I cannot stress it enough, wheeling in the Blue Mountains is not for sissies. I wouldn’t have ever said this before last weekend, but I may be a sissy.
It’s about time for a new adventure blog, and this is definitely it.
Last Friday, my Rooster and I headed out to Walla Walla, freshly fixed Jeep in tow, to meet Greg and Michele and join them on the Annual “Jubilee” wheeling trip. It was our understanding that this trip is a Walla Walla 4 x 4 tradition.
We knew we would be gone all weekend and that there would be beds to sleep in. We knew we would be wheeling in the snow. That my friends, is all we knew.
It isn’t unusual for my Rooster and I to fly by the seat of our pants, with no plans. It is however quite unusual for us to be under someone else’s wing, completely out of control. That fact alone made this adventure even more of an adventure for the two of us.
Saturday morning we got up early and the four of us met up with the rest of the crew at “Mooney’s Auto Restoration”, where we found 6 Toyota pickups (definitely altered for wheeling), a 2015 four door Jeep Wrangler with 42 inch tires and just one other Jeep (weird, on our side it’s predominantly Jeeps doing the wheeling), which was significantly altered for the task at hand. Each vehicle contained either two men or a couple, tools, gas cans and a strapped down cooler.
So far it wasn’t anything we hadn’t done before, with the exception of Toyota pickups dominating the scene.
That is the moment when the comparison to all other wheeling experiences we’ve ever had ended.
We headed up the snow covered trail, everyone else raced around, spinning wheels and forging paths through the snow that was deep enough to completely cover all of the guardrails and just about cover the road signs. Needless to say, I was well aware of the edge of the road.
Several miles later, the road stopped winding and a beautiful expanse of pristine snow greeted us, like staring into the dark of night, except for that it was all white, as far as the eye could see. The horizon was broken only by dark Evergreens laced with the ever falling snow, it was a blizzard by then.
Bumping along in that field of white my Rooster and I made fun of these Walla Walla Snow Wheelers. “This is what they call wheeling? Driving in a straight line across snow covered fields? Giving ourselves whiplash? Where is the climbing? Where is the challenge?”
The challenge to us at first was keeping up. We had never been in these woods before, and although we were supposedly following a forest service road, there was almost no way of knowing if we were on it. We had to keep up or we would be lost.
The Rooster Jeep is tuned for crawling. Crawling up rocks and through mud, crawling along river beds and through ruts. It is not tuned for churning snow.
As the passenger in the Rooster Jeep, I had two categories of responsibility, the driver and the Jeep. It was my job to keep my Rooster hydrated :), snacked up and to get him whatever he needed while driving (gloves, nasal spray, towel, etc). I also had a responsibility to the Jeep; to watch the tires on my side for any signs of coming off the bead or being too flat, as well as keeping an eye on gas and temperature levels.
In responsibility to myself, I had to hang on. 🙂
By this time we knew more about the trip. We were going to attempt to wheel over the mountain, and when we got to the other side there was a restaurant and hotel that would take care of us overnight. Sunday we would come back to the trucks and trailers left in the sno-park, via the same route we went in. We were tasked with wheeling 58 miles each way.
58 miles is nothing you say? 58 miles at 10 miles per hour is actually quite a long way.
At 15 miles in we were still just bumping along through the snow. I wanted a neck brace. And just when things had gotten decidedly boring for me, there was a twist (because isn’t there always?), as we rounded a corner we were suddenly tilted at about 30 degrees, climbing up and across a ledge.
I am very thankful that I was on the inside of that ledge, my Rooster is braver than I and in charge of the driving, so by all means he should have been the one to see how close we were to sliding off into the crevasse. Also, and more importantly, I am a sissy.
This ledge went on for a good 200 yards, and while much of it had trees rising up to meet it, some parts of it did not. At those parts you could see nothing but white and an at least half mile drop. The trees are important, because if the Jeep were to roll a tree would stop it. At those blank spots, those spots with the big drop, there would be no stopping any rolling.
