2015 Continental Divide vehicle report

Last year, the 1600 miles of the RawHyde/Exploring Overland Continental Divide trip proved to be a challenge for the participating vehicles (report here). This year’s journey proved just as challenging, in different ways. In no particular order the nine vehicles along this time were:

  • 2008 Ford F350 6.4 diesel double-cab pickup
  • 2012 Toyota Tacoma 4.0 V6 with Four Wheel Camper (our JATAC)
  • 2010 Toyota Tacoma double-cab 4.0 V6 supercharged, with canvas bed shell
  • 2014 Ram Power Wagon double-cab with Four Wheel Camper
  • Ford Raptor with Four Wheel Camper
  • 2014 Ford Raptor with Northstar camper
  • 2009 Sportsmobile on a Ford 6.0 diesel chassis
  • Toyota Tundra with fiberglass shell and roof tent
  • 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser 200-Series with roof tent

For the first couple of days we seemed to be getting off lightly—the worst issue to surface was a burned out turn signal bulb in the aftermarket headlamp assembly on Ross Blair’s Tacoma. But somewhere north of Grants, New Mexico, Michael and Darla’s Raptor/FWC combination blew the Firestone air bag on the right rear spring on a long off-pavement section, causing the bag’s internal bump stops to slam against each other over the mildest terrain. Inspection revealed that the air bag was the longer of the two offered for the Raptor by Firestone—probably a mistake with a camper mounted. It appeared that repeated stressing of the bag being folded over the lower location cone caused the hole—a worrying failure given the mere days-old installation. Much worse was the unbelievably shoddy installation by Desert Rat Off Road Center in Tucson. The over-long U-bolts securing the lower brackets had been left untrimmed, so they impacted the spring perches when the suspension flexed, bending them and smashing the upper threads. Phil Westergren, our ace group mechanic, advised Michael that the best approach might be to simply remove both bags and let the truck sag; when Phil did so, he found the nuts on both U-bolts finger tight. Disappointing.

With both bags removed, the compliant Raptor suspension did droop noticeably, but retained far more travel than had been available with the collapsed bag left in place, so Michael and Darla were able to continue along with us. (Interestingly, Dennis and Margie, also in a Raptor with a heavier Northstar camper, had the same bags and had no issues the entire trip.)

Day four brought us to a fairly challenging boulder-strewn uphill section on a Forest Service road. I climbed in the passenger seat of the Sportsmobile to offer Marka some in-cab hints on wheel placement, but it soon became apparent the vehicle was suffering a distinct lack of traction, as she failed to climb several off-camber sections. Indeed, Phil, who was marshalling, reported that the front wheels were not getting power even though the (manual) hubs were locked, the driveshaft was turning, and as far as I could determine from inside the Atlas transfer case was correctly engaged. Fortunately the Sportsmobile had an automatic rear locker—and thus full traction to both rear wheels—so we were able to get Marka through the difficult section. But it presaged more significant problems on the icy and muddy sections we knew would be ahead. This was another issue we had no time to investigate thoroughly on the trail—the constraints of a paid trip.

After camping next to Elk Creek (Colorado), we attempted to drive up over Elwood Pass. However, we began encountering snow patches even lower than last year, and soon Phil decisively stuffed his F350 into a three-foot-deep bank completely covering the roadway, halting his and our further progress. With a quick KERR tug from Ross’s Tacoma (eliciting the expected comments from the Toyota drivers), we bailed and headed for Salida, the town beneath the 10,000-foot grass plateau on which the RawHyde Colorado camp sits.

 Marshaling a kinetic recovery from a safe distance.

Marshaling a kinetic recovery from a safe distance.

Reports indicated that, despite recent snowfall and rain, the back dirt route was clear, so we headed up the road through the San Isabel National Forest. As usual, Roseann and I took the tailgunner position to keep an eye out for any BF-109s tracking us with their MG 17s. No, wait, that’s not right. In this case, “tailgunner” just means making sure no one gets lost.

For ten miles or so the climb was uneventful—there were a few areas of slick mud and flowing ditches on the side, but nothing challenging—we were continually hitting lucky weather windows on this trip.

Then, after an easy creek crossing that led to a slight uphill section where water cut across the road and a ditch on the right carried it off, the two-meter crackled, and Cheryl in the Power Wagon said, “Um, I think I’m stuck,” to which Ross immediately replied, “No, you are definitely, absolutely stuck.” She had taken too low a line to cross the water-filled ruts in the road, and the massive truck with its mounted camper had slid into the ditch. 

First try at towing, which would fail decisively.

