The last time I participated in a Herd of Turtles 4x4 event, I ended up breaking a front u-joint and destroying an outer shaft. That happened at their GPS Challenge earlier this year. But the trails weren't that tough and the breakage had more to do with my very old u-joints and the fact that I'm running 37" bias ply tires on a Dana 44 front end. So I wasn't expecting any damage when I accepted their invitation for their 2008 Turtle Jam on Apex Mountain, in the sunny southern interior of B.C. Besides, I had just finished rebuilding the front end with new ball joints, hub bearings and seals, Yukon alloy axle shafts and Super Joints, and fresh u-joints for the front driveshaft. No way was I going to break anything.
My buddy, Mark, and I left right after work on Friday and joined the teeming masses seeking to escape the lower mainland for the long weekend. We got to Hedley around 4 hours later (including some food and fuel stops) and made the 4400 ft climb from Hwy 3 up to Nickel Plate Lake. We set up our tent and gear around midnight and arose bright and early on Saturday morning. Tee-off time was 9:00am sharp, or so they said. In actuality, it was a bit later but close enough to the scheduled time that I was happy that we weren't wasting any time sniffing around each other's truck as fourwheelers are prone to do.
For our first day, I chose "Plain Hard" which was a twisty slog up a muddy trail. The main requirement was that you had a winch because we were assured that everyone would have to winch. The trailhead for this trail was a drop-off the right side of what appeared a spur road. It was a fairly easy trail and it quickly looped back and crossed over the road we had just left. Once on the other side, we clambered over a few ottoman-sized rocks and then the trail started to get muddy; the kind of muddy where your boots can get stuck in the mud. After less than a hundred metres of this mud, we started encountering rocks of gradually increasing size. You know how a mouthful of peanuts and bubblegum is a very unpleasant combination? No? C'mon, surely you've given it a try?! But it just doesn't work, does it? The two textures are too incompatible. Well, the same applies to mud and big rocks. You need the wheelspin and speed for mud. That works great, until you hit a big rock. But you can't crawl over the rocks, either, because you won't get anywhere in the mud without speed to clear your treads. That's what we were up against when we hit the half-way point of Plain Hard. The trail was winding its way along a heavily-rutted, uphill mud path and now we had to contend with mud-covered rocks. Our trail leader, Gord, had to winch his TJ after being stymied by a particularly obnoxious rock. I had a bit more success, using my almost inhuman driving ability to beat Gord by a few feet. Not enough to avoid using the winch, but enough to warrant mentioning it here on the Internet where millions will know of my skill.
After me came Ron and Dolores in their TJ Rubicon, but they didn't get very far. One of the rocks managed to shear off a valve stems resulting in an instant flat tire. We stabilized their Jeep with the winch line and then used a Hi-lift to raise the rear of the Jeep so we could change the tire. Since I had some rain gear as well as rubber boots, I volunteered to do the job, but Ron insisted on helping and ended up getting muddy anyway.
Scott came up next in his LJ Rubicon and got even farther than me but he also had to use his winch, as did everyone else in our group. The trail threw a few more obstacles at us but it was only near the end when we encountered significant difficulty. Mark was driving my Jeep while I was taking pictures, and he was doing a great job, especially when you consider that he hadn't driven a 4x4 since he sold his 4Runner several years ago. He was having difficulty climbing over a rock laying in the middle of a steep climb and while concentrating on trying to conquer the obstacle, he munched my driver's side mirror into a tree. Mryko and his TJ also had problems here. John in his fullsize Grand Wagoneer must've liked this section a lot because he struggled with it for a good half-hour. To be fair, though, that included trying to winch out with a tired winch...or maybe it was the batteries. In the end, I drove back down, braced my Jeep against a tree, and added my winch to the mix which provided the extra pull needed to get him through. After that, we were back on the spur road we came in on. We had a quick lunch and tried to leave but John's Wagoneer refused to start. After some messing around with jumper cables and hooking them directly to the starter, John and Mryko were able to get it started it. Good thing, too, because bump starting was not an option since John's Grand Wagoneer had an automatic transmission...just like my Jeep (cue the ominous foreshadowing music).