Each vehicle took their turn crawling along the worst of the ledge, barely moving and at a tilt that was unnerving. At the scariest spot, my Rooster was inches from the edge and tipped so precariously that there was nothing I wanted more than to get out of that Jeep. I went so far as to announce that I was getting out, but was stopped before the words finished coming out of my mouth.
Me being on the high side meant that my weight was an important factor in keeping the jeep from rolling. Each inch that we traveled caused the Jeep to slide closer and closer to the edge, with seemingly no forward progress. We had just a few feet to go before we were out of the worst of danger.
CRAP. I don’t know if I have ever been more scared in my entire life.
Every moment was a lifetime during that perilous twelve feet of travel. Others that had made it past that worst spot got out of their trucks and came to help. Greg grabbed a shovel and started to dig out the front passenger tire to help with traction and to prevent the roll. Another of the guys opened my door and squatted in the doorway, putting more weight on my side.
Please take a breath, I can tell you are holding it.
Spoiler Alert! We obviously made it, I am writing this story 🙂
As soon as we were off of that ledge, I bolted out of the Jeep, I have never needed a drink more in my life. It was too bad that our liquor was buried under a heap of supplies in the backseat and I was too shaken to dig it out. I was too shaken to even consider getting back in the Jeep at all during those first few minutes.
Thank God for Michele and her flask of tequila. We had time for a much needed break, while everyone else crawled over that precarious spot. Everybody made it.
We were about halfway through the mileage for Saturday. And after that ledge there were no more crazy scary spots. The rest of the terrain was bumpy, sometimes curvy and there were certainly edges on either side of our path of travel, but edges that if slipped over would send us a mere ten feet down, or into a tree well, and those things were no longer anything to be scared of.
We also no longer laughed and joked about how Snow Wheeling was easy. We had to be “rescued” (helped) or at least waited for, three more times during the remainder of that day’s journey.
We popped off a radiator hose in an area that I imagine will be a beautiful field of daisies in the summertime. This didn’t require assistance, it did however cause everyone to wait until we cooled down enough to repair and refill the fluid. There was plenty of time for wheeling up on each other’s vehicles and other shenanigans.
We all stopped for lunch soon after, BBQ’ed some big hot dogs, shared snacks and had a snow fire.
I learned that you can build a fire on top of snow and it won’t just sink into oblivion. Do you know why? It’s because heat rises……… I know, I saw it with my own eyes and still don’t believe it.
I also learned that “we do this every year”, is equal to “this is the second year we have done this”.
A few miles down the road later, we got stuck in a mud hole, a pretty deep one and had to have two of the others hook up to us with winches and pull us out. One vehicle wasn’t enough to unstick this mess.
And finally, not an hour after the mud hole, we blew out a tire (the front driver’s side tire), and needed help changing over to the spare.
Have you ever tried to use a jack in several feet of snow?
Unlike fire (go figure), a jack will sink down as you try to make it work.
By the time all of this happened, the sun was getting low, with ten or more miles to go. As we dropped in elevation, the snow got slushy, making it that much harder for us to travel in. We were again the slowest vehicle and we were left to be last. Getting lost was no longer an issue, we could now easily see the road, and there were no more big turns/changes to be made.
As we wound down the hill, the road got muddier by the second, until it finally turned to gravel altogether, both my Rooster and I realized how exhausted we were by the day’s events. We were cold, dirty and soaking wet, and just when I announced that I thought it was all a dream since it seemed to be neverending, we came out into a tiny little town perched on the edge of the Grande Ronde River. The town of Troy, Oregon, population 7.
In that the cute little Restaurant/Bar/Hotel dinner was already being served to our compadres, the only patrons. We joined the rest of the group and happily ordered some stiff drinks. The food left much to be desired; a decent garden salad, with less decent hamburger steaks, tater tots and wheat rolls were on our pre-ordered menu. It didn’t matter what it was, we were starving.
