The Sierra Nevada Challenge has been a Montero club tradition for over 12 years. It’s sometimes affectionately referred to as the Sierra Nevada “Carnage.” Issue 1.09 had a special feature – 20 pages of pictures and updates from the trail.
Taking place on various trails in the Sierra Nevada mountain range; 8-10 days of non-stop wheeling has its way of exposing your vehicle’s weak points to say the least. This year was my first involvement and the first year that the AZ locals headed the trip. We were overloaded and undergeared (stock axles and gear ratios), but determined to conquer the Challenge. Time to push some old machines to their limits…
Day 1 – The Rubicon
After a long drive from Phoenix, we had arrived in the Sierras near Loon Lake, at the staging area for the Rubicon trail. We aired down our tires and gave the trucks one last once-over before entering the trail.
The ‘Con starts out with some mild challenges (Gatekeeper); the type that, if you have to think about how to approach them, you’re probably in over your head. We came upon a huge granite slab some other 4×4 groups were resting or staging on. They gave us some interesting looks as we passed through.
We saw a few vehicles while leaving this section, but from there on out it got pretty peaceful and we had the rest of the trail to ourselves for the most part.
Meandering through the boulders, trees and various small lakes was a much needed vacation from the low desert from which we came. The average daytime temps were in the mid 70’s Farenheit (mid-20°C) versus our at-home temperature of over 100 degrees (nearly 40°C). It felt almost unnatural having so much moisture in the air without the sauna effect we get in the Sonoran desert this time of year.
Making our way to Buck Island (our camping goal for the day) we ran into a few friendly locals, the first being Merlin, a Rubicon Trail Foundation volunteer. He gave us a little history on the Rubicon and supplied us with an oil spill kit in case we leaked any fluids on the trail. We learned the reason why we there were so few on the trail. As it turns out, we had just missed a 200 vehicle event Memorial Day weekend, so starting out during the week wasn’t such a bad idea. Merlin went back to trail maintenance and we pressed on.
The next local we met was legit to say the least. At the top of the Little Sluice (famous Rubicon obstacle), we came across two nicely built first gen Toyota 4-Runners. We heard one of them coming from a ways away due to a broken front ring and pinion. The first driver stopped. His truck had a serious amount of body damage (he was also the one with the broken R&P), and we asked him how close we were to Buck Island. He told us we had about a mile or two to get there. We then had a short conversation that ended up being the theme for the rest of the Sierra Challenge, we never got a name from the dude so we’ll call him Leroy.
Leroy: “Are you guys just going to Buck Island and back or all the way to Tahoe?”
Us: “All the way through to Tahoe”
Leroy: “LEGIT! Where are you guys from?”
Us: “We’re here from Phoenix”
After that, Leroy showed us a his front passenger tire was separating and proceeded to drive down into the Little Sluice exclaiming, “I’m gonna do the Little Sluice in 2 wheel drive!” We watched him start his descent and let his friend get past us before we started making our way down toward Buck Island. We never saw them again so we can just assume they got through safely.
Wheeling down to buck Island, we really put the new armor to the test with lots of tight squeezes and steep drop offs. We could see the lake out in the distance, so we picked up the pace to try to make camp before sunset. There was one more technical obstacle to traverse that required some off camber three-wheel driving and clever spotting. From there, we rolled into camp just before sunset at Buck Island and ate our first real meal of the day.
After a hearty breakfast, we inspected the rigs and packed up camp. Getting an earlier start on the trail versus the previous day meant we had more time to take in the scenery and actually eat lunch.
Day 2’s theme was dust. The trail from here on out was coated in a layer of powder. It was like driving through talc and it makes the rocks a little slick for lateral traction. We four-wheeled over the lake dam and made our way to the Big Sluice (another Rubicon obstacle), stopping at various vistas along the way.
Looking out over the high Sierras, you feel like you can see for an unlimited distance even with the smoke from the Yosemite fire in the distance.
Heading down the Big Sluice, we navigated between a large boulder and a tree. The tree is scarred where other vehicles have tipped into it. The Big Sluice isn’t so bad heading down since gravity is helping you down, but you can tell it would be a fight to the top heading the opposite direction. Kevin had done the trail in reverse and recalled breaking a CV axle in an inconvenient spot that he pointed out on our descent.
From the Big Sluice we made our way to Rubicon Springs. It was like a little abandoned town, with empty tents and a small cabin. It was kind of eerie because you could see that a large group recently occupied it and we hadn’t seen anyone all day. We stopped at a small lake just past the abandoned camp. There we ate lunch and went for a swim before getting back on the trail. All of the lakes and streams we came across along the Rubicon trail were crystal clear and really inviting despite being way colder than the ambient air temperatures.
