It was the last trail of the week, and the most difficult.
After the set of crises earlier in the week, I had been dreading this trail more than ever.
I still hadn't forgiven myself for the swaybar SNAFU, and was feeling particularly gun-shy about trying difficult and dangerous obstacles that this trail would provide.
Dave had been talking about doing Cliffhanger for years. Each time we went, though, there was always a legitimate reason why we couldn't do it: rental restrictions, the skill sets of drivers, drivers not wanting to risk damaging their daily drivers, etc.
With just the two of us, though, we would now have that opportunity. Dave was convinced that both of our Jeeps could handle the trail, even with the issues that I had had (I still hadn't removed the spacers from the front wheels).
I, however, had serious doubts about my own abilities. Even with some much-appreciated advice from him, I read through the description of the trail and watched the videos of the obstacles with increasing trepidation.
"You're psyching yourself out," Dave's friend Angela told me. "You need to stop reading that stuff."
She may have been right, but I wanted to be as forearmed with knowledge as possible. I needed to visualize how to approach the hardest trail we'd ever tackled before was trapped in a situation that I couldn't get out of.
It's difficult to see just how steep this descent is, but it gets steeper. This is about 20 minutes before absolute disaster. (Photo credit: Craig Carlson)
Things went downhill right from the start - literally.
Cliffhanger's trailhead starts by descending a short dirt ramp before a set of quick turns. The total descent is about 50 vertical yards, including some possible lines that were over 4 feet.
After Dave's Jeep went down the first major hill, it disappeared from view. I wasn't able to see which way he went, and by the time I crested the hill he had already moved beyond the next hairpin turn and out of view.
My attempt to follow was stymied when I got to the next ledge and realized I couldn't go any further. Craig got out of my Jeep and shook his head.
"It's straight down," he said, pointing his hands downward as a visual aid. "I don't think you should do it."
I got out of Ghost and took a look for myself. He was absolutely correct; if I pursued that line I would likely have ripped off my rear bumper completely.
Under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't have been too concerned. Just look and find another line, right? After all, Dave managed to find a way (as have thousands of other vehicles), so there must have been a way.
But I wasn't in the right mindset. Each line that I saw just sent my heart racing. I envisioned one tire going down, and Ghost tipping over.
I just couldn't see it.
"I think you can go down this way," Craig said, pointing down a series of boulders to my right. He illustrated where each tire was supposed to go, and I reversed and managed to hit the right approach.
The "hidden" line, taken in reverse. You can see the 4 foot ledge just behind the spare tire.
I angled Ghost's nose down the new line.
"Whenever I go down a line," Dave had said, "I imagine a tennis ball dropping down. Wherever the ball goes, is where your Jeep is going to want to go. Keep your nose going in that direction, or else gravity will win and you'll tip."
It was great advice. I tried to imagine a bright yellow tennis ball rolling down hill, and followed it in my mind.
"Follow the ball," I muttered to myself out loud. "Follow the ball... follow the ball."
I eased the nose over the ledge and aimed my passenger tire for the boulder on the right.
Suddenly, the boulder - a massive rock that probably weighed close to 400 pounds, began to roll to the side. My heart jumped into high gear, and I heard Ghost's chassis complain as its weight shifted closer to the nearby rock face.
Even though I had already checked all the equipment - rear lockers on, sway bar disconnected, in first gear - I went through the mental checklist again. Did I miss anything? No. Everything we set up exactly as it should have been.
"Driver!" Craig yelled, and I hauled the steering wheel to the left. The driver's side tire began to turn slowly in the right direction, but now the passenger side was pinned between the rolled boulder and the rock face.
I swore. Not again... not again...
Then, Ghost started to respond to my prodding. The tire began to turn, and I could feel the passenger side begin to climb up and over the rolled rock and settle into the correct position.
The driver's side hit the floor, pulling the passenger side forward and down as well. Once both tires were stable, I began to breathe a little easier even though Ghost's rear end was still upended.
Once safe, I took a moment to gather my thoughts and catch my breath. Dave had already disappeared around another corner, but I wasn't quite ready to move on.
Despite this, I turned the corner and approached the next obstacle. I didn't want to lose sight of him.
A better photo of the obstacle in question, borrowed from someone else's trip. Source.
I didn't have far to go. The next obstacle was only a few yards away, and it was a pretty straight-forward descent.
At the time, though, I was still shaken. What the photos don't show very well is just how little you can see as the Jeep's nose begins to crest over the rocks. Having the doors off allows you to lean out and have a much better look at where you are headed.