Around that time, Wes and Mike showed up. The last we had heard from them was earlier that morning when they said they were pulling over while we were enroute to the trailhead. Turns out that Mike pulled over to investigate a strange vibration from his Jeep. He couldn't find anything amiss, so he started driving again, and not long after that, one of his rear wheels fell off. They managed to come to a safe stop, change the tire, drive to Penticton to buy a new rotor, and do all of Plain Hard and catch up to us. Pretty impressive. Anger at being left behind must be a great motivator. ;-)
Despite all the difficulties, we finished the trail in about 4 hours. That gave us plenty of time to do something else, so they took us to Dividend Mountain. This took us through the Apex ski resort and south along Keremeos Creek where we climbed up the north side of Dividend, and then descended along its south side where we had a great view of the valley. Along the way, Mark and I spotted a road that appeared to go higher up Dividend and we both remarked that it would be cool to reach the top of this mountain. At the bottom of Dividend, in the north-south running valley between it and Apex Mountain, we took a trail named Geby's Cut. It's memorable for its extremely tight and steep switchbacks. I can't think of a tighter set of switchbacks. The Cut brought us westward, to the eastern base of Apex where we entered a bowl-like cut in the valley. At the top of a tailings pile, we stopped to enjoy the view and peek inside a long-abandoned mine shaft. After that it was back to camp for the day. For the sake of completeness, I should also mention that earlier in the day, my Jeep started suffering a no-start condition just like John's Wagoneer. The first time it happened was coming down Dividend Mountain when I stopped to take some photos. I figured it was just a matter of tightening the battery terminals but that didn't solve the problem. But after a few minutes, I tried it again and she started up. After that, I kept a frequent watch on the voltmeter and noticed that the voltage seemed a bit low when running. Then somewhere along Geby's Cut, it happened again. This time, I dug out my terminal cleaning brush and thoroughly scraped the terminals to remove any hint of corrosion. But the Jeep still wouldn't start. That's the kind of situation that makes me re-think the benefits of an automatic transmission. Mryko hooked up his battery cables directly to my starter but that was unsuccessful. Finally, he tapped the starter case while I turned it over and it started up right away. Phew. After that, the voltmeter showed a more normal reading and the slow turn-over problem went away as well. I'm going to replace the starter, just in case...but I'll stick with the automatic transmission.
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The next morning, the trails on offer were Black Powder, run backwards, or an easy run that covered the parts of Dividend Mountain we saw yesterday. I mistakenly thought that the latter also included a trip to the top of Dividend, so I chose the easy run.
On the way to Dividend, our trail leader, Paul, made a short detour to take us to the Jeep 101 course that was used back when the Jeep Jamborees were held on Apex Mountain. There was a rock pile (which I had seen in photos from the Jamborees) as well as a hillclimb. I'm not a hillclimb kind of guy. My Jeep's not really set up for it (geared too high and too low) plus I have a deeply rooted fear of backing down a long, steep hill with an automatic transmission. But after watching Leo Ilie go up (twice!) in his moderately modified Cherokee, I figured I'd give it a go, too. I was only aired down to 12psi but I was smug enough to think that I didn't need to go down to my regular trail pressure of 8psi. Leo had 33" tires or something like that, and I had 37's, so I didn't think traction would be a problem. First, just for laughs and because I was conceited enough to think I could do it, I tried going up in reverse but lost traction about half-way up. Next, I tried up going forward, in low-range, 1st gear. Too low. I dug-in at about 3/4 or so of the way up. Hmm. This was harder than I thought, and also more embarassing since Leo made it up twice, already!! So for my third attempt, I put it into low range, Drive, and floored it. That worked better. I had more speed, but the Jeep still started to dig in near the top, then it bounced, and then there was this loud BANG. The kind that you write in capital letters...like I just did. And then the Jeep started to go backwards. It was a bit hairy keeping it straight while it was sliding backwards down the hill. I had the brakes pressed as hard as I could but they're really not that great, and putting it into reverse to slow the descent isn't much of an option with my automatic's gearing. So I kept my eyes on the crest of the hill and concentrated on keeping the front end pointed straight forward as we slid backwards at a speed that was way past my comfort zone.
When we reached the bottom, I hopped out, expecting to see a broken driveshaft. In fact, it was a broken rear u-joint. The driveshaft was still firmly attached to the tcase, so I put it into front wheel drive and drove away from the hillcimb and parked it in a suitable work area. A quick call for a 1310 u-joint and u-bolt style straps resulted in the near instantaneous appearance of said parts from the depths of John's well-equipped Wagoneer. The pinion yoke was slightly mangled, making it difficult to remove the u-joint straps, but I eventually go them off and the new parts installed. While I was under the Jeep, I also noticed that both my rear BDS springs were now bent, the passenger side having a particularly bad S-bend. The pinion was now pointing too high and I was wondering how bad the vibration was going to be on the highway. Once I had the driveshaft out, it was a simple matter to replace the u-joint and re-install the shaft. A careful test drive showed the Jeep to be running ok so we decided to stay with the group and do the Dividend Mountain trail.
Like yesterday, we climbed up one side of Dividend, and at the point where we saw the turn-off for the road that looked like it went to the top of Dividend, the group stopped so Derek could tighten up something in the front of his Suzuki. Talking to Paul, I realized we weren't going to the peak like I assumed we would, so I asked Paul if he would mind if we split off from the group for a little while. We had the track logs for the various trails from yesterday's 'wheeling so I assured him that we'd be able to get back to camp on our own, or catch up to his group. He gave us the okay so off we went, with Dolores and Ron coming along as well. Little did I know that this would provide me with the biggest scare of the trip...well, ignoring the little incident about sliding backwards down the hillclimb.
