EJS 2001 - From My Seat, a Red Rock First-timer

By Berkeley Johnston

What Iím going to tell you isnít new. Youíve probably been wheeling for a long time and you see it a lot: a new guy gets in over his head, makes a mistake, and -- no he doesnít die -- he breaks something. This is a mostly non-technical chronology of one Cherokee driver and his friends during Easter Jeep Safari 2001, so if thatís not for you, stop here. I do lots of name-dropping, however, and thatís usually pretty fun to read... especially if you get mentioned.

All-nighter to Moab

Project SkyMiles high-centered on the trail to Upper Helldorado.
Project SkyMiles high-centered on the trail to Upper Helldorado.
At the last minute, Randy Burleson (weíll call him by his odd nickname, Randii, so that he doesnít get confused with "the other Randy") and I decided to catch the end of Easter Jeep Safari. To do so, we drove a thousand miles to Moab for a couple of days of trail running and hanging out with our fellow 4x4Wire staffers. From Sacramento and San Luis Obispo, we met in Bakersfield where we ditched one car (UZI is broken) and drove in my XJ, Project SkyMiles, through the night. Dawn arrived while we were somewhere on I-70. We drove through the town of Moab and arrived at the insanely difficult Upper Helldorado trail just in time to meet our group coming off Lower Helldorado.

In sight of our friends, I got stuck on the dirt road leading down to the trailhead. Perhaps 40 pounds of tire pressure is too much? The clay soil and the recent rain produced the slipperiest stuff imaginable. Even with the tires down to 15 pounds, there was simply no traction. I was unable to drive up the side around the large rocks and got high-centered on both diffs. To the rescue came Randy Wheeler and Vance Anderson in Vanceís red TJ. Randy and Vance had been in Moab all week, not only wheeling, but covering the events as well. They were staying up late and waking up early to write and upload articles and images to 4x4Wire. After a tugging a bit, we freed the beast and joined the spectators and the few brave souls trying their luck on Upper Helldorado.

On a scale from 1 to 4, Upper Helldorado is a 5 (and I am not making that up). Jeff "Jefe" Reynolds squeeked through first in his long wheelbase CJ-8 Scrambler without a scratch. At least no scratches worth mentioning. Next through was the famously opinionated and equally likable John Nutter in his trail-proven yellow CJ-7. Inside the aptly named Gatekeeper, the entrance to the trail, something went wrong for John. Perhaps a more familiar witness will provide technical details* in another account, but suffice it to say that he and his rig were, in the space of an hour, figuratively and literally swallowed, chewed up, and spit out. Ouch. During the chewing-up phase I was helping Johnís two-year-old daughter, Sierra, vanquish a nasty piece of cactus that had jumped up and bit her. While Mom, Janet, wiped tears, I dropped the vicious vegetation (sorry, I couldnít resist) into a hole and covered it up.

Vance Anderson wheeling his TJ on Lower Helldorado. Making it look easy: Terry Howe and his '45 CJ-2A. John Nutter surveys the damage inflicted by Upper Helldorado.
Vance Anderson wheeling his TJ on Lower Helldorado. Making it look easy: Terry Howe and his '45 CJ-2A. John Nutter surveys the damage inflicted by Upper Helldorado.

Other brave drivers fared better on Upper Helldorado, but most turned around. Terry and Diane Howe drove through like they were in an Easter parade. Iím pretty sure they had to back up once to get a slightly better line, but otherwise watching them was almost boring. Many people not familiar with Terry wrongly attribute the apparent ease of his driving to the built little í45 CJ-2A, but itís not the 38" tires that make that flatty go.

Ants in my Pants

Did I mention that this was my first time to Moab? Well it didnít take long for me to tire of just watching. Sure, I know that watching guys "drive" through a 5-rated trail is exciting, but I wanted to wheel myself! I headed back into town looking for my Cherokee buddy, Bart Jacobs, who was last seen at the 4x4 vendor displays at the Rodeo grounds. Bart was already gone, but I regrouped with Randii who was already there. After rubbing elbows with all the famous manufacturers (and buying some delicious beef jerky), we proceeded to camp.