I don't actually remember trying to go down the rocks. What I do remember is the sounds that Ghost made as the rear bumper "kissed" the boulders on the way down, and that it didn't help my stress level at all. By the time I got down to a small creek at the bottom of the hill, I was shaking.
Dave's next climb.
Craig and I waited at the bottom of the next climb, watching Dave maneuver his way up the next set of steps. He started slipping sideways, stopped, and even stalled for a moment.
He restarted the engine, and then cleared the step and took a hard left to approach the next series. The lean looked horrible, as he had to drive with his passenger side a full foot-to-2-feet higher than his driver's side.
"I don't know about this," I said.
"If you don't want to do it, tell Dave you can't do it," Craig said.
I had been fighting this moment. I didn't want to leave Dave without a buddy, especially on such a difficult trail (and we hadn't even hit the "difficult" part yet). He had been looking forward to it for years, and I didn't want to bring myself to bail on him.
But I couldn't bring myself to continue onward, either.
The truth of the matter was that I simply didn't think that I could do it. I didn't think I had the skills or experience to make it any further.
"Dave," I called into the radio. "Can you stop when you get a chance?"
"As soon as I get to a level spot," he called back.
I watched him settle his Jeep, and looked at the radio in my hand. I couldn't tell him over the radio.
I climbed the trail until I got to his Jeep. "You didn't have to walk up here," he said.
"I know," I said, "But I didn't want to do this over the radio."
My hands were shaking. I wasn't sure if it was because the trail had defeated me so soundly, or because I was letting him down.
"I'm really sorry, Dave," I said. "I can't do this. I'm not really having a good time, and I don't think I have the skills to do this trail."
He nodded, understanding. He had known what I was about to say. "Okay," he said. "Do you mind if I run it solo?"
I was surprised. "Sure," I said. "I just didn't want to force you to go without backup."
He gave me a look that said he'd be fine, and I returned to Craig and Ghost. As Dave disappeared up the hill and turned out of view, I got into Ghost and turned myself around to return back the way I had come. I wanted to get off the trail before it got busy with traffic.
"I'm glad you decided to turn back," Craig said.
"You didn't want to do this either?" I asked.
He shook his head. "If you had been confident about it, I would have been fine," he said. "But because you were nervous, I was nervous."
I nodded. It was a fair assessment. I definitely didn't feel confident. At the moment, I felt a modicum of relief that we were getting off the trail, but still had some trepidation about returning up the obstacles that I had descended.
When we got to the previous major obstacle, Craig got out of the Jeep and spotted me. He pointed to inside the large rock (at the bottom of the photo above) as a place to put my passenger side.
I started moving forward, and as the front of the Jeep started to lift, my vision was filled with nothing but sky as the ground disappeared from view.
"Wait! Wait!" Craig called. "You're too far over! Driver! Driver!"
I stopped, and shifted back into reverse. I couldn't feel where the passenger side was, and only had Craig's word to rely on. All I knew was that I was angled wrong, and needed to shift my position.
Ghost slid to the left.
The sound was ear-splitting. All week long, Ghost had made noises as we had climbed and descended different obstacles, but this was an explosion of noise. A gunshot crack that echoed back to me from the canyon walls. Something was very, very wrong.
"Driver!" Craig called again, and I turned the wheel hard. Nothing happened. I looked down at the driver's side wheel, and wondered if the passenger tire was caught on the rocks again.
"I'm trying!" I called back. Then the steering wheel turned in my hands, but the tire didn't budge.
When something bad happens, there is a moment where your brain exists in two different states. On the one hand, your brain knows that you are in trouble. It automatically tries to cope with the situation, and acts in pure reflex.
On the other hand, you brain replays what just happened and searches for anything else to explain what just happened. It searches for possible explanations that disprove what the other side of your brain knew was reality.
The two halves of your brain fight for control, each desperately seeking some explanation that can provide relief and comfort. It's a nauseating sense of confusion that no amount of logic or reason can overcome for those first few seconds.
At that moment, though, all I knew was that I was sitting at the base of an obstacle, right on the edge of a cliff, with no steering.
"Driver!" Craig called again.
"Steering broke!" I shouted.
"What?" Craig looked towards the front of the Jeep. Acknowledgement crossed his features.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Yes, you did."
Stuck on the trail.
This was it. My worst nightmare had just come to pass.
I was trapped on a thin sliver of trail at the bottom of a major obstacle, at the side of a cliff, with absolutely no means of getting out under my own power. I was blocking the trail, heading in the outbound direction in the early hours of the morning. Other drivers would be arriving on the descent at any moment.
I had been so close.
Looking back up the trail I began to wonder how on earth I'd be able to be get out. Winching? Without steering? I began to try to reconcile myself to the fact that I would need to pay thousands of dollars to get recovered.
