Don’t Panic

August 14, 2014 Comments (0) Do's & Don'ts

A “Quick” Drive in the Mountains

Who doesn’t love the outdoors? I mean, fresh air, cool breezes, the sound the wind makes as it blows through incense cedar or pine? I can imagine someone could chime in with a dissenting view here, but you get the general point I’m making. It’s nice out!

With just a little preparation I could have been equipped to better handle my given challenge.

I was thinking just this thing not too long ago as I pulled off a mountain highway in the Sierra Nevada mountains, on my way to a Forest Route that leads to a nice high Sierra lake. I was happy to be out of my office, checking out my local territory for “bag guys” and really using it as an excuse to go exploring.

I’m terribly lucky. I get paid to “play” at cops and robbers, but out in the great outdoors. I am a natural resources law enforcement agent, which equates to somewhat of a professional outdoorsman (so they say), equipped with more gear than know-how (speaking only for myself of course).

On this particular day I had decided to finally find my way to a lake not far off the beaten Forest Route, to see if anyone had made it past the snow line yet this season. For reference we had just had snow down to about 3000 feet the weekend before, and a trip up this particular route the week before proved short-lived as my off road skills, tires and the relatively small snow pack had kept me back about 100 yards from my turn off to the lake in question. This day I was determined to make it.

Make it I did, at least to the turn off. I thought I was well on my way, figuring I had another 15 minutes until I hit the lake, ate some lunch and then headed back to my office to get some other work done. It was close to noon and everything felt great. Heading up the track I noticed what looked like one other set of recent vehicle tracks in the slushy road.

A quarter mile up the route to the lake I spotted a nice shady part of the mountain that was hiding a large bank of un-melted snow on the road. As I got closer I remember thinking I had made it this far, I wasn’t about to turn back. I quickly made a mental list of gear I had to get through the snow.

I had a flat shovel. Ok, I had the shovel and a winch…and common sense. Right? In a sense I guess I did, as I checked my phone and saw I had excellent cell signal on that side of the mountain, and knew that if I really got stuck I could just call in help.

As any off roader more experienced than this suburban guy turned outdoor cop will note, I didn’t have any kind of medium to put in my tracks. No kitty litter or saw dust or sand.

Anyhow, I charged on with the Jeep in 4×4 mode, picking up speed as I reached the snow that obscured the dirt road. The Jeep naturally slipped into the tracks from the previous vehicle as I lurched ahead. Then I felt that wonderful feeling when all four wheels lose traction and the vehicle just flops down on something.

Yup, I got stuck. I put the Jeep in reverse and no dice. I put the Jeep in 4-low, no dice. I laughed. Then I got my gloves out and my shovel and went to get some dirt from the side of the road to try and lay a track to get out of the snow.

That didn’t work, and I quickly realized I was bottomed out all along the underside of the Jeep. I felt good though, optimistic. I decided to start digging. It must have been some sight, seeing me dig around all the sides of the Jeep, only to stop every 5 minutes or so to test my progress and find none. As minutes turned to a half an hour, then an hour I finally decided to give in and use my winch to pull myself free.

Here’s where the real fun began. I had never tested my winch. I got my Jeep for work about a year and a half before this point, but had never stopped to test out all my gear on it. In fact, I had never used a winch in my life, and this was the first time I had ever had a vehicle with one. I sat there dumbfounded when I realized this fact and that I had no idea how to use it.

So naturally I turned to our good friends at Google, yes, I Googled that stuff! I found my remote for the winch, and then went to unwind the cable. I tried to rotate the clutch on the winch to free spool and it wouldn’t budge. Checking Google again, it appeared that the thing should just rotate freely. I tried pulling, pushing, looking for a hidden release. Nothing. I could pull a little of the cable out, but was afraid to get it all the way out and not be able to winch it back in. The nearest anchor point was a good distance away.

I also noted that I didn’t have tow straps. Thinking I was brilliant, I checked my various packs in the back of the Jeep for my p-cord and realized I didn’t have any of that either.

Now growing frustrated and slightly defeated, I went back to digging. The only other option was to call a coworker, but that would ensure I would never live down getting stuck. I mean, who wants to deal with that, right?

After another hour of digging the rain started. I was prepared for that at least, and threw on my old trust Marmot Precip jacket I keep in my gear. The rain turned to a dusting of snow, and the thought did cross my mind that I might actually need to call for assistance, as I was good and stuck!

After a total of 3 hours digging and swearing at my situation the Jeep dropped down as I cleared out the last of the snow holding the weight of the vehicle off its wheels. I threw the shovel to the side and jumped in, took a nice clearing breath and started the engine. Thinking it best to retreat, I put the Jeep in reverse and slowly backed up. The wheels caught and I was free!

All in all I was stuck for close to 4 hours in the snow. I was probably 6 miles from the highway, not an impossible hike, but a total pain in the butt. I definitely could have called anyone I wanted for help, but pride kept me from doing anything like that. I learned quite a bit with this little adventure however.

First, prior planning prevents…getting your fancy off road vehicle stuck in the snow! With just a little preparation I could have been equipped to better handle my given challenge. Learning how to use my winch, carrying some kind of litter or saw dust and also having the common sense not to follow what were probably OHV tracks into a snow field of undetermined depth would have gone a long way to keeping much safer that day.

I share this story to poke a little fun at myself, help educate you good readers, and to keep myself accountable. After getting home that day I cleaned up my gear and then grabbed a rubber mallet. One good whack with the mallet freed up the seized clutch on the winch. A shot of WD40 loosened it up more and now I check it at least one a week.

I got lucky that day. I had food, water, layers of clothing and cell service. I was also confident that I could get to safety if I needed to. Who knows what could have happened though, if I didn’t have that shovel, and no cell service. That would have been one long hike!

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