STEVE COLQUHOUN July 31, 2012
The Jeep Experience program.
Genuine off-roading has some breathtaking rewards.
The lure of real, proper four-wheel-driving - the type that rattles your teeth in their sockets, leaves you with aching wrists and shoulders and challenges your wits and courage - has always been a mystery to me. Why voluntarily subject yourself to the privations, mud and dust, and frustratingly slow progress?
That was before I went to Colorado. The mid-west US state is jam-packed with jaw-dropping scenery, with a postcard around every corner even more dramatic than the last.
But to get the absolute most out of Colorado, you need to go to the type of places where ordinary cars and even moderately capable part-time SUVs fear to tread.
That's precisely why Jeep chose a rugged section of the Rocky Mountains between the historic mining settlements of Silverton and Telluride to showcase the capabilities of two of its star products to the international media in the Jeep Experience program.
Over two gruelling days, a convoy of 20 Jeeps scaled tortuously tight switchbacks to crest mountain passes at 13,000 feet - or four kilometres - above sea level, traversed boulder-strewn descents and inched along ridiculously narrow cliff faces suspended over sheer, unprotected drops. The alarming presence of roadside memorials testified the latter were not to be treated with anything less than total respect.
Jeep took its duty of care seriously, appointing some of its most experienced four-wheel-drive enthusiasts from its owners club, Jeep Jamboree USA, to lead the way. They set the wheeltracks for the rest to follow and provided support and advice to media from four countries, from experienced motoring writers to first-timers representing lifestyle-skewed publications.
In more than 10 hours on the road over the two-day trip we covered little more than 100 kilometres, for an official average speed only slightly greater than walking pace at 10km/h - less, once toilet breaks and stops to soak in the breathtaking views are factored in.
As arduous and painstaking as our progress was, there was never a dull moment for drivers, who required nothing less than total concentration to successfully negotiate what amounted to a two-day obstacle course.
And the rewards? The views, for one. The narrow plateau that tops the 13,100-foot Imogene Pass feels like the top of the world, with views stretching hundreds of kilometres to dozens of craggy peaks, almost all similarly denuded of vegetation by intensive gold and silver mining in the mid-to-late 19th century. The ascent to the pass, through a series of symmetrical switchhbacks on a track that looked as if it would be washed away by the next passing shower, felt like an improbable triumph of engineering over environment.
And, as with another climb to the pinnacle of the startlingly vivid and appropriately named Red Mountain the previous day, there's also smug satisfaction that the sheer physical logistics of getting here means we're joining an extremely select few who will ever get to cherish this particular view.
While the stunning Colorado landscape was the deserved star of the show, the instruments that enabled us to get so far off the beaten track and out of our comfort zones played an important cameo.
Our fleet comprised Jeep's two most successful models - the hardcore Wrangler engineered with rock-hopping, mud-wallowing and mountain-climbing in mind, and the family-focused Grand Cherokee large SUV.
Err, come again? We're going up there in this? I don't mean to be unkind, but the Grand Cherokee isn't in the same league as the Wrangler for ground clearance, ramp angles and wheel articulation, and its urban-friendly tyres look like they'd scrabble for traction in the footy club carpark.
In fact, the big SUV turns out to be the weapon of choice. In the absence of any serious boulders to climb or deep-water river crossings (left off the drive route out of deference to the lack of experience of some participants) the Grand Cherokee belies its hefty size with astonishing agility and poise.
Vastly more civilised inside than the utilitarian Wrangler, it also generates less jar and pitch through potholes and over jagged rocks. As well, it's the pick for a few short commutes on tarmac in between the longer and more taxing dirt sections, including a magical cruise along the famed Million Dollar Highway into the picture-postcard town of Ouray. The arresting sight of towering ochre-coloured cliff faces on both sides of the car as you wind through the stunning natural valley are best enjoyed from the Grand Cherokee's plusher, more serene environment.
The bigger car didn't reach its limitations on our drive, although occasional thumps from underneath as bigger rocks struck a side rail or an axle indicated it was occasionally close. But spending a lot of time travelling behind a short-wheelbase Wrangler and watching it attack with abandon what the Grand Cherokee had to approach with caution reinforces the impression that the Wrangler was barely challenged by the moderately difficult nature of our drive.
Early on the first day I had developed a paranoid suspicion that a fix of sorts was in, as Wrangler after kitted-out, jacked-up late-model Wrangler came toward us from the other direction to play on the trails we'd just conquered. So many Wranglers did we see - two out of every three cars we encountered, by my count - that it finally became impossible to believe that our hosts, Jeep, could have stage-managed this mass saturation in a bid to impress us. Don't sneer, it's been done before.
Instead, it's a powerful tribute to the esteem in which the Wrangler is held by people who know a good off-roader when they drive one. It may still be a bit of a blunt object when it comes to interior refinement, creature comforts, fuel use and on-road ability, but so competently does it fulfil the task it was designed for, you find yourself forgiving its many daily trespasses for the smile you know it will plaster over your face when push finally comes to shove.
With peaks climbed, creeks forded and trails well and truly blazed - or Wrangled, if you prefer - we arrived at our overnight stop to make camp. Or, more accurately, retired to the Jeep-branded camper trailer that had already been set up.
OK, so we're were'nt exactly roughing it. But at a lick over 11,000 feet (3350 metres) our encampment was at more than one-and-a-half times the height of Mount Kosciuszko and the air was notably thin for we who normally live at sea level. Even mild exertions could leave you breathless, and I showed my lack of Coloradan experience by waking in the night to a mild bout of altitude sickness.
It's a bit like being drunk but without any of the fun bits, with a spinning head, lack of balance, slurred speech, a splitting headache and inability to catch my breath. After getting intimate with an aerosol can of oxygen for an hour I was on the road to recovery, but it's not something I'm in a hurry to do again.
It proved to be the only downside to an otherwise illuminating experience. I'm now a little wiser about why enthusiasts will spend thousands of dollars kitting out four-wheel-drives then set about testing the equipment to its absolute limits. I'm even keen to take on something even more challenging.
The Rubicon Trail - a boulder-strewn passage that's another Colorado icon, a Jeep favourite and perhaps the purest test of off-road ability - has just been added to my personal bucket list.