For all the help that Dave had given during the week, I actually wondered if I could get away with not radioing him. However, Cliffhanger is a 4-5 hour trip (out and back), so waiting around was really not a realistic option.
I sighed, and clicked the transmission button on the radio. "Dave," I said, wincing as I heard my own voice. "The steering broke."
A pause. "Okay," he said, unable to keep the (reasonable) exasperation out of his voice. I didn't blame him at all. "I'll be right there."
At that moment, we heard the engines of a group coming down the mountain. As they rounded the corner, they stopped when they saw that the passage was blocked.
The leader of the group came down and asked if we needed any help.
Oh, perhaps a little.
He and a few of the other drivers from his group climbed down and pushed my Jeep back and out of the way so that there was enough room to safely descend the obstacle and move past Ghost.
Off to the side. Barely.
It didn't take much to see exactly what was wrong. The steering box had simply snapped.
"What size tires are you running?" the group leader asked.
"You still have a stock steering box, and as long as you're running 37s this is going to keep happening," he warned. "There's just too much stress on that box. You'll need to go to a hydro assist."
Craig laughed. I had been telling him for most of the week how much I hated hydraulic steering assists when driving at highway speeds.
"Well," the group leader said, "if you don't want to go hydro, you at least need to find a Big Block steering box. That's the minimum if you don't want to run a hydro."
All of this was new to me. I had never heard of a "Big Block" steering box before. I felt like an idiot.
The steering box broke at the splines that hold the drop pitman arm together.
"Well," Dave said when he got there. "You really messed up." He said it jokingly, but there was more than an element of truth to it. "We basically have a couple of options," he said. "None of them great."
He then proceeded to tell me that we could try to winch/tow Ghost up and over the obstacle, but with almost no margin for error and no steering, not to mention how much power would be required, it wasn't a very good option.
Option B was to go find a steering box and do a trail repair.
Option C would be to call Moab Recovery, and get them to come and rescue Ghost where the repair could be done in town. This would wind up costing thousands.
We decided to go with Option B. It was then 9:30 in the morning.
None of us had cell service so far out of town, so we didn't bother trying to call around to see if anyone had a steering box. We drove straight to O'Reillys Auto in town, who said that they had one in stock.
I felt an incredible relief. Perhaps this wasn't going to be a world-class disaster after all. I bought power steering fluid and rented some tools to make the repairs (pitman arm pullers, forks, 34mm socket, etc.). They went in the back to look for the steering box, and I waited.
And waited some more.
Zach, the store clerk, eventually came back shaking his head. The floor dropped from my stomach. "I'm sorry," he said. "I can't find it."
"Oh," I said, disappointed. "Well, if you find it, would you mind giving me a call?" I left him my number.
There were still two other places in town - CarQuest and NAPA - so I started calling them. CarQuest didn't have what I needed, but NAPA said they did, so we stopped over there to pick it up.
When I got there, it was the last one they had in stock. Whereas the O'Reilly's steering box was $260, NAPA's OEM version was $1200. I asked about it, and they said that they used to have the NAPA version (which would have been about $350) but were all sold out, and only had the Mopar OEM version.
I didn't have much of a choice, so I took the steering box and drove back out to the Jeep. All the while, I was concerned that some novice driver would get too close to Ghost and knock it over the edge.
"There probably aren't a lot of novice drivers on Cliffhanger," Craig said, who was driving.
"I was," I grumbled.
We got back to Ghost at around 11am, and made our way back to where it was stuck. Dave got right to work, while Craig and I played traffic cop and his gopher.
Preparing to replace the steering box. You can see the Mopar box next to the passenger side tire.
Dave got straight to work, once more to the rescue. Despite being ripped away from driving the trail he had been looking forward to, he never complained once. He certainly had every right.
It didn't go smoothly. Neither Dave nor I had a full complement of tools, and it became clear that this was going to need some serious M*A*S*H-level combat surgery. It took a bit over an hour to Tetris the steering box out.
"Hand me the new one," Dave said.
I took the new steering box out of the Mopar box, and handed it to Dave. Even as I handed it to him, something didn't quite seem right.
Dave saw it immediately as well. He tried orienting it to where he needed it to go, but it didn't seem to fit the same way. He turned it over and over again, confused.
I lifted the older box and held it up for comparison. It looked mostly the same, but... in reverse?
"You know what this is?" Dave said. "This is a steering box for a right-hand drive Jeep."
I was dumbstruck. Why would a store in Moab, Utah, have a steering box for a Jeep that comes from England?!
"You've gotta be kidding me!" I said, exasperated. I wanted to scream. I knew I was completely, totally screwed.