The axiomatic approach in such situations is to begin recovery with the simplest technique, then work upwards in complexity and potential risk. A simple pull from Phil and his F350 had zero effect, so I replaced Cheryl in the driver’s seat and we rigged a kinetic rope between the trucks. Phil gave me some slack, backed up smartly but not quickly—and the truck moved.

For about 15 feet. I was trying to turn it out of the ditch, but the slope sucked in the front tires and Phil’s truck spun to a halt—not helped by me staying on the Ram’s throttle for just a second too long, further burying the right rear tire in the muck if it needed further burying.

Time for the winch, but first Roseann left to drive ahead with the rest of the group to the RawHyde camp, while Phil, Ross, Kevan, and I stayed (along with the apologetic Herndons). Before the group left, we collected four MaxTrax-style recovery mats and I got our recovery kit out of the Tacoma. It was getting late and we did not want any more false starts, so we went back to square one, got out the shovels, and cleared muck until we could get a plastic recovery mat wedged under the front of each tire. The Ram was equipped with an excellent and powerful Warn 16.5 winch, but I wanted to both maximize its efficiency and slow down the operation, so we attached a pulley block to the F350’s front bumper and led the cable through it and back to the Ram.

First try, with rocks stacked in front of the Ford’s tires and brakes full on, the winch inexorably pulled the anchor truck toward the stuck one. The road surface was just too slick with mud to provide traction. So we daisy-chained Ross’s Tacoma behind the Ford, added more rocks, and that, finally, did the trick: The Ram ever so slowly hauled its way diagonally out of the ditch and on to ‘firm’ ground. We got to camp just in time for one of trip chef Julia’s superb dinners.

Ross Blair's Tacoma against the Colorado skyline.

After a layover day (and a timely winching seminar) at the RawHyde camp, we headed north to Hartsel for fuel, then explored several back roads on the way to Steamboat. At the fuel stop it became clear the Ram was leaking significant oil from the front main seal. Since it was highly unlikely this had been precipitated by the bog and recovery it had to be chalked up to coincidence. The engine only had 80,000 miles on it, so this seemed a bit premature. Near the same time, Joe noticed a heavy oil drip from the 6.0 turbodiesel in his Sportsmobile. This truck was equipped with dual external Amsoil filters—a worthy upgrade, except that one of the O-rings in the frame-mounted assembly had failed. Adding complexity also adds potential failure points.

Pushing a proper bow wave on a stream crossing.

From Steamboat we faced what would turn out to be our most challenging day—a circuitous, almost all off-pavement drive north along Elk River Road, past the comically oversized ‘lodge’ at Three Forks Ranch—at $850 per person per night out of our range—and into Wyoming. Since major highways in Wyoming are often barricaded during bad weather (“If light is flashing, Wyoming is closed—Please return to Colorado”), the side roads can prove adventurous. And Sage Creek Road turned out to be just that—40 miles of oil-slick mud that reminded me of, well, the camping area at the 2015 Overland Expo, actually. Joe in the temporarily two-wheel-drive Sportsmobile had the most difficult task: While the automatic rear diff lock gave him nearly as much traction going uphill as the open-diff four-wheel-drive vehicles had, when you lose traction  on a diff-locked axle, you lose it all. Yet he only lost it on one muddy dip, sliding gracefully sideways into the shoulder. Once Joe realized he was stuck he instantly cut the power (er, quicker, in fact, than I had in the Ram), thus we were able to hook up a strap from David and Noell’s Land Cruiser and tug the Sportsmobile free easily. For the rest of the path to Rawlins we watched from the rear as Toyotas, Fords, and the lone Ram waggled up inclines and crept cautiously down greasy slopes. It was an impressive display of driving by everyone.

David Alley prepares to gently tug the Sportsmobile out of a ditch.

Sadly, by the time we reached Wyoming’s Red Desert in the Continental Divide Basin, the Sportsmobile’s turbodiesel had developed a misfire—possibly an injector issue—and this, combined with the oil leak, convinced Joe and Marka to leave the group a day early and head for Salt Lake City to address things. The rest of us enjoyed a last camp on a broad grassy slope next to a creek, and watched a near-full moon pace the stars overhead across a sky unsullied by the lights of civilization. 

Conclusions? Note that several of the issues we experienced were caused by aftermarket additions—air bags, external oil filters. That’s a good reminder to be extremely careful when considering such modifications, to make sure any you choose are of high quality, and to be damn sure the installation is done correctly. It also points out the importance of pre-trip maintenance and inspection: The Sportsmobile, for example, had gone over 10,000 miles since its last oil change, an interval endorsed and boasted about by Amsoil, but over-optimistic for this kind of hard use.

 Ford Raptor + no mudflaps =

Ford Raptor + no mudflaps =