I still hadnít driven a real trail, and my anxiety about that fact was oozing from every pore; I was begging (pitifully) everyone in sight. "Randii, letís go!" I screamed. Having returned from his conquest of U.H., Terry Howe interrupted, "You guys going wheeling? Can I come?" Relief! In minutes, we were headed for Hellís Revenge, the signature Moab trail. The red rock goes on forever, sometimes in smooth, rolling hills, sometimes in rough, unforgiving cliffs. There are convenient yellow flame symbols painted on the Hellís Revenge trail to help guide your trip. More importantly, near some blind drop-offs, there are little yellow lines on each side of the designated path. It isnít clear how important obeying the little lines is until youíve already driven over and see that to have disobeyed would have meant either death or legal access to a lifetime of excellent parking spaces.

Terry (see his leg?) spotting my XJ early on the Hell's Revenge Trail. Bart entering Micky's Hot Tub in his heavily modified ARCA Cherokee. Ascending one of the incredible red rock hills. Wow, that seemed steep.
Terry (see his leg?) spotting my XJ early on the Hell's Revenge Trail. Bart entering Micky's Hot Tub in his heavily modified ARCA Cherokee. Ascending one of the incredible red rock hills. Wow, that seemed steep.

No one has ever fully explained why the smooth rock is called "slick rock." Itís anything but. Traction on the stuff, especially when aired-down, is so great that itís possible to climb or descend unimaginably steep hills. Or holes. We approached the well-known Car Wash obstacle. Itís full of water and oil, too, from its victims so often breaking axles and such. The dark water and my friendsí pleading (plus the disgusting black slime on the front of Terry's Project Pieces and Parts) convinced me to pass. Next on the trail was Mickyís Hot Tub. There, Randii Youíll-Never-Get-Out-With-Tires-That-Small Burleson again told me, "No," but Terry was encouraging. Suspicious of his ever-present smile, however, I asked him, "If I get stuck, will you pull me out?" Hearing his answer in the affirmative, I drove carefully to the bottom of what is, essentially, a deep Cherokee-sized hole. After one failed attempt to ascend, Terry gave me a hint and I was out. Victory! (Incidently, if Terry ever gives you advice about wheeling, listen. His advice is like having a third locker.) We finished the trail to the sight of the setting sun and the sound of a Nissan pickup breaking his tie rod on Tip Over Challenge. Glorious!

Doom Awaits

Saturday dawned to a day so nice, that I didnít even notice how perfect it was until asked, "How was the weather?" two days later. Most of the camp had either gone to cover an official run, or was sleeping in from a weekís worth of wheeling. I had no clue what was in store until Bart drove up trailering his "XYJ" ARCA rig. "Come on," he said, "Weíre going to Rusty Nail!" "Iím right behind you." Who needs a shower or clean teeth?

A river overlook on the Hell's Revenge trail. A river overlook on the Hell's Revenge trail.
A river overlook on the Hell's Revenge trail. Another look at the beautiful Hell's Revenge scenery.

Bart was leading a vendor appreciation run for TeraFlex and friends. A few miles north of town, we left the highway and met the waiting group. Without Randii, who had gone with Todd Adams on an official EJS run, my Cherokee was empty. I approached a five-passenger-stuffed YJ to offer the comfort of air-conditioned luxury. (I know I said the weather was perfect, but I offered air-conditioning just to be dramatic.) My un-shaven face wasnít enough to frighten Jackie who was glad to be sheltered from the dusty road. We drove toward the Rusty Nail trail, which is also the way to Gold Bar Rim and Poison Spider trails. The dirt road leads up the side of a huge mesa, and into increasingly difficult terrain. No lockers were needed, however, until we reached Riff-Raff, the first major obstacle. There were a lot of vehicles waiting to ascend this "gatekeeper" to the Rusty Nail trail. The first, largest group was organized... two tries and youíre winched... so the line moved quickly.

Riff-Raff is so called because it keeps the riff-raff off the trail (that was foreshadowing, by the way), and itís roughly a large car-shaped rock stuck up against a six to eight foot ledge. To get up it, you just sort of drive up the crack, get stuck half way, then get winched. Some rigs made it with effort.