Back on the trail, we crossed Rubicon Bridge and headed toward Cadillac Hill, yet another famous Rubicon challenge. We stormed the hill like savages, determined to conquer it before sunset. We broke some rules by high siding – climbing onto the outside of the vehicle to add weight to the high side in an effort to keep it from tipping over (DANGEROUS) – over some of the more off camber climbs.
We reached the top just before sunset, leaving us time to finish the Rubicon in daylight. The rest of the trail was extremely dusty and only moderately difficult, so we picked up some speed and made our way into the forest to camp at Miller Lake.
Day 3 – On the Road Again.
With the Rubicon completed, we stopped in Lake Tahoe and restocked on fuel and snacks. We contacted the guys we were meeting up with to inform them that we were finished with the ‘Con and about to make our way to the Dusy Ershim trailhead. Carlos was a day behind, so this gave us an extra day to fill.
We decided to drive through Yosemite because their website claimed tourists were still welcome and that the roads were open. On our way, we saw signs confirming the road being open leading to Yosemite. After a half day of driving, despite the website and signs leading to the park we hit a closed road due to fire. After burning the day through the scenic non-Yosemite areas, we made one last ditch attempt to make it into the park from one of the southern roads.
We arrived 2 miles outside of Yosemite around 11PM only to find camping was clearly not allowed. There were NO CAMPING signs everywhere. Apparently, in California, camping means something different than in Arizona, where our maps and GPS showed camping was a hotel. I suggested we set up camp right there in the parking lot, but we cut our losses and left Yosemite. We set up camp on some random back road overlooking a suburban neighborhood – camping, California style.
Day 4 – Pavement Ends
After breaking down camp, we set out toward the Shaver Lake area to meet up with the guys running the Dusy Ershim trail with us. We stopped to make some minor repairs about half way. John’s Gen 1 Montero was having issues shifting and we were hearing a metallic grinding noise from our rear axle.
Upon investigation, we found that the extreme load was flexing the rear axle enough to make the rotors contact the dust shields. We bent the dust shields out and called it good. The shifting issue on John’s truck was resolved by removing the shifter and cleaning out the dust from the locking pin.
Having eaten a few meals and melted three days worth of ice, we noticed a little bit more clearance between our trucks bumpstops and axles. With the repairs made, we headed south toward Shaver Lake. Once we arrived at Shaver Lake, we set out down Dinky Creek Road to a camp on the east side of Courtright Reservoir (Voyager Rock). On the way, we passed through some giant Sequoia trees that made the already large Redwoods look small.
Once we arrived at camp, we settled in and welcomed the other half of our group coming to wheel the Dusy. Carlos, in his ’95 Montero, and Richard, with his ’88 Suzuki Sidekick, came from the Bay Area of California, ready for three days of serious four-wheeling. We were all about to learn why they call this trail the Dusy.
Day 5 – The Dusy Ershim
The Dusy is every bit as challenging as the Rubicon, but it adds 10 miles (16 kilometers) in length and 3,000ft (900M+) in elevation, making it that much more difficult than the Rubicon. (I’ll get hate mail for that statement.)
The beginning of the trail heads up what is called Chicken Rock, It’s an easy obstacle with plenty of traction when dry, but it is pretty steep. We made our way over the top and headed down the trail, crawling over boulders and winding through tight turns lined with large trees where a full size rig would add to the challenge. Almost all of the trees and boulders along the trail have some kind of scar from vehicular contact letting you know what you’re in for.
As we made our way up the trail, the Dusy was leaving its mark on our vehicles from pushing us into the trees and massaging the steel on the bottom sides with boulders. The main event for the day was Thompson Hill, and being around 9,500ft (about 2,900M) elevation, the power loss proved more of a challenge than the actual obstacle. The steep grade, boulders, elevation and being overloaded without proper gearing put us at a disadvantage. We needed the winch to assist our ascent. Even the smaller boulders put us into a stall.
The other vehicles in our group had been regeared and made the summit without winch assistance. While we were winching into the night, the drivers of the two smaller rigs used this time to stack rocks and make their climb a slight bit easier. It was getting late and everyone just wanted to get into camp and rest. Hours of climbing and winching later, we had completed Thompson Hill and rolled into camp around 10PM.
Day 6 – The Madness
I woke up still exhausted from the Thompson Hill hiking, winch line rigging, and re-rigging. Carlos had removed his draglink, which he had bent during yesterday’s climb. We gave him our spare and I straightened the bent draglink.
