“Well good luck and I hope we don’t see your picture in tomorrow’s paper.” Although he said it with a smile, the shop assistant was deadly serious. We were about to drive over Black Bear Pass, high in the Rocky Mountains and one of the most notorious passes in America – and a route that had taken the lives of inexperienced drivers in the past. And inexperienced was a very apt word for my off-road driving skills.
Two days previously I’d landed in Colorado to join the Land Rover Expedition American. I was put in the driving seat of a Land Rover LR4 and pointed up a hill.
The expedition has the simplest of ideas – to drive from the east to the west coast of America, but by the most challenging of means – all off road. It was the brain child of Tom Collins, 63, a legend in the off-roading world and hero of the now defunct Camel Trophy that saw month long races traverse some of the toughest landscapes of Borneo, the Amazon and Madagascar.
Tom Collins had known of a coast to coast trail – called the Trans American Trail (TAT) because of his friend, the motorcyclist Sam Correro who had spent the best part of the last 30 years finding a route that took bikers across the country without having to lay a tyre on an inch of tarmac. Something that now hundreds of brave bikers try to accomplish each year.
However, it had never been done on four wheels.
Tom’s plan was to take a convoy three Land Rovers across the country without using roads over the course of a month. Without the time for a recce trip, Collins’ research was done with the use of modern technology – namely Google Earth –and close collaboration with Correro. Collins, planned each turn of the 5,000 mile trial and used satellite imagery to check the terrain and width of the tracks. However flash floods, rock falls and foliage growth can drastic alter the routes at the burst of a cloud, leaving Collins’ careful planning very much in the hands of the Gods.
The expedition had started in North Carolina had passed through states including Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma. It had seen flash floods, dozens of miles of long dusty roads and powerful storms. I arrive exactly half way through the journey landing in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and tasked with taking a car over some of the highest mountain ranges in North America.
“You’ve definitely got the most picturesque leg of the expedition,” said Collins as I arrived for the my briefing. “But it will also certainly be the toughest driving.”
As we made our way along the winding mountain roads to re-join the off-road route the wide open landscape, rolling hills and wild elk frolicking amounts the wooded mountains certainly proved why Colorado is recognized as one of the most beautiful states in America. Today Colorado’s Rocky Mountains see the rich and famous flock to don skis and socialize in world-famous resorts such as Vale, Aspen and Telluride. However 130 years ago, it was pioneers flocking to the mountains in search of fame and wealth as they tapped the same rich mountains for gold and silver.
Deserted mining communities and open mines are dotted along the trail high up on the picturesque San Juan range. And the ghost town of St Elmo’s was one of the first we passed. In the 1880s it was home to 2,000 miners, today half a dozen buildings remain peddling snacks and supplies to off-roaders in buildings that hadn’t changed in over a century.
As we the gauge on the dash board tells us we have climbed over 12,000 feet the dust and bumpy stones we were driving over are replaced by rocks so sharp and trails so narrow that the landscape is ignored as all focus is on the rocks in front of the bonnet.
Sitting beside me is Warren Blevins – a Land Rover Experience instructor. He is spotting for me, helping me find lines on the increasingly narrow trail. I’m being taught how to use the modern gadgetry that makes up the LR4.
The cars are all straight from the shop floor with the only additions being a front mounted winch and a roof rack to carry extra tyres, petrol tanks and the chainsaw needed for removing stubborn fallen trees.
However, the mountains are no test for the 370bhp 5-litre V8 engine and the six-speed automatic gearbox enables the driver to focus on the road, rather than the clutch. The technology the LR4 supports shows its heritage as a vehicle that knows how to handle any terrain. As soon as we go off-road we set the gearbox to low range and air suspension gives us the height we need to clear rocks. A settings mode offers the driver different support depending on whether the driver is going through ‘mud and ruts’, ‘rock crawl’, ‘sand’ or ‘grass, gravel, snow’. We will use all of the settings over the trip.
Rock crawl enabled us to creep up the steep trail crawling over sharp rocks but the dappled light – trapped in the increasingly dense trees – made it hard to tell what was rock and what was shadow. Blevins acting as a second set of eyes was still spotting but eventually a sharp rock on a steep decent got the better of me and tyre number one was blown.
Blevins and Collins took a grand total of seven minutes to change a tyre on a steep downward angle, over very sharp rocks in the rain. It would have made a formula one pitman blush.
The learning curve was fast – I hadn’t driven regularly for years and now here I was driving over steep, rocky trails, with branches from the surrounding trees threatening to scratch “pinstripes” into my paint job. As we continued to ascend above the tree line and reached Cinnamon Pass at 12,640 feet the air was thinning, the temperature dropping and the roads narrowing.
Without the thick trees the newly visible drop-offs became suddenly very steep and very real. The slow decent was made bearable knowing that the further down we were – the lower the potential fall might be, but the sheer beauty of the waterfalls, derelict mining buildings and the never-ending sky sometimes made it hard to concentrate on the road. A baptism by fire indeed.
“We didn’t bring a weapon” said Blevins as the stocky bearded 28 year-old chopped wood for the camp fire, “but I don’t think bears would disturb a camp like this.”
Coyotes, wolves and bears were all native to these mountains, I was told but it was rare for them to come near the camp they said. We set up our camps, tucked into some freeze dried food and got an early night. Exhaustion from the adrenaline fueled driving and long hours of concentration meant that the rocky ground didn’t hinder sleep.
