Mike's Garage

Friday I got off to a late start because I had to wait for my brother in law, Matt, to drive up from school down in Orange County, and he didn't get out until 2:30. That's a crappy drive on a Friday afternoon, and we finally got on the road at 6:00pm, about 4 hours later than planned. I had the camp site waypoint in my gps, so I hit "navigate" and it plotted a route up the north side of the mountain, which I looked at briefly and figured it was taking me up the 18 and then onto some Forest Service roads. Fine, not the way I usually head up to BB, but I'm all for trying new ways. I tried "shortest distance" and "fastest time" and they both gave the same route.

About 8pm we make a right onto Crystal Creek Road. Well, this obviously isn't the 18, but I knew there were a couple fire trails up the backside of the hill and had actually mentioned to Matt that it would be fun to try one of them one day. Well, what better time than now! That was mistake #1, I committed the cardinal sin of off-roading: DON'T WHEEL ALONE! We started up a paved road toward a large mining facility, which became a wide, oiled dirt road. The gps tells me to make a right onto Crystal Lane, which had a nice card board sign with the street name written in black pen.

We start down Crystal Lane, which is a narrower well oiled dirt road that begins to climb back into a canyon. The sun had just set and I make a call to my wife telling her we're headed up the mountain. The well oiled dirt turns into a plain dirt road, then into a slightly over grown dirt road, and then passes through a rusted gate that hadn't been closed in years. There weren't any signs saying that I shouldn't be there, so we continue. The road begins climbing quickly and turns into a very narrow, mostly over grown trail that is cut right into the side of the hill, with a steep climb to one side and a steep drop to the other. We progress through several hair pin switch backs and keep climbing back into the hills.

Let me skip forward a second, because when we went back in Andries' and John's trucks the following day I took one look at the very beginning of this trail and said, "What the F was I thinking?!" At night, though, with only my headlights showing us what we were doing, it didn't look as gnarly as it was. I'd driven trails before that were as narrow and more over grown, so I didn't think much of it. It's weird to think of something not looking as bad at night as in the day, but that was the case, so on we went.

The trail was very loose in places, lots of decomposed granite that has sloughed off the sides of the mountain, small rock slides, dead trees and brush, etc. Still, the gps pointed the way and we kept going. We had been going up this trail for about 45 minutes when we hear a big PSSSSHHHH from the rear passenger area. Well crap, that's a flat tire. I stop on about a 12% grade and look. Yup, totally flat, a stick made a hole in the sidewall 3 fingers wide. It's almost 9pm now. I get my flashlight and leave Matt in the truck and start hiking up the trail to find a flat spot so I can change the tire. I find one about 1/4 mile up, so I go back down, clearing any rocks or branches from the passenger side of the trail so as not to damage my rim. I limp us up the hill at about 1-2 mph to the flat spot and throw my spare on.

Looking back, the mountain gods were definitely trying to send us a message to not continue, and after I got the spare on we sat there thinking should we go back down or keep going for camp? The gps was showing our next turn onto a forest service road as about 1.6 miles ahead, and it was much, much further to head back down, so I elect to continue forward as I was thinking there was less chance for something bad to happen over the shorter distance, and once we made the Forest Service road the conditions would be much, much better, so we move on.

We come to a spot where there is lots of loose decomp. granite that has slid down the hill, a small rock formation and bush on the uphill driver side and a steep drop off the passenger side with a little troughed out dip. I proceed slowly, not doing anything different than I had been for the last hour as far as tire placement goes with respect to the edge, but this point in the trail just couldn't take it and about a 3' wide area beneath the front passenger tire gives and slides away and we begin to nose down. The drop is several hundred feet. Luckily I had been going very slow and am able to stop. I put it into reverse and barely touch the throttle to see if I can't back us out. The wheels spin a bit and we slide down the incline a bit, the back starting down as well now. I stop immediately. I hadn't yet realized how far we had slid off the trail, or how much had given way in the front.

Well, at this point I know I'm stuck, but it hadn't quite dawned on me yet just how precarious our position was until I get out and look and see that we're about to go rolling down this slope. I tell Matt not to move and I get out and grab a couple straps. Luckily there is a decent sized Holly tree growing immediately uphill of the driver side, so I tie off to this tree and secure the strap to my slider. I decide to try a bit of gas one more time, seeing if I might be able to pivot off this tree back onto the trail. I get Matt out of the truck, give him a light and water, and tell him that if I go over to head back down the way we came to a house we saw down by the mine and get help. I get back in and barely touch the gas again and can feel the truck shifting down the slope so I stop what I'm doing and tell him we're hiking out.

The gps showed about 6 miles to camp, and about 1/2 mile up to the Forest Service road, so we get what gear we can carry - clothes, water, food, gps, first aid kit, light, sleeping bags, and start hiking. Well, it turns out that, had I stopped previously and walked about 200' up the trail, I would have seen that it was impassible. The trail had slid out completely and there was just enough of a path to walk on. Fantastic, this means that rescue from the top is not an option.