Once everything was repaired we set out on the Dusy again. From here to Ershim Lake and then to Lakecamp Lake is a blur for me. I had gotten the madness – Hypoxia, similar to Space Madness in Ren & Stimpy – from the high altitude. I had an earache and I couldn’t say anything that made sense to anyone. I took very few pictures this day, and most of the ones I did take sucked, but it was an interesting experience and I’m sure my friends found it entertaining.
Toward the end of the day, I started to become acclimated to the +10,000ft elevation, but the earache lingered on while the madness seemed to fade. This day mostly consisted of fueling issues for the Sidekick and collateral damage caused from towing it through the rocks with a much bigger rig that had 3X the weight of the little Suzuki. As rough as it was to watch the mini 4×4 take a beating at the end of a tow rope, the damage was minimal; bent draglink, some body damage and Richard’s bloody meaty looking left arm.
We made camp at Lakecamp Lake, which is a confusing name (especially when you’re recovering from the madness). I decided to take some night photos because the sky up there was so black and the reflection on the lake made for some neat pictures.
While waiting for one of my 60 second exposures to take, I heard something rustling in the grass next to me. I finished my photos and made my way back toward camp. While I was walking back, I could hear whatever was next to me down by the shore walking next to me through the bushes and tall grass. As I approached the clearing, I was looking to my right, curious to see what was walking with me – a DEER! I don’t think she was expecting a human by the look on her face. At that point, I scared her off into the darkness, sat down at camp, and ate dinner to curb the madness for the day’s madness.
Day 7 – Overcoming Obstacles
I straightened the Sidekick’s draglink and we sort of fixed the fueling issue. The carb only choked out a handful of times during the day, but it cost us a few hours. I think the little Suzuki was just tired of being drug through the rocks like a ragdoll and Richard was probably tired of being bashed around inside of his truck.
Our goal for the day was to camp near White Bark. The drive there was full of good obstacles and incredible, scenic vistas. Today’s madness was minimal, almost funny, even from my perspective.
This day would provide enough cool four-wheeling action and high Sierra scenery to make up for my lack of attention on Dday 2. The first big obstacle was Divorce Rock, which is a giant slab of granite that puts you off camber to the left and then dumps you off the side to your right without much warning. (Awesome.)
From there it’s the typical Dusy rock/tree navigation and leaning on your roof gutters until the 90-degree turn toward the end of the trail. That turn puts you in a pinch between two large boulders and off camber to the right heading downhill. This made for some cool metal/rock contact.
Shortly after that, we came to a nice vista at sunset. The smoke from Yosemite made the sun red in the distance. We didn’t know how close we were to the end of the trail, but figured it was a good spot and we could finish whatever was left of the trail in the morning.
Day 8 – Just Around the Corner
After breakfast, we packed up camp and set out for more wheeling only to find out we were just around the corner from the end of the end. At the road where the trail ended, we aired up our tires and made sure we were all still road worthy. We shook hands with the guys from California and made our way back to Shaver Lake.
Once at the lake, Kevin made some minor repairs and adjustments before we got back on the highway, while the rest of us made like transients and rinsed off in the lake. The locals and tourists watched from a distance, quietly talking amongst themselves (probably about how loud and obnoxious people from Arizona are).
A decision was made to drive past Bakersfield to a camping area marked on the map. This would prove to be another “picture of tent with arrow pointing to a trailer park means camping” adventure. Eventually we found camp a few miles away in the form of a designated camping lot with running water and real bathrooms. Hardly camping but it was near midnight and we made it work.
Day 9 – New Challenges
Heading through the desert back toward Arizona, we learned a couple new things. John’s gas tank shrank to where ”¼” now means empty. Somehow Kevin’s truck was burning coolant and the desert is hot.
Shortly after learning about the gas tank the hard way, we noticed a rough idle and a loss of coolant in the radiator overflow. The truck wasn’t overheating, and there were no signs of coolant contaminating the oil, or vice versa.
From there, we decided against air conditioning so as not to push our luck. Every hundred miles or so, we stopped and topped off with water, leaving in a poof of sweet white smoke. This strategy proved effective and we made it back to our homes without incident.
LEGIT! Time to rebuild and prepare for the next Challenge.
Want to experience the Sierra Nevada Challenge and quench your thirst for adventure? Now is the time to prepare. Don’t wait until 6 weeks before and decide “Well, I can put something together in time” (like some of us did this year). E-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I can point you in the right direction and send you updates and links to future planning strings online.
Adam’s already talking to me (Brian) about going along next time the Carnage trip comes up. It’s definitely something I’d like to do one day. The back road here or there around town might be fun, but this looks like a real off-road adventure! Have you ever run the Rubicon or Dusy (or another trail we should know about)? Link us to pictures in a comment below.