Report From the Road–Jeeping the Alpine Loop in Colorado (photos by GoPro)
Continuing where we left off last time, when we got into Ridgway we met up with Forrest and Beth (be sure to check out their blog at: http://3upadventures.com/) and visited for a while, but eventually we got around to firming up plans for the Jeep Tour. First we had to decide which tour to take. The problem with this part of Colorado is that there are so many incredible Jeep trails going into such truly majestic country, it’s really hard to choose. My original goal had to been to do Imogene Pass which gets as high as 13,114 feet and is just a fantastic drive from the pictures I have seen of it. But the cold front that has been making us so cold recently had dumped a foot of snow in the mountains around Ridgway and Forrest thought there was no way we could make it over Imogene. Too much of it was on the North side of the mountains and wouldn’t have melted yet. He suggested we do the Alpine Loop instead. It starts from 550 just south of Ouray and runs through the mountains to Silverton. The high point on it is at Engineer Pass at about 12,900 feet and he thought that since it mostly faced south it would be basically free from snow. It had the advantage that while there we could climb Engineer Mountain (13,218 feet) and have a 360 degree view of the snow capped mountains all around it. That sounded perfect so we decided to head out the next day.
In this post I want to do something a little unusual because I didn’t take any of the pictures in it. Instead they were all taken by my GoPro camera which I had mounted on the hood of the Jeep. You can set it to automatically take a picture at a certain interval, so I set it to snap a shot every 30 seconds. There were 800 pictures on the card before the batteries finally died! In the next post I will show you the pictures I took of the trip but I think the GoPro did a great job of capturing the feel of the “road” we were on and it also caught quite a few candid portraits of the four of us.
Oddly enough this was my first time Jeeping. While I lived in Alaska for over 40 years (and 4×4 is as common as dirt) there are very few places to go Jeeping, the terrain is just too rugged. The very few places with roads in Alaska were opened up with tracked vehicles and later on by highly specialized vehicles with huge balloon tires (think 10 foot tall tires). So while I nearly always owned a 4×4 vehicle, I never went off-roading in one.
When I moved to the Lower 48 and started living in my 4×4 Ford F150 I wanted to make up for lost time and drove it quite a few places where 4×4 was mandatory. But then I sold it and got my current van, and to be honest I have regretted it ever since. In the 10 months I have had the van I have gotten it stuck 4 times! Once I was stuck in the sand in the desert and three times in the mud in the National Forrest. With the 4×4 I would simply have locked in the hubs, put it in 4×4 and driven away. To try to solve that problem I put very aggressive mud tires on the rear of the van—and then was stuck with those within a month! Plus, I have been with at least 6 other people who got stuck and I could easily have gotten them out if I had my old F150.
I tremendously miss the freedom to go into rough backcountry, so I had pretty much decided to sell the van and replace it with a 4×4 pickup. I estimated that I would have to spend about $10,000 for the truck and another $4000 for a camper for it. But $14,000 is a lot of money. I know enough about 4-wheeling to know that a Locker in the rear could make all the difference and mean I can keep the van. So one of the big topics of conversation I had with Forrest on the drive is how capable are different 4x4s and how would a Locker affect my van.
A brief explanation of what a Locker is: When you go around a corner, the outside tires of the vehicle are traveling faster than the inside tires so the axle is designed to allow them to turn at different speeds. But that means that if one tire speeds up all the power is taken off the slow moving tire and sent to faster tire. So if one tire spins in the sand, the other one stops getting power and you are stuck as that one tire spins away. A Locker literally locks the two tires together so that if either one can get traction, it will. It does that automatically and still allows the tires to turn at different speeds when going around a corner. It’s the ideal system but it is expensive. A Detroit Locker installed will probably be $700-$1000.
As you can see in some of these photos, the road got pretty rough in places, but Forrest said any stock Jeep could easily make it to the top. One of the keys was that as soon as we turned off the paved road we stopped and aired down the tires to 10 pounds each. He said that alone would probably have gotten me unstuck most of the times I had been stuck.
He thought the idea of keeping the van and adding a Locker was a very good one. In fact he thought I could easily have made it to the top of the Engineer Pass in my van if I had a Locker and aired down the tires. That opens up so many places to me that it will be well-worth the cost.
Since I have a 1 ton van, it has the highest ground clearance of all vans. That’s important because ground clearance is often more important than traction. Even though Forrest had put a lift-kit on his Jeep, it still ground the skid-plates on a couple of the bigger rocks in our path. The one bad thing about my van is that it has en extended wheel-base so it is very long and has a very poor turning radius. That will make many of the hair-pin switchbacks we encountered more difficult, but not impossible. I will simply have to make several back-and-forth cuts to get around them. That’s inconvenient but doable.
The bottom line is that I am almost certainly going to keep the van and install a Detroit Locker in it. I also might get a Warn 8000 pound winch to make sure I can get in and out of places—and help friends who get stuck. Both of those things will cost about $3000 but that is still much less than what I was expecting to pay for a 4×4 pickup and camper. When I look at it that way, it looks pretty appealing!
But there is one other problem with a 4×4 pickup that keeps me from getting one: they are too tall for Homer. He is too old to be jumping in and out of a tall pickup. In act I think one reason he is having so much problem now is the constant jumping in and out of my very tall F150—both in the front seat and up to the tailgate to get into the camper.