You see, I have a deep and abiding fear of heights. Off-camber situations don't bother me. I've sidehilled my Jeep a LOT and have had it in some pretty crazy situations where passengers are terrified that we're going to flop over. But those incidents never really bothered me. But put me on the side of a mountain with a 1000+ ft drop-off on one side, and even the slightest of sidehills will cause my stomach to try to climb out through my throat. And that's exactly how I felt on Dividend when we reached a long, broadly exposed stretch of slightly off-camber trail, with lots of treeless mountain slope above us and even more of it falling away below us. I kept my eyes glued to the trail and avoided glancing downhill as much as possible. There wasn't much to look at, anyway, except the valley floor...thousands of feet below us. To top it off, we came around one corner and the road was partly washed out. I got Ron to spot me through that section. He thought there was nothing to it and I'm sure he was wondering what the hell I was on about. But he didn't say anything or even roll his eyes (I was watching for that). Besides the possibility rolling to my death, the other concern I had roiling in my head was that the road would dead-end at a spot where we couldn't turn around and I'd have to reverse all the way back along that terrifying road.
Luckily, that wasn't the case. The road, in fact, ended in an area with plenty of room to turn around. Or rather, it looked like it ended. But it didn't. It then turned hard left and went straight to the top of the mountain. This last part was a cakewalk and a couple of minutes later we were on the peak and I was emptying my fear-filled bladder on the nearest tree (because they're rooted to the ground, they can't run away).
We spent a few minutes enjoying our accomplishment and cooling off with some drinks before heading back down the mountain. It wasn't as bad going down, partly because I was now on the downhill side and had a better view of how much room I had between my Jeep and the edge of the road. Along the way, we kept Paul updated with our progress via VHF radio. They relayed the appropriate directions to us and about an hour later, we were parked beside them atop one of the peaks of Apex Mountain, next to a cluster of radio repeaters and other communications equipment. The group had arrived there almost an hour before us, and now that we had arrived, they were eager to continue on down to the pub at the Apex ski resort. That left Mark and I and Ron and Dolores to enjoy the view on our own. It was a great spot to have lunch and that's what we did. We reflected on the fact that in the space of an hour we had gone from 6500 ft on Dividend, down to 5400 ft in the valley, and then up to 7350 ft on Apex Mtn. It was a great day of scenic fourwheeling (except for the breakage on Jeep 101, of course).
After that, we stopped at the Rock Garden so Dolores would play on the rocks and then headed back to camp to pack up our gear and say our goodbyes.
When we finally got off of the mountain and onto Hwy 3, I was relieved to discover that the driveline vibration due to the bad pinion angle wasn't very noticeable. I was beginning to feel hopeful that we'd get home without a problem. But after leaving Princeton, not long before we entered Manning Park, we noticed a high frequency chattering, almost grinding, sound during deceleration. We pulled over at the brake check on Sunday Summit but I couldn't locate the source of the noise.
We stopped again, just past Friday Creek. The noise was still very noticeable but again, I couldn't see or feel anything unusual. I played around with the transfer case, thinking (hoping) that shifters weren't quite in their proper positions (it's a twin-sticked D300). But that didn't solve the problem. Under acceleration or relatively constant driving, there was no noise, but as soon as I let off the gas, the noise was back. Even when I shifted the transmission into neutral, the noise was there.
We drove a little farther. By the time we had just gotten into Manning Park, I noticed the driveline vibration was also getting worse. So we pulled over again, and this time I found a lot of play in the pinion. And it wasn't just rotational. I could move the pinion shaft LATERALLY as well. Not good. I started thinking where the nearest gas station was; the cost of hiring a tow truck to bring us home; possible topics of conversation I could have with the tow truck driver to avoid uncomfortable silences; etc. We unloaded the camping gear to get at my tools, removed the driveshaft, and after some uncomfortable moments spent looking for and wondering if I had the correct size socket, I tightened up the pinion nut. Ah, much better! I was kind of worried that the bearings were shot but it tightened up ok (using my Hi-lift handle as a cheater bar) and all the play was gone. We packed up our gear, hopped in the Jeep, and did a short accelerate/decelerate cycle to confirm that all was well again. The noise was finally gone! After that it was an uneventful drive back to Vancouver.
And the lesson learned from all this? I quit doing hill climbs 20 years ago because I wanted to quit driving like I used to, 20 years ago. For me, hill climbing is like bidding on eBay. I get so focused on winning that I ignore the fact that it's going to cost me a lot more than it's worth. So I guess the lesson is that I should stick to doing the 'wheeling for which I built my Jeep and leave the hill climbs for Leo.
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