldly. 

Since the tent was covered on the outside with snow, and on the inside with condensation that was quickly turning to ice we decided to go on a walk to explore and to let the sun shine on the tent and melt off some of the snow and ice.

Taking an easy morning, we finally cooked and packed up to see what the backside of Taylor Pass had in store. It turned out to be some of the most challenging terrain we have ever crossed in a vehicle. We were heading further south and expected to have 4 miles of rough going, but never expected it to be as complicated as it was. The guidebook we were referencing said that the whole 21 mile route we were on would take 3 to 5 hours; we spent about 4 just on this section.

Large boulders, big drops, narrow passages, and wet rocks called for complicated maneuvering that required slow forward movement and constant monitoring. John and I had to constantly talk about route choices and then while he drove very slowly I was "spotting" by walking backwards, and jumping around outside the vehicle looking at the clearance of the vehicle over rocks, and making sure the tires were lining up in the places that he wanted it to go. This careful concert of my hand signaling and his driving goes pretty well about 95% of the time and everyone is happy and the vehicle goes unscathed, but mistakes and miss communications do happen and it can be very stressful.

On most routes, there are difficult sections that are broken up by easier sections where I can get back in the vehicle to have a rest. Not so on the Taylor Pass decent. It was constant, which meant that I was out of the vehicle spotting and jogging along all day. At one point we entered the hardest section we had ever put an expedition vehicle through. The trail was entering a river, not crossing it, but entering it to go down the river bed, and there was a sharp left hand turn with a 5 foot drop littered with boulders. At the bottom of the drop the "trail" was actually at another 90 degree turn to the right to get into the river. Turning a vehicle as heavy and long as this on a dime is obviously not an option so some careful route choice, spotting and luck had to come into play. I set the video camera up to document what I could, and it turned out beautifully...the line up was spot on, the driving was perfect and the vehicle literally slid into place in the end!

Video of the slide into the creek at South Taylor Pass

We made it in, and then I found myself spotting in, yes IN the river for about a mile. Thank God I picked up a nice pair of Sorel boots on sale in Aspen the day before! At the end of the river the "trail" then had another 90 degree right turn that faced directly into some aspen trees. It required the smallest two point turn, and here, as I was spotting on the front side, and maybe exhaustion was setting in, we missed on the communication and John backed up without either of us checking the driver side rear. We pushed the vehicle hard into a large sized boulder and the mud flap was bent forward. Unfortunately with the design of this vehicle that mud flap is also connected to the fender flare and the whole thing came off in one piece. Silence.

And nothing else to do but move on. Pull forward, talk about the inches you have to make the turn, use it, do it and roll on. In the river, and downhill with more boulders and tight passages for the last mile that took another hour.

By the time we reached Taylor River Road we were exhausted and the chill was settling in again. Time to set up camp quickly and get some food on. An exhausting day, and disappointing not to have a fun route for other Overlanders to try safely. This route used to be recommendable for all sorts of high clearance vehicles, but we would not encourage anyone to do it in anything bigger than an ATV or at least a skinny rock crawler. It is too bad because the scenery at the top is amazing and being the old supply route from Aspen to Buena Vista and Taylor Reservoir it has historical value.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pearl Pass South to North

One of the goals of this trip was to discover what types of trails we would feel comfortable sending clients out in vehicles that have been especially prepared for off road, rugged driving, but still need a steady hand at the wheel (and spotter on the ground) when things get rough. We have been using our knowledge of the area, maps, and guides to pick routes and this time we were using "Colorado Backroads & 4 Wheel Drive Trails" by Wells and Peterson.

Pearl Pass is marked as a red, or very challenging route in this guide, and maps of the area have highlighted boxes that say "4 wheel expert driving only". So what does that mean? How much are we going to bang around and how much would someone not used to these conditions bang up our vehicles?

As it turns out the beginning of the trail from the Crested Butte side on Brush Creek road is easy and enjoyable. We started out kind of late in the day so we went about 10 miles in and found some fantastic boondock sites all along the road. We camped overlooking the valley and sunset and took a hike up into the golden Aspen trees before setting up for dinner. Overnight the temperature dropped significantly so we added on the room that fits below the tent to have a warm place to change. The rooftop tent was cozy and warm all night and did not flap around in the wind.

In the morning we headed further up the road with some fun creek crossings and steep climbs. The road got significantly more rocky, but nothing that the high clearance Land Cruiser couldn't handle easily with a driver being cautious. There was a huge open valley that was too good not to stop for some pictures and it was a good test to see how easily the tent, table, and a modest lunch could be set up! One person seemed to be able to get most things set up in about ten minutes, with the tent only taking up a small amount of that time. That is all good news if there is bad weather arriving or you are just too plain tired from all the fun adventuring to really want any hassle.

After preparing a few sandwiches we decided to continue up the road a short bit to the trailhead for the "Twin Lakes" hike. Granted it was already late in the day, and we still had the most challenging section of trail to do, but we figured that we had everything we needed to boondock somewhere just below or on the other side of the pass if it got too late. That is the essence of Overlanding with everything you need, when you want to do a side trip, and it gets late in the day, you can stop just about anywhere with a flat spot and you are home!

The "Twin Lakes" hike was a three mile out and back that was absolutely gorgeous. We were pinching ourselves at the great weather and beautiful scenery and talking about how much we wanted to share this special place. So far the road in was absolutely doable for clients and the rewards were well worth it.

After the hike we entered the "red" section of the route and wow, it was a significant difference! There was a huge rock talus that we had to cross with a very very narrow path through and a significant climb. This is where things started to get interesting and there was still about 4 miles to go. The trail continued up some very steep terrain with narrow ledges and some rock climbing. There was one turn that was at a very steep angle and loose rock that didn't leave much room for error. Having one person spotting was a must for about 60% of the terrain and that meant I was out walking at 10,000 ft uphill at least as fast as the truck was moving!

At the top of Pearl Pass the scenery was amazing.  The altitude was 12,705ft and John could feel the effects with a headache and shortness of breath. This does not make for great sleeping even on the warmest of nights, and we knew that it would be a harsh cold stop at the summit. We could see some clouds in the distance, and felt that it was a good idea to keep rolling to find a place down low for boondocking.

Of course, THIS was the more difficult side. The trail immediately fell into another talus that surely was laid as glaciers receded in the area, and the boulders were huge, loose, and the route through them narrow, steep and curvy. In one of the switchback sections we followed a bit of a drainage and then there was a large drop off a series of rocks that we had to consider very carefully. With delicate maneuvering we managed to come down with only a short fuel tank rub, but the consequences could have been higher if we hadn't had the experience or planning.

This trail was actually in great condition compared to what it could have been. This area typically has snow until late in the season and the day we were going through it actually started to hail and snow. There are some huts on the north side of the pass that are used by hikers and winter backcountry skiers and they would feel very remote for much of the year.

We continued on and found a site to stop with the wind block of some tall pine trees near a creek. The temperature continued to drop through the night and we made a nice camp, cooking up some homemade soup and lighting a big fire in the fire pit. Tomorrow we would do the last three miles of dirt road, easy, and then a beautiful paved road into Aspen. This area was incredible to explore, and either side of the pass has its charms. On a low precipitation year it might be one to do again, but drivers beware!