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Rubicon Backwards

June 16-20, 2003
A trail report by Jim Brantley, TLCA # 6433

This was my first attempt at driving the trail "backwards", from Lake Tahoe to Loon Lake. Going in the reverse direction meant driving uphill through several tight, boulder infested sections that are next to impossible in the "normal" downhill direction. I'll admit I was a little apprehensive about getting my heavy wagon up a few places like the Big Sluice.

This spring was unusual in the Sierra Nevada mountains with a series of late season snow storms burying the region in late April and May. I wasn't surprised to hear the TLCA chose to postpone its 15th Annual Rubithon which was originally scheduled for this week. Just a few weeks earlier the Tahoe ski resorts opened for the Memorial Day weekend advertising six-foot bases. I heard reports that the Rubicon trail itself was still covered with 3 to 8 feet of snow in late May. I could only hope the snow was melting fast and the runoff would dissipate before we attempted this early season crossing of the infamous trail.

I had good reason to get out early this year for some High Sierra rock crawling. Only a few weeks prior to the trip Marlin Crawler had installed his ToyBox gear reduction system into my otherwise stock drivetrain. The new gear box provides an amazing overall crawl ratio of 173:1, perfect for working my way through the Rubicon rocks. I couldn't wait to test the new gears.

The Rubicon trail is about located about 400 miles from Pismo Beach. That's a long drive, even for a comfy FJ60 Land Cruiser wagon. I left a day early to ensure a relaxed drive to Lake Tahoe. Once at the lake, I enjoyed the hospitality of another cruiserhead before meeting the rest of the crew the following day. I owe a big thanks to Jon Bachelder and his family for feeding me and providing a place to stay before my weeklong adventure. The generosity of fellow cruiserheads never fails to impress me. Thanks Jon!

After Monday morning breakfast at Rosie's in Tahoe City, we headed to the staging area to make final preparations for the trail, airing down tires, disconnecting sway bars and checking steering arm bolts. Here's how the line up looked:

  • Mudrak and his friend Mick from England, FJ45
  • Tom Boyd and Andrew, FJ60 "Das Beast"
  • Brian Sullivan and Jesse, FJ40
  • Luke Porter, FJ40
  • Eric and Tara Hassett, FJ55
  • John and Jason, FJ40

Later at the Rubicon Springs, we would join Dave "Radio Truck" Scardina with his customized FJ40 and another FJ40 piloted by Dan. Phil and his rock crawling buggy, would be zipping in and out from Tahoe between his regular work shifts.

The drive from the staging area to Cadillac Hill was pleasantly uneventful. The deep snow had receded and we only crossed one significant drift. The runoff wasn't too bad and the puddles weren't too deep. We were able to duck under the low branches and squeeze between the freshly cut trees, downed during the winter storms, that had blocked the trail only a few days earlier. Overall the trail was in good shape and we made good time as we headed to Observation Point and Cadillac Hill. I had never driven this section of the trail backwards, downhill, but it wasn't too difficult for my sprung over 60 Series wagon. It's always easier going downhill when you drive a heavy wagon.

All the way down I remained anxious about the swamp and creek crossing at the bottom of the hill. The tight trees and root filled mud holes always provide a challenge. This is the area where I received my first serious Rubicon "trophy" a few years ago during my first Rubithon. It's hard to imagine, but my driver's side doors were severely damaged when I was pitched into a root while navigating a deep water filled mud pit. Considering the late snows and recent snow melt, I was concerned these water holes would be extra deep. Surprisingly, it didn't seem too bad this time. Maybe I was just lucky or my expectations had prepared me for the worst. Either way, we quickly passed through the low area and arrived at the Rubicon Springs where we met Dave and Dan and their two FJ40s.

We camped at the springs that night and acclimated to the altitude and mosquitoes. The Rubicon river was flowing next to our campsite and we were surprised to find the water was warm enough for quick swim. Merlin, the caretaker for this private property, stopped by to collect our camping fees. It's always interesting to chat with Merlin about what's new with the trail and Rubicon Springs area.