When we get up to the forest service road the trail is totally blocked by large 4'+ diameter boulders. Well great, even barring the slid out portion of the trail, there was never any indication from the bottom that the trail was closed (well, aside from the poor trail condition and overgrowth, but no signage or closed gates or anything that you'd expect to see). So with the gps to guide us we walk for almost 2 hours towards camp when we see headlights behind us. A couple locals were out, and they give us a much welcomed ride the rest of the way to camp where we're greeted warmly, fed and watered, and we recant our story up to this point. Everyone seems pretty motivated, so we hop in a couple trucks and drive back up to the bouldered off trail head and walk down to my truck to assess the situation. It doesn't look good, so we decide to come back Saturday in daylight and take a better look. We also decide to visit the TTORA camp site and see if we can't recruit any help who has experience with extreme recoveries like this.
Saturday AM Robert and I head over to the TTORA camp and we talk with several people who would be willing to help in the afternoon after their runs. Awesome. We decide to go run Holocomb and then come back to the TTORA camp, get some help, then go back to my truck. Holocomb was a no-go, so we go back to our camp for some lunch, then back to the TTORA camp to see if anyone's back. On the way over a small thunder storm starts rolling in and about now I'm starting to have an anxiety attack, imagining my truck washing down the side of the mountain. Luckily the rain passes quickly.

The TTORA people had come back and gone to another trail already, so Andries, John, and I decide to take their two trucks up to mine from the bottom with all the straps that we can muster and see what we can do to at least secure the truck further, if not attempt a recovery, while a couple others wait at the TTORA camp to see if anyone comes back.

It's about 1.5 hours down the mountain to Crystal Lane, and then about another hour up to my truck. At some point (can't remember exactly when) a couple other guys headed to the Discovery Center and talk with the rangers and learn that there are a couple professional recovery services in town, and even a helicopter recovery @ $2500/hour. Andries, John + his lady, myself, and Matt arrive at my truck and proceed to secure the front end to a 15" pine using two long straps off the hoop on my bumper, and run another strap from the down hill slider up the side of the truck, over the roof, and to a hi-lift attached to the same Holly that I had initially tied off to. Our plan was to secure the truck as much as possible, then snatch block off the holly and winch the truck back up onto the trail. While we're getting all the rigging up Mark and John (two Johns this trip) walk down from the top and phone one of the recovery services and we arrange to meet them at our camp Sunday AM. We decide not to try any winching of my truck and wait to see what the pros say, but leave the two extra straps attached for extra security, and head back to camp.

When the recovery guys showed up I knew right away that things were going to be good. First off, the father-son team's last name was Wheeler, how perfect is that? The dad, Stan, was 72 years old, wearing overalls and sporting a long, full, bushy beard - straight mountain man. You knew he knew his **** just by looking at him. Jeff, his son, was wearing a 2001 4Runner Jamboree shirt, another good sign. Their 3rd man was named Dale. With something like 90 total years of wheeling experience between them I felt we made the right call by enlisting their help. Matt and I hop into their two Cherokees and we head up to the bouldered off part of the trail and walk down so they can see what we're dealing with. They decided that what we had done up to that point was really good, and that all we really had left to do was winch. So back to their trucks for the drive down the 18 to Crystal Lane and up to my truck.

The recovery: They hook their winch up to the shackle in my tow hitch and anchor the back of the winching Cherokee to a tree behind it. Their first pull is to swing my truck off the 3 straps we had already put up and build tension in the front most strap so that the front of the truck can't slide down any further. I hop in my truck, put it in reverse and don't touch the gas, and hang on for my life as the winch starts to pull me back. All three straps groan as I start moving back and all I can do is look up at the tree that I'm strapped off of, just waiting to hear it start to break or something. This is a moment I will never forget for my entire life, it was pretty damn freaky. Stan yells for Jeff to stop, and I'm sitting in my truck, feeling it settle a bit, hearing straps shift and groan, still waiting for the tree to break.
The next move is to snatch block off the holly down to the factory tow hook in the rear driver side to pull the ass end up onto the trail. I'm sitting in my truck while they're setting this up, and I turn to Stan and ask him how this recovery rates in his 40 years of doing this. "This is the harriest" he tells me very straight-faced. Well, you can imagine how comfortable that made me feel while I'm sitting there in the truck hanging over the edge. I position myself to be able to jump out of the window in case the truck starts to go down the hill.

They get the snatch block set up and go for pull 2. Again I'm in reverse but not touching the gas. The winch starts pulling and drags my rear back up onto the trail. The front pivots off the front most strap and comes back up onto the trail a bit, too. The two straps on the sides, my first driver side strap and the one over the roof, go limp. I think that point was the first time I took a breath since I asked Stan how this recovery rated. They take off the two side straps and reattach one to the driver side slider again (a just-in-case strap) and have me attempt to drive forward a bit to take the tension out of the front strap. Well, the front hadn't come onto the trail enough to bite, and it looks to slide a bit back the way it came, so Stan tells me to stop and they remove the snatched winch line from the rear tow hook and put in on the driver's side slider to make pull 3.

Pull 3 pulls me much further onto the trail, both front and rear, and then completely lifts the driver side off the ground. Well holy crap this scared me and I look at Stan who's making the winch calls to Jeff and ask if Jeff should stop, but he lets Jeff pull a bit longer, because even though the driver side was in the air it was still dragging me further up onto the trail. They back off the winch, my driver side settles, and I'm able to drive forward about 3 inches to take the tension off of the front strap and the side strap. We get those off the truck and then reattach the winch line to my tow hitch receive and pull me back about 10 feet. Perfect. I hop out and don't think I've ever had a bigger smile on my face. I suggest that they leave a stack of business cards at the tree in case anyone else ever finds themselves in the position I was in. I follow them back to town and pay my bill of $775 for their time. Worth every penny.

So if you're ever stuck in the Big Bear area and need some experienced help, call Stan and Jeff:

A&M Auto Center
Jeff's cell 951-285-1296
Stan's cell 909-744-0125