Finally, it was our turn and Bart, our leader, went first. Just as easy as you please, he crawled up the obstacle without hesitation. Years of experience and all that time spent driving in the ARCA events totally paid off. The rest of the group followed with most people getting winched. Finally it was time to show everyone how cool an XJ with a 3" lift is. "These lockers are going to get me to the top," I said to myself. Iíve got a habit of taking things slowly... pausing after each ledge. Terry advised me to not stop, but to go "smooth" through the whole obstacle, not to use a lot of gas, but just go "smooth." Well, when Terry says, "smooth," he means (in a quiet, relaxed voice) smoooooth. In my anxiety, what I heard was SMOOTH! A little too much gas, a little wheel hop, and there I was with a broken axle and my rear wheel slowly inching its way out of its housing. Ah! The glory of the Dana 35C c-clip axle!

Friends to the Rescue

While I was being pushed out of the way, group member Curt Hildebrand, another ARCA competitor and inventor of the Revolver Shackles, smoked the hill as easily as did Bart. Terry Howe, next up and last in the group, pulled aside to help me. Then Curt appeared from up the hill. Bart, too, came back to see what was up. Now, this is the whole point of the story, so I donít want you to miss it. Three guys, none of whom I know very well, one Iíve met only minutes before, have stopped what they were doing to help someone in trouble.

Moab-modified Dana 35 axle end.
Moab-modified Dana 35 axle end.

Again, I know this happens all the time, but that doesnít make it any less special. For me, a grateful amateur, it was embarassing. Iím standing, lying in the dirt actually, among Heros. Seriously, my son sees these guys -- Terry is Curtís spotter -- on the Extreme Rock Crawling videos and has the same reaction as he does when he sees any another famous dude. I was glad, during the hour-and-a-half repair, that whatever they asked for, I provided. "Do you have a spare axle?" I could see in their eyes that they expected, "No," but I did. I had the spare, the tools, the gear oil, the RTV, all of it. Too bad I didnít remember that we needed to remove the retaining pin that holds the spider-gear cross shaft in place. That cost us 45 minutes. We (I) sheared the pin in two trying to get the cross shaft out. (Iíve got c-clips, remember. We needed to remove the cross shaft to access the axle ends.) Eventually, we finished with some help from others, including a friend with a second winch cable (the Cherokee was on a slope), and another with a welding rod cut down to replace the sheared retaining pin.

Without a second spare, and because the trail only got harder after Riff-Raff, I turned-tail and headed for Moab Off-Road to find a replacement pin for the ARB. Before leaving, I stayed to watch Terry drive, not in the "easy" line like everyone else, but directly at and completely over the huge guarding rock. The crowd and I were stunned.

I wish I could have finished Rusty Nail, but breaking was fine, too. It was my first trail repair and it couldnít have gone much better. I had the part, the tools, and the friends to help. Next time Iíll be less apprehensive and repairs will be easier. How could you go wheeling without friends? I donít know. How could you not make new friends while wheeling? You canít.

Iíll be back to Moab next year and Rusty Nail will be at the top of my list.

*Update from John Nutter: He broke the inner front driver's side axle shaft. Then, while trying to back out of Gatekeeper, he snapped a main leaf on the rear of the driver's side. It was that snapped main leaf that necessitated all the winches (three) and highlifts, not to mention a come-along that seems to be needed whenever Randii and John are on the same trail. In this case, the come-along and John's own winch stabilized the axle to make the CJ semi-mobile. Once he was off of the obstacle, John was able to move his Jeep far enough away so that others could get by.

The Nutter-Burleson negative energy packed a double punch this trip. John loaned his diesel tow rig to his nemesis, and, at Randii's touch, the fuel pump began happily spraying large quantities of diesel into the radiator fan. Predictably, the fan seems to have been optimally designed for the thorough distribution of diesel oil. Repairs were easily made (strangely, without the use of a come-along), and no lives were lost.

For more pictures, be sure to check out the Moab EJS 2001 Photo Gallery.