Sunday, July 29, 2007

If you want to play with the big guys...

This Saturday I tried to get away and have some peace and silence by using my Jeep to go to a somehow isolated place. I did some research and I came with a perfect place: Lake Isabel, around 40 miles away from my apartment and classified as "Difficult trail" by a local 4x4 club.
So in the morning I wait for a friend to come, we pack some stuff to eat, some stuff to drink, a couple of chairs and my fishing rod+accessories. After some 45 minutes we reached the start of the trail and we were ready for action. In the trail head there was lot of people, mostly off-road lovers in all variations.
I got to the trail head, set up the 4 Hi and started rolling. A few yards away, it was clear that 4Hi was too risky so I switched to 4Lo. The first part was mostly holes and mud, nothing too difficult but the mud pools were covered with somewhere between 5 to 10 inches of water (obviously not clear water) so I tried to avoid as much as possible the middle of the pools and in some cases I took a different route to avoid the pool. I have to admit that my Jeep had no problems with the mud, the stability control helped me a lot to keep the vehicle in the intended direction even when crossing big pools of water and mud. Congratulations Jeep engineers!
Somewhere between 3/4 of a mile and 1 mile away we reached the first main obstacle, the creek. In the trail description it said that it was not as bad as it seemed so I supposed I would be able to cross it. Since this was my first time here, I descended to the creek and started looking for easy places to cross it. My first concern was a 3-4 feet height difference between the trail and the creek, there was a very rustic descent between two trees, after some investigations it was clear that was the only way. The creek in fact didn't seem that bad, it was at most 5 inches deep and the water was very clear so I was able to check everything under the surface. Lucky I did it, because there were some big boulders in the creek bed, so I tried to find a way where I could pass. I don't have a winch and my Liberty is stock so my ground clearance is only 9.5 inches and I have an open differential, so clearly I'm not prepared for rock crawling.
While trying to find the solution to that problem, a truck came to the creek. They were two guys trying to reach the lake in a stock Chevrolet Silverado. I decided to watch them and see what was their approach since they told they had done the trail many times (the Silverado has a similar ground clearance to the Liberty, so if they were able to make it that was good news). The did fine going through the trees, entering the creek and going for about 60 feet on the creek. After that, they seemed to realize that they took the wrong path and try to correct it but it was too late, they were stuck between 3 big boulders. Basically they were lifted and no ground contact.
Looking at that, we tried to helped them, they had a manual winch and other manual rescue tools, so it seemed that rescue was possible. After half hour I decided to offered them to tow them with my Jeep and see if that way they were able to gain traction against the boulder and be able to go back and take the right path. No problems going down the trees, no problems in the first part of the creek (again, congratulations Jeep engineers). Remember I have a stock Jeep Liberty, no modifications at all.
When I was finally close enough to tie a rope and try to tow them, we realized that the Liberty has no towing hook on the front so I needed to turn back and tow them hooked to the back of the Liberty. I asked my friend to watch out and let me know if there were any obstacles, because I had enough problems dealing with the creek while trying to turn around. Unfortunately my friend is not very experienced in off-roading, so he didn't look for the right kind of obstacles, and didn't tell me that I was getting trapped between a boulder and some sand. By the time I realized that I was in troubles, it was too late (but actually I was pointing to the other side, so I wasn't stuck in a dangerous position across the creek). I managed to get my left front wheel between a boulder a the shore (the axle actually was standing on the boulder), and my right rear wheel in the sand, so thanks to the open differential I had no power at all.
For an independent viewer the situation was actually funny, we managed to close the creek with two vehicles in two strategic positions.... Although my situation was infinitely better than the other guys, since I only needed to move the left front wheel from the boulder to get free.
After some considerations, we decided to lift the Jeep using the jack, we lift the right side and managed to add some stones under both right wheels so if everything worked we would be able to gain some traction. After that we lifted the left side and here the problems started, it was very easy to lift the front wheel and put some rocks under to tried to break it free. While doing that my friend told me why we didn't try to move the boulder using the other's guys manual winch. We laced the boulder and started pushing. As expected the boulder didn't even move one inch even while the Jeep was lifted. It was just too big.
I tried to see if there was enough traction with our stone stack but still no traction (again, only stock tires not really off-road tires). At that time things were not looking good, both vehicles were stuck and all of our efforts were in vain.
Suddenly we heard some engine noises and the big guys appeared. A couple of heavily modified vehicles with some hard core off-road guys. They looked at the situation, made a plan, explained the plan to us and started the rescue operation. Since I was stuck with my axle in a boulder, my only chance was to get towed back, if the Jeep was pushed forward, the axle will free but probably the transmission would have been seriously damaged. But, I was blocking the way to reach behind my Jeep. On the other hand there was another trail that was described as "Most difficult" that lead to the other side of the creek, so if they took that trail they could reach the rear of my Jeep. Only problem? the big truck was standing at the other end, so to do that they needed to move that truck first. One of the guys went through the other trail and in about 5 minutes was at the other side. He hooked the truck, and started pulling. Realize the other truck was not a small thing, was a Chevrolet Silverado, more than 2 tons of truck so pulling that thing out of where it was stuck was a major enterprise (at that time I realized how naive I was thinking that my humble Liberty had any chance of moving that tank). After three minutes the job was done and the Silverado was safe at the other side, only minor damage (although nobody checked what happened underneath, I'm pretty sure they sustained some not so minor damage). The guy entered the creek again and hooked my Liberty. Another guy sit on my Jeep and in about ten seconds my Jeep was free. Definitely, that modified truck had some serious power. Since this guy was already driving my Jeep he was kind enough to take it out of the creek and back to where the creek entrance was (even going up between the trees). I checked my Jeep to see if there was any damage, and fortunately nothing happened, since the axle landed very softly on the boulder and nothing else was touched, nothing was damaged. Pretty lucky because the transmission and the front differential were only inches from the boulder.
While inspecting, one of the hard core off-road guys told me that the Liberty was too "cute and pretty" for this kind of off-roading. I'm not totally convinced of that, but at least my stock configuration was not even close to what was needed in that situation. I strongly believe that I had options to cross the creek without problems, it would have been very complicated and probably it was beyond my expertise, so for now I'm happy that I made it back home without any damage. I'm also convinced that the Liberty has a very good handling in mud and water, and with the correct set of tires it can be a medium off-road vehicle. It will never be a hard-core off road vehicle but it can handle difficulties up to medium pretty easily if used correctly. ESC and 4Lo handled mud nicely, requiring minimal intervention from my part. Even when I was driving on the side of the mud to avoid the water, the Jeep responded to my commands without any special tricks or control loss.
Of course, I'm not an off-road expert and I consider myself an amateur for off-roading. Probably somebody with more experience could try harder obstacles with a Liberty and get through them, but for people like me that like to do some off-roading from time to time, the Liberty is a very good alternative.

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