Sierra Trek 1999
Warn kit on a YJ named Stingray
Warn kit on a TJ. But why?
Staging Area
On the Trail
After "Sunrise Rock"

My trip to Sierra Trek 99 started almost a year ago. In November of 1998, I joined the San Luis Obispo County 4WD Club (SLO 4 Wheelers). As a promotion to get members to pay their dues on time, and to attract new members, they were offering to pay for a 6 month membership to the California Association of 4WD Clubs (Cal 4 Wheel). I was going to join anyway, but this was a nice bonus. In early 1999, Cal 4 Wheel held a drawing of all it’s new members, and we won! I was given a Hi-Lift Jack, some t-shirts and hats, and free registration to all the Cal 4 Wheel sponsored events. I did not receive my packet of stuff for quite a while, so I had missed some events from the first part of the year, but I looked at the remaining events and knew that I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to Sierra Trek for free! My wife was supposed to come with me, but her sister was pregnant and due at about the time of the trip, so she opted to stay home in case she had the baby, so I brought my brother Evan. He took all these pictures and shot the video. Thanks Evan!

Sierra Trek consists of 3 main runs: The Short Wheel Base run, the Long Wheel Base run, and the SUV run. Since I have a Jeep Wrangler (YJ), I decided to participate in the SWB run. The SWB run is held on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with over 100 vehicles wheeling each day! I didn’t want to miss too much time at work, so I decided to sign up for the Saturday run. That way I would only have to take Friday off. I sent in my registration form, and was placed in group 2. Our staging time was 5:15 am and our departure time was 6:15 am! Since our staging time was so early, we decided to camp Friday night at the staging area instead of the base camp at Meadow Lake. It’s about an hour and a half drive from the base camp to the staging area, so we would have had to leave Saturday morning at about 3:30 am! No thanks!

Coming from the Central Coast of California, we knew we were going to have about a 7 or 8 hour drive, so we left about 8:00 am Friday morning to give ourselves plenty of time. As we were getting close to Truckee, we saw some other Jeeps pull off at the Nyack off-ramp in Emigrant Gap, so we decided to follow them. It turned out to be the right decision because that is the last place to get gas before the Eagle Lake off-ramp to the staging area. Besides gas, there is also a Burger King there, so we had some lunch and then got back on the road.

When we arrived at the staging area, there were a number of vehicles already there. They were preparing for the Star Trek run, which is a night run open to those that have done Sierra Trek at least twice before. They leave at about 6:00 p.m. and get done around midnight or 1:00 am. These guys were definitely veterans of off road events. There were Jeeps and Toyota FJs, and they were all very well prepared. There were also a couple of very custom vehicles, one of which was the "Killer Bee," which I’m sure I’ve seen in some magazines before. While these folks prepared for their run, we set up our camp near the river and then took some pictures of their rigs and chatted with them for a while. We spent the rest of the evening playing cards and relaxing by our fire.As we were getting ready to call it a night, I realized that I had forgotten some kind of alarm. There was no way I was going to just happen to wake up by 4:30 am, and the couple that had set up camp next to us didn’t have an alarm either, and they weren’t scheduled to leave until 7:00 am. So, I called my wife and asked her if she would set her alarm for 4:30 am and then call me on the cell phone to wake us up. It’s a good thing I have an awesome wife! Even with that taken care of, I still did not sleep very well that night because I was worried that she would just turn off the alarm and not call! I was also very nervous about breaking something on my Jeep this trip! I had never done something as challenging as Sierra Trek before, and I did not have any spare parts with me. When the phone rang at 4:30 am, I was already wide awake.

Approaching Winch Hill 1
Broken Down CJ
Winch Hill 1
Winch Hill 1
Winch Hill 1
Winch Hill 2
Winch Hill 2
Winch Hill 2

We packed up our camp and headed over to the staging area. We were kind of slow getting packed up, so we didn’t get there until about 5:30 am. To our surprise, there were already at least 50 vehicles waiting to be staged! We found our way to the back of the line, and found out we were among Group 3. We flagged down one of the Cal 4 Wheel volunteers that were doing the safety checks, and after she checked our rig, she had us move up to where Group 2 was staged. They had coffee, hot chocolate, muffins and danishes laid out for breakfast, and the caffeine and sugar helped us wake up. The Cal 4 Wheel folks did an excellent job getting everyone staged and doing the safety checks. I was very impressed throughout the whole trip how well things were organized.

We headed out on the trail at about 6:30 am, and once our group had all left the staging area they stopped us and we had a driver’s meeting. They laid out the ground rules about this trip, including what CB channels to avoid so the committee members could communicate and that there is no alcohol drinking on the trail, etc. We all got back in our vehicles and headed out, very anxious to be on our way. On our way out, they passed out our lunches, which consisted of 2 sandwiches, a bag of chips, and some cookies. At some point on the trail, we heard one of the committee members mention that there were 117 vehicles running the trail.The first half of the trail consisted mostly of a dirt trail through the forest, which some occasional rocks, but nothing too difficult. One notable spot is called "Sunrise Rock", which is a small rock crawl, and would otherwise be very easy, except that it’s early in the morning and the sun is just rising over the mountain and is right in your face. If it wasn’t for the spotters, I would have had a very hard time seeing where to go. There are also a couple of stream crossings during this part of the trail. After the first crossing, all the other vehicles in our group were sitting off to the side. They told me they were taking a break, and that we could go ahead if we wanted, so we did. We ended up at the back of Group 1, behind a very custom Toyota truck that put everyone to shame. I wish I would have gotten some pictures of this guy. He had tons of wheel travel! I was very impressed.