I'm always amazed at the relentless difficulty of the Rubicon Trail. It's not just the famous named obstacles, but the in between no name sections that get you if you're not careful. Simply driving around camp is a challenge. It's hard to describe the level of concentration needed to move a rig anywhere on this trail. Nonetheless, some folks must seek out the optional challenges and Luke found one next to our camp. I'm not sure if it's named, but I'd call it The Wall. It looked like two 5-foot vertical walls intersecting at 90 degrees to form a steep corner. Luke gave the big step several valiant tries in his FJ40 with its 38-inch tires but was denied in the end. Good show Luke maybe next time.

On the way out of the springs I found myself following Mudrak's signature canvas backed FJ45 through a narrow gap between two huge rocks. I watched Mudrak scrap the top of his roll bar and tear his canvas cover. This didn't bode well for my hard topped and equally tall SOA FJ60. In the back of my mind, I was looking for a bypass as I continued to drive into the gap. It was VERY tight and I needed a couple of rocks tossed under my tires to help lean my body panels away from the rock. I was surprised when I made it through without a scratch. Tom followed in his SOA wagon and made it look easy. Tom is a very experienced driver and knows his wagon well.

Everyone struggled a bit through the rock garden at the base of the Big Sluice. The numerous diff catching rocks in this section held our attention and we didn't notice the storm brewing overhead. Suddenly the sky darkened and the rain, hail and thunder began.

That's right, the difficult climb up the Big Sluice that I had been worrying about would now be attempted in the rain on slick muddy rocks. It was pouring. The spotters were soaked to the bone as if they had jumped into the river. The dark skies, lightening and hail provided a surreal scene as we clawed our way up the Big Sluice.

I felt like a salmon going upstream on the steep and difficult climb. It was just a matter time until a grizzly bear reached out and swatted my cruiser. OK, so there were no grizzly bears but my motor mount did let go allowing the engine to push the fan into the radiator shroud making a terrible noise. A short piece of chain and a couple bolts fixed that problem later at camp, but in the meantime, I had to listen to the fan hitting the shroud every time the engine torqued under heavy loads.

Sometimes it's hard to stay focused and remain cool on the Rubicon. The difficult conditions eventually got to me at one particularly tough spot when I chose to ignore Tom's shouts of "STOP, STOP, STOP". He was spotting me around a particularly nasty panel grabbing rock mid way up the Big Sluice. Somehow in my fatigued mind stepping on the gas pedal seemed like the right thing to do despite hearing Tom's shouts. After all I wasn't stuck and surely the steel body panel could resist some degree of impact. Needless to say, I should have stopped. It could have saved my once pristine rear door panel. Oh well, I got some body damage, at least the door still opens and closes.

Everyone was having trouble on the wet and wild Big Sluice. That is everyone except Phil in his rockcrawling buggy. He drove where ever he wanted with ease, including passing me on an impossible line as I wrestled with one of the many tough spots. It was amazing to watch the lightweight buggy scamper over the rocks. Seeing Phil getting soaked to the bone in the open buggy as I sat in my hard topped wagon with the defroster and windshield wipers running was my only consolation.

Eventually, we all arrived at Buck Island Lake. Eric, Luke and Brian had managed to climb the Big Sluice before the thunder storm and had already set up camp. They were off wheeling up the Old Sluice. Mudrak, Dan and Dave also set off up the Old Sluice while Tom and I hung back at the lake. Neither one of us were looking forward to driving our wagons up the Old Sluice that evening. It turned out to be a wise decision since Mudrak broke a rear axle shaft before reaching the top of the climb. The busted axle meant Mudrak was camping along that section of trail until a spare could be located, delivered and installed.

That evening the group was split between Buck Island Lake and the Old Sluice trail camp. The next day the Buck Island Lake group wheeled up the slabs and on to Little Sluice. Tom and I later returned to Mudrak's camp just before dusk. Although the broken axle dictated the location, it was a beautiful camp with expansive views of Buck Island Lake, the granite slabs and the peaks of the Desolation Wilderness.

Later that night we saw a fast moving solo vehicle rounding Buck Island Lake and heading in our direction. We watched and listened as the fast moving rig skipped the turn off to the granite slabs and headed directly up the Old Sluice trail. We could hear its engine and see its headlights bouncing as it worked over and around the big rocks below us. The distant sound of reggae music grew louder as we guessed who it was and hoped they were carrying a long side rear axle shaft. Sure enough, Travis, a friend of Phil's raced into camp in his rugged trail proven Toyota truck (with what looked like a aluminum boat for a truck bed), and quickly presented Mudrak with the needed part. It turned out Phil had found the elusive long side axle and recruited Travis for the nighttime parts delivery run from Tahoe. What an amazing effort!