On top of everything, it just felt over-the-top. A cosmic joke at my expense.
My best bet was to try to go back to O'Reillys and see if they could find the one that they thought they had in stock. I didn't have much hope, however.
I didn't like leaving Ghost out on the trail again, but I didn't know what else to do. Each trip back to Moab was a half-hour. It was now approaching 1 p.m.
Sure enough, when I got back to O'Reillys, it became apparent that I was going to find no joy. Zack had enlisted all the help he could, and had scoured the store. He had spent so much time on it that he memorized the SKU.
I left the store, dejected. Dave and Craig had been waiting for me in the parking lot.
"Well?" Dave asked.
I shook my head.
"There's only one thing to do," he said.
"Recovery?" I asked.
"Well, you can do that if you wish, but we're so close. We just need to get that part."
"Nobody has the part," I said.
"Nobody has the part in Moab," he said. "You'll have to go to Grand Junction and pick one up."
Grand Junction, Colorado, is two hours from Moab. A round trip - assuming that we get the part immediately - would be four hours. Four hours of prime sunlight.
We headed back to the condo where we were staying, and I started making phone calls. I was fortunate enough to find a store that had one in stock, but given my experience with both O'Reillys and NAPA (who both thought they had one in stock), I'd learned not to get my hopes up. Even so, I didn't have much of a choice.
Craig and I were on the road to Grand Junction by 2:15 p.m.
I did the math in my head. Assuming everything went well, we would be back at Cliffhanger from Grand Junction by around 6:40 according to our navigation. Sunset was at 8:07. That gave us just a hair under an hour and a half to get the steering together and get Ghost up and out of Cliffhanger before it got dark.
For the most part, Craig and I traveled in silence. I was lost in thought, thinking about whether or not we were going to be able to get Ghost out in time.
There was more than just a time crunch for beating the sun. We had to get it done that day because we were due to leave Moab the following morning. Dave was on a time crunch, as he had to return home as quickly as possible. He had a flight to catch Sunday evening, and as it was he would only have about an hour between his return home and the need to get to the airport.
If we didn't get Ghost out of Cliffhanger by dark, Dave would need to leave, and I would be forced to resort to Option C. That would possibly mean an extra day or two in Moab (it was the weekend) to get it fixed enough to get back onto the trailer. Plus the two day drive back home.
For the first time, though, things went smoothly in Grand Junction. The store had the part, and we compared it side by side with the one taken from Ghost. A perfect match. Graig and I turned right around and headed back to Moab.
We got back to Ghost at 6:40 p.m. Dave was there waiting for us, but so were some side-by-sides and motorcycles who had decided to head down Cliffhanger at a late hour.
None of us - Craig, Dave, or I - had any patience left, but we were forced to wait as more than one biker dropped his bike going down the obstacles.
Come on... come on...!
Eventually, we got parked and next to Ghost just before 7 p.m. There was a gentleman and his wife who had stopped at the top of the entrance but had decided not to try the trail. They were friendly enough, and offered to help.
It turned out that he was a mechanic who owned his own shop. Between the two of them, Dave and he were able to wrestle the new steering box into place. The problem came, though, when we tried to work the power steering fluid through the system. Immediately, the fluid began to spray everywhere.
I looked at my watch. 7:45 p.m.
The side-by-sides were returning, as were a few other jeeps. Giant rock crawlers that we had seen early in the morning were coming back as well. They had played all day on Cliffhanger.
They squeezed by. We had to wait until they made it, lest they bump Ghost and wind up hurting us. Most of the returning vehicles struggled going up the rocks. It turned out it was a very difficult obstacle, even for well-built off-road vehicles. I realized that it wasn't just me who had difficulty getting back.
That knowledge gave me no succor, though.
"Okay, try again," Dave said, indicating that I should start the engine and begin turning the steering wheel.
"Turn it off! Off! Off!" came the immediate cry. I shut Ghost off.
"I think you got a bad steering box," our new mechanic friend said. This was not the sort of thing that you want to hear. "The O-ring is sitting right, and the hose is clamped tight, but I can't stop the leak."
Dave wasn't willing to give up yet, though. From my position in the driver's seat, I couldn't see what they were doing. But they were both standing on top of the bumper, practically lying on top of the engine, trying to lock down the hoses. They looked like two surgeons trying to resurrect a comatose patient behind a white sheet.
"Try again." Then, "Kill it!"
"Try it now."
I turned the key, and didn't hear the immediate panic. Could it be?
"Slowly turn it driver," Dave said. I did. It was slow going, but it was going. Then came passenger side, and it was much harder. Then back go driver. A little easier. Then to passenger. A little easier still.