A frosty August morning greeted us and fingers numb from taking down frozen metal tent poles were warmed with coffee as we got back into the L4s. We stopped in Lake City to refuel. Hardly a city with a population of just 401 but a postcard of a place that looked like it hadn’t changed in decades. Mental note for retirement home taken, we moved on over California Pass and Corkscrew Pass along increasingly high altitudes and perilous drops. We were making our way towards the highlight of the Rocky trails – Black Bear Pass.
Silverton was the first town we had stopped in since arriving two days earlier and a good lunch was needed before tackling the Big Bear. Driving up the single street that made up the old mining community of Silverton (population 631) is like driving through the set of an old Western. Where horses would have once rested, today cars are parked but like little else has changed since the late 1800s.
After the store owner wished us luck and hoped he wouldn’t be seeing our picture in the paper, we set off. The ascent up the mountain was again narrow with crumbling rocks and big drops but hitting Big Bear was monumentally terrifying. After driving straight into and then up a six foot wall of rock and waterfall we were creeping down slippery slate rock. My foot hard on the break and in controlled decent mode I could see the gushing waterfall of Bridal Veil Falls crashing down about four inches from my tyre. The decent became so steep that at points I couldn’t see the road in front of the bonnet and had to rely entirely on Blevins who was by now out side the car spotting for me, to lead me safely through the pass. The rain now turned to snow and the rocks turn to ice. Picking lines now became about finding lines that would allow the tires to slip into safe crevices rather than slide straight down the ravine. The LR4 was leaning at such steep angles my body was trying to correct itself thinking that perhaps my body weight might counteract the almost three tonnes of car. Then the road suddenly disappeared in front of me.
This is the notorious switch back that had claimed the lives of more than a few gung ho 4x4 drivers in the past. With a 2000 foot drop both in front and beside of me, I crept around, sliding over a large rock and stopping with nothing visible in front or beside the car. “Come forward,” instructed Blevin. “No.” I shouted back. “You’ve got two maybe three inches here”. My life was in his hands as I crept, slowly forward.
By this stage, I had picked up a passenger. A Land Rover brand manager and former NFL player. Big Skip had his hand over the break and his eyes over the bonnet. His fear didn’t fill me with confidence – obviously my driving didn’t fill him with confidence. After four more shuffles back and forth I turned the corner and continued the rapid decent into the picturesque town of Telluride. Three minutes later, another switchback that was navigated with equal precision and patience. Two hours, six switchbacks and half a bucket of sweat later, we reached the bottom. I pulled my fingers out of the steering wheel and laughed in the face of the now thundering rain that crashed all around us and that were forcing the windscreen wipers to squeal with delight.
After a night in a much more comfortable bed at an out-of-season luxury ski resort, we set of again at dawn, this time over the last of the Rockies. The landscape changed again, and we slipped and slid into muddy fields and deep puddles that tested the cars ‘mud and ruts’ setting to the max. A new technique of driving was put into use as learning to keep straight wheels through the ruts and drive gently into the slide kept us from rolling down wooded mountains.
We peaked another mount and the landscape turned from snowcapped mountains to rolling red rocks. The winding mountain roads, turned to long dusty dirt roads, with thick red dust kicking up and coating the cars in a war paint ready for the next challenge.
We were in Butch Cassidy and Sundance territory now. Collins – a master on pretty much any subject it seemed – pointed out hiding places, watering holes and even areas where booty was thought to be still hidden in the mountains that were now turning to desert.
As the sun lowered in the sky we entered Utah and the red rock and deep canyons felt like we were entering another planet. In fact like the set of a 70s Star Trek scene.
Descending towards the town of Moab the roads widened and filled with dusty sand. For the first time we could real get up some speed, switch the setting to ‘sand’ and look out across hundreds of miles of red canyons, desert landscapes and a setting sun. With the confidence on high from the recent deadly pass conquered, driving at 40mph across single land sandy tracks with 500 foot drops seemed positively easy.
The last day of my leg saw us head out of Moab – a city seemingly populated exclusively for high-intensity adrenaline junkies. Cliff climbers, base jumpers and 4x4 junkies filled the small town.
We were heading through the narrow gorges of Black Dragon Canyon – named after pictographs and petroglyphs painted and carved on the canyon walls up to 2,000 years ago. However old the canyons were, the house-size boulders show that the wind and rain can change the landscape in seconds.
“Rains dozens of miles away could cause flash floods and within minutes this road would become a river,” Collins explained as we saw the carcass of a car dating all the way back to the 1940s. “We’d have no chance.”
Trying to exit faster wasn’t an option as we switched between rock crawl and sand settings but the weather forecast was clear. Vultures circled overhead and the temperature steadily rose as the mid day sun shone overhead. A reminder that man on a horse wouldn’t last long out here. Flat tyre number two occurred when the road narrowed and the small sharp rocks returned but there was no time for rest. We had a lot of ground to cover if we wanted to get to our next stop. As the day turned to night a storm came up behind us, streaking the desert sky with red, yellows and pinks. An awe inspiring moment that we stopped to admire in silence for some minutes. But by now we realized we were still 80 miles from our next stop at Richfield and light was almost gone. Do we jump on the interstate and cheat or carry on through the dark canyons. We voted to carry on.
Lit by full moon and stars from horizon to horizon, the LR4s crept through the canyons in the pitch black – full beams blasting off canyon walls. A flatter path emerged and rocks turned to sand and the single lane track enabled us to pick up speed. Travelling in the dark, on sand, through narrow canyons at speeds of only 25mph felt like being behind the wheel of a rollercoaster. Racing like rally drivers around tight corners, the back end giving ever so slightly in the sand. Another flat slowed us only for minutes before we continued into the darkening night like pioneers, without a car in the world and the sand beneath our tyres.