I'll swear Mudrak was instantly walking a foot off the ground and grinning ear to ear, even though it was nearly midnight. Maybe it was the Red Bull shooters? In any case, he and Andrew had the new axle installed within the hour. Just in time to burst Dave's balloon. You see Dave had wheeled all the way out to Loon earlier that day and by some remote chance found a compatible axle shaft at Robb's Resort. Talk about long shots! After picking up the shaft, Dave and Mick wheeled back through the night thinking they would be welcomed as heroes only to find the other axle shaft had been installed minutes before they arrived. But hey, another spare couldn't hurt. Rumor had it a third axle shaft would also be making its way in the following day with yet other cruiserhead. Everybody loves a rescue mission!

Thursday morning we packed up and left our comfy camp along side the Old Sluice trail. The trail going up had a few tough spots. There was a mud hole cut bank with a very steep and sloppy uphill exit. The only line that worked required driving at a severe angle over two large rocks and almost into a tree to prevent both front tires from trying to climb the mud cliff at the same time. It was a little tippy but the wagon's long wheel base seemed to help. A little further up there's a big rock step and a pinch rock that is above yet another mud/water hole. Did I say the Old Sluice was wet? The trick here was to account for the pull the 3 foot ledge exerted on the vehicle, and avoid a potentially door hungry rock. You start in a direction you don't want to go and hope the rock pulls you into another line as you climb. Interesting.

Eventually, we worked through the trail to our next camp at Spider Lake just above the Little Sluice. Tom and I had traversed this portion of the trail in both directions the day before so we experimented with some unusual lines this time. It's great to be on the trail mid-week with a few experienced wheelers and without the weekend traffic. I took advantage of the opportunity to learn a few more techniques as I experimented with my new crawling gears.

The lack of crowds was a bit disappointing at the Little Sluice Box. We had hoped to see more action (read: carnage). Nonetheless, it's still a great place to camp. Fortunately, we had brought our own entertainment along in the form of Phil and his rock crawling buggy.

Phil and his buggy compete in the Calrocs rock crawling competitions. Watching him in the Little Sluice revealed a whole other world of four wheeling. All the rules I had learned over the years were tossed out the window. And I'm pretty sure a few of the laws of physics were tossed out too. Phil demonstrated many slick moves including a self-righting maneuver that put him back on his wheels after flopping over on his side. The wish boned shaped skid plate covering the entire driveline and differential allowed Phil to drag the buggy over rocks that would have easily hung up lesser rigs. The propane powered engine never missed a beat despite all the insane angles.

The last night on the trail was pretty quiet as we cleaned out the ARB freezer/fridge's. Tom managed to concoct some fiery chili with the help of some Habenero hot sauce I found rolling around in my camp box. I warned him that a little dab will do ya. Everyone pretended to enjoy the spicy entree, even as they worried about the inevitable follow-up experience that would come the next morning, provided one could make it through the night. What really surprised me the next morning was seeing Tom and Mudrak eating the leftover chili for breakfast. They must have some heavy duty O-rings in their system.

We hit the trail early Friday knowing we'd encounter some incoming traffic. In fact, it wasn't too bad, mostly other Cruisers who could not give up on their plans to wheel the Rubicon this weekend. Of course we stopped to chat with the recognizable faces. By the end of the day, we were driving across the dam at Loon Lake around 3:30 PM. We eased on down the road to Robb's Resort to ready the rigs for the drive home. In my case, a thankfully uneventful 400 mile trip that put me at my doorstep at 12:30 AM. Once again, I'm amazed the ol' FJ60 can wheel the 'con and still make the long drive to Pismo Beach.

My carnage report was pretty light for this trip. The busted motor mount - trail fixed with a chain that looks to be a permanent fix. A dented rear door panel that looks like it can be "popped" back out - eventually. A couple broken exhaust hangers. And, a leaky rear axle seal dripping 90 weight on the driveway when I got home, which I just finished replacing this evening.

What can I say, it was a great trip!

Enjoy the pictures!