The whole trail is about 10 miles long, and after about 6 miles and about 4 hours we were almost to the base of Winch Hill 1. Sierra Trek has 5 winch hills, and they are the signature of this event, especially Winch Hill 3, which is home to the "squeeze rock." There is a short climb just before Winch Hill 1, and this is where we witnessed the first damage of the day. A very nice CJ7 was having trouble climbing, so we got out and had a look. Turned out that he broke 4 Low in his transfer case, so he had to winch himself up the climb and had to take the bypass back to base camp. I really felt sorry for this guy. It also made me more nervous about the upcoming winch hills.

Just a few couple months before Sierra Trek, my Jeep was almost stock. I purchased it used about a year and half ago, and the only thing I had done to it was put in Rancho add-a-leafs and 30 x 9.50 tires. Just before this trip, I had installed the Explorer Pro-Comp Coil Conversion kit, which in addition to the 33 x 12.50 BFG MTs I had put on had given me about 7" of lift, not to mention greatly increased my off road ability. At the same time, I also swapped out my axles, replacing my front end with a Dana 30 with 4.10 gears and a Detroit EZ-Locker, and my rear end with a Dana 35c with 4.10 gears, a c-clip eliminator, and an ARB Air Locker. I did not upgrade to Dana 44s or Dana 60s because the Pro-Comp kit only works with stock axles at this time, and because I got those two axles for less than $1000, as opposed to the $3000 or more I would have had to spend for equally equipped Dana 44s.

So, here we were at the base of Winch Hill 1 with all this new and unproven equipment and the fresh memory of a trashed transfer case in our minds. Each winch hill is manned by a group of volunteers from a 4WD club. They are there to work as spotters, stack rocks as necessary, winch those that get stuck, and to just generally help and encourage the participants. As I headed up the hill, I was passed off from one spotter to the next, and reached the top without getting stuck or incurring any damage. I was very impressed with the new abilities of my rig. My wife probably wouldn’t agree, but it made me feel spending all that money and all that time in my garage was worth it. As I looked back down the hill, there was a black Wrangler starting to come up. It would be the last time we would see him for a long time.

We headed for Which Hill 2 with confidence and renewed excitement. We quickly arrived at Winch Hill 2, and climbed it without any trouble. It was not as tough as the first hill, but it was still fun. As we reached Winch Hill 3, the spotter and the bottom explained to me that I had two choices on this hill. I could stay to the left, which was a very rutty climb, but was considered "easier." Or, I could stay to the right, which was a steep rock climb culminating in Sierra Trek’s infamous "squeeze rock." I told him that I had read about this spot, and that I had not driving all this way and done all this work to my vehicle not to try this obstacle!

Winch Hill 3
Winch Hill 3
Winch Hill 4
Winch Hill 5
Winch Hill 5

As I reached the halfway point and the Y in the climb where I had to make my choice, another spotter came and explained the two choices again. He looked over my vehicle and suggested I go left because he thought I might be too wide. He explained that two vehicles had already gotten wedged in the v-shaped rock at the top and that it had taken a long time to get them out. I told him the same thing I told the first guy, and proceeded to head right, which got the attention of everyone at the top and then all found the best place to watch. I had no trouble getting up the hill to the squeeze rock, and as I started to slowly climb it I was attempting to follow the directions of the spotter at the top. However, my wheels slipped a little, and I got too far right. I then proceeded to put on a great show as my driver’s side front tire raised about 5 feet in the air and I stopped because I thought I was going over! When I realized I wasn’t, I continued, and almost came down on a winch spike that I had no idea was there. I kept going slowly, and stopped when my rear passenger’s side tire almost rolled over the spike and everyone yelled at me to stop. Some of the spotters got on one side of me, and some on the other, and they kept my tire from going over the spike as I moved ahead and off the trail. I got out and thanked the guys for their help and we decided to stay there a while, eat our lunch, and wait to watch someone else try the hill.

We waited for at least a half an hour, but did not see a sign of anyone. We figured that black Wrangler from the first hill must have broken down or had a lot of trouble and was holding everyone up, so we continued on the trail. The spotters tried to convince me to go back down the "easy" way and come back up again to give them something to do, but I didn’t want to tempt fate. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the best part of the trail, as Which Hills 4 and 5 were very uneventful. They were fun rock climbs, but they did not have the challenge or excitement of the third hill. There were quite a number of people at Winch Hill 5, as that is the closest to the Meadow Lake base camp, so people hike or drive back down to watch. Some were shouting encouragement, some were telling me to roll over, and some obviously inebriated guy was yelling "I don’t understand" at me. I guess he was referring to my "It’s a Jeep Thing… You wouldn’t understand!" windshield decal. When we got to the top, we congratulated each other for finishing the trail without getting stuck or getting any damage, and waited to see if there was anyone else behind us. A half hour or so later, the black Wrangler came along. I should have asked him what took so long, but I figured he’d had a rough day, and didn’t want to bother him.

Once he made it to the top, we drove up the trail to Meadow Lake and could not believe the number of motor homes, rigs, tents, and people that were there. We spent some time checking out the vendor booths and other people’s rigs, then headed over to get our dinner. The food was excellent, and we spent the rest of the night enjoying the huge bonfire and the very entertaining live band. The next morning we were treated to a great breakfast, and headed out before the raffle so we wouldn’t have to deal with the traffic. I was very disappointed that I didn’t get to watch anyone else come up the winch hills, so next year I will probably come up on Thursday so I can do the run on Friday and leave Saturday for watching the winch hills and enjoying the lake. Whatever I decide, I am definitely coming back!

 

On the trail Meadow Lake On the trail

 

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