After dinner we got our room keys, and while the lodging was also not perfect (our room consisted of two twin beds and a bathroom shared with two other rooms), it was warm and dry. We changed our clothes and got the Jeep organized.
The best part of our lodgings was the bar. $5.00 giant drinks and $2.00 shots, any shots. We drank Pendleton and Patron until our cheeks were red. I haven’t slept as good as I slept that night in many years.
The morning however, was less comfortable. I woke up with dread in the pit of my stomach, as anxious as I have ever been.
I did not want to go across that ledge again and I told my Rooster as much. I declared that I would not be in that Jeep when we got to that spot, especially since we would be headed in the opposite direction and I would be on the low side. Much to my pleasure, he agreed that I should walk the ledge, then all he would have to worry about was jumping out himself if the Jeep rolled. Whew.
Mooney let us know that he would do his best to find a route that would avoid the ledge, but that he worried that the other routes he knew also had ledges, probable multiple ledges, in unknown conditions. We talked about the fact that it was raining in Troy and that the condition of the ledge we were familiar with may have changed, for better or for worse, and we wouldn’t know until we got there.
There was no other way out than to return the way we came in. There was a highway leading out of town, but it’s destination (almost three hours away), would bring us to Lewiston, 117 miles from Walla Walla, in the wrong direction.
The Rooster Jeep is no longer fit for highway driving, as it has been too altered for wheeling, there was no way we could have avoided the return wheeling adventure over the mountain.
Now you all know that my Rooster wasn’t the one trying to figure out how to get back without going over the mountain again. It was me. Feeling dejected I ate breakfast with the rest of them, most of the group nursing hangovers. We all paid our bills, loaded the trucks and Jeeps, put the gas we brought with us into the gas tanks (there is no gas station in the town of Troy), took a group picture with our hosts and headed off, back up the mountain.
There would be no messing around on the way back to civilization. It was a grueling journey, and it rained the entire time. There was not a snowflake to be seen, unlike the blizzard conditions of Saturday, just a constant drizzle. The kind of rain that makes it barely necessary to use the wipers and gets everything wet. The kind that makes the snow slushy and the journey difficult.
There was a lot of sliding around and trying to stay in the ruts, created solely by our silent line up of dirty battered vehicles, low on gas, and low on energy.
And I know you are dying to know this, we did have to go on that ledge again, and I did stay in the Jeep. The rain had miraculously not made it more precarious, but instead made that ledge just a little wider, and while we were indeed tipped sideways, it seemed less sideways.
Or maybe it was because all the while we were traveling on that ledge I was whispering “Dear God, please keep us safe today on our journey, please God today is not the day”. Over and over I whispered. It was the only sound.
We had to get winched out of a downhill situation at one point, and there was a grounding issue that caused both the engine’s fan and the winch to give up the ghost for a short time. Those were both welcome, easy problems compared to what we faced the day before.
One truck lost power steering, poor kid. He had to muscle most of that 58 mile journey. Another slipped into a tree well right toward the end, so he had to limp down the mountain and be rescued by a trailer at the bottom.
We reached the end of the road with the gas gauge having been on the big red E for ten miles. I have never been happier to see wet asphalt in my entire life.
Other joyous moments at the bottom included getting into the new Rooster truck with it’s heated seats, and getting into clean dry clothes. Dry clothes are nothing to be trifled with.
It was an incredible adventure, albeit one that I probably would not repeat. It was also one I will remember forever in a good way (except for that first trip across the ledge).
We made some new friends, we saw some beautiful scenery, we were challenged in every way and came out of it nearly unscathed. At the end it was a “good job” high five moment. The adrenaline cannot be beaten. I suppose that’s why we ride motorcycles too.
The one thing I will always say about this trip though, is that those wheelers on the dry side of the mountains (lol) sure know what they are doing in the snow.
That my friends, that was real Four Wheeling. I’m happy to be back here where wheeling is climbing over rocks and logs in the mud.