"I think that's as good as we're going to get," Dave said.
I got out of the Jeep. "Since we only have one shot at this," I told Dave, "I'd prefer if you drive it out of here."
I paused. "If you don't mind," I said, knowing I had asked far too much from him already.
Fortunately, my request wasn't met with snark. I was emotionally and mentally exhausted from the stress of the day, and while he would have every right to tease or be impatient, he didn't even try to be snarky.
I had been watching Jeeps and rock crawlers and motorcycles and side-by-sides struggle with getting back up the obstacle all day. It was somewhat validating, on one level, but made me realize just how over the head I truly was. I needed Dave to do it.
It was 8:10 p.m.
The sun was falling down behind the mountains, and the air was noticeably colder than when we had arrived. Dave got behind the wheel.
I watched Dave approach the same obstacle he had driven four times already in his own Jeep and angled himself for his approach. I was so exhausted and so riveted by what I was watching, I forgot to take out my phone or my camera.
He got stuck.
"I forgot how difficult it is without the hydro assist!" I heard him shout. He pulled back, and Ghost's nose scraped down the boulders. I knew that it had taken damage, but at that point in time I didn't care. I just wanted to get out of there.
It took him several tries. The passenger wheel - that had been my own bane of existence on that obstacle - kept sliding off to the wrong side for Dave as well.
Over the main obstacle in the nick of time.
Finally, after several agonizingly long moments, I watched as Ghost's rear found purchase and the Jeep began to climb up and over the obstacle.
Relief flooded through me, but we weren't out of the woods yet. I wasn't sure how solid the trail repair was, and neither was Dave. We just hoped we would be able to make the half-hour journey back to the condo at the south end of Moab.
We said our gratitude to our new friends (who offered Dave a job!), who refused to give me their contact info so that I could send them a token of my appreciation and thanks. I tried to insist, but they wouldn't hear of it. Maybe this was Karma from when we helped rescue a side-by-side driver on Hell's Gate the previous year.
Or maybe there's just something about Jeep people.
I managed to get Ghost back to the condo, but by that point it was too dark to load up on the trailer. It would have to wait until morning (I needed to replace the roof and doors, otherwise I would have driven it straight onto the trailer upon returning).
Ghost took a lot of damage on this trip. Getting it out of Cliffhanger damaged the bull bar and power steering fluid practically exploded all over (and through) the engine compartment.
Cliffhanger beat me this time.
I wasn't prepared enough, not experienced enough, not good enough. Ghost had its own issues, from having weak spacers in the wheels to stock steering components that couldn't handle the stresses placed on it. I didn't help matters by running for three days with the sway bar connected, either.
It took a while, but I found a shop about an hour away from where I live that can fix the steering components. I also need to upgrade the wheels so that spacers aren't needed (they're certainly not desired).
I confess that I was nearly ready to give up on that Friday. More than once I thought about fixing Ghost and selling it off. I was dejected and humiliated. I felt defeated.
It took two days to drive home from Moab, and the rear view mirror reflected a constant reminder of just how bad things had gotten. Two days of reflection about all the mistakes that I made, and how close I had come to truly messing up beyond the ability to recover.
When I got home, I drove Ghost off the trailer, and was saddened to find that the steering - once more - would not work properly. My guess is that the fluid had drained during the 1000+ mile drive home. It will need to be trailered to the shop to get the steering fixed; there's no way it can safely drive to the mailbox, let alone to another town.
With a couple of days passed, though, my emotions have calmed a bit. Ghost can be (and will be) repaired. I learned a lot on this trip, and can learn to overcome the inadequacies in my skillset.
I'm at an age where I don't fail at much, because I don't often put myself in a situation where failure is that much of an option. I keep it safe. I don't really test myself. It's not really a surprise that the first time I've stepped outside my comfort zone in a long while resulted in more than just a slap on the wrist.
For now, though, I'm going to respect my limitations even as I push through them. I'll get more time in the driver's seat, learn to appreciate Ghost's capabilities (both good and bad) and not allow myself to simply give up because I had some bad days on the trails.
I also had very good days on the trails, too. I had a lot of fun conquering obstacles that I genuinely didn't know if I could overcome.
It seems to me that this is a sport, and with every sport comes wins and losses.
"Yeah, but did you die?!" is the joke that Dave repeated as a refrain all week.
There's a subliminal truth to that joke. No, I didn't die. And next year, I won't die again. I'll have more wins and losses, but at the very least I'll be back on the trails.
One of the main lessons learned - everyone needs a friend like Dave. Everyone.
I love ya, man. (Photo credit: Craig Carlson)