Taking it to the top in a Jeep

Journey through perilous passes of San Juan Mountains puts Jeeps in their element.

  • Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background

SILVERTON, Colo.—Until now, I hadn’t realized that “jeeping” was a verb.

We’re standing in front of The Shady Lady — a former brothel in this 1800s mining town — while Jeep brand director Jim Morrison extols the virtues of the colourful row of vehicles parked behind us.

“You’re going to drive roads and do things you’d never believe possible in a vehicle.”

Towering over us are the jagged peaks of the San Juan Mountains. Over the next couple of days, we’ll be clambering over the narrow, forested switchbacks of Red Mountain III and with any luck, reaching its 12,890-ft. summit.

Having arrived by a coal-powered, narrow-gauge steam train, built in 1882, I’m already feeling a sense of one foot in this century and the other in the 19th as I shut off my cellphone with a sigh. We’ll be “off the grid” for most of our journey, bunking overnight in a camp nestled at the base of the Red Mountains.

During the early 19th century, thousands flocked to the mining towns of Ouray, Silverton and Telluride, lured by silver, gold and the promise of quick riches.

In order to move the ore down from the mountains, many of which top 14,000 feet, narrow roads had to be blasted and hacked into the sheer rock cliffs. By 1893, the collapse of the silver market turned the flourishing settlements into ghost towns, but the trails have since become an off-roading paradise, and a Jeep Jamboree favourite (a series of off-roading events featuring the brand) for 25 years.

Climbing over rocks and logs on the heavily forested trail seems like child’s play for the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon I’m driving. The previously lethargic 3.8L V6 has been replaced for 2012 with a 285 horsepower, 260 lb.-ft. Pentastar, resulting in a 25 per cent improvement in acceleration. The interior, while still Spartan, now boasts chrome accents, thoughtful storage cubbies and improved soft-touch material.

All the important bits underneath remain unchanged: the Wrangler’s low gearing, locking differentials, front sway bar disconnect and huge chunky tires make it the unstoppable “Terminator” of off-road vehicles, with a legacy spanning 70 years.

I have a comforting thought as we leave the dwindling forest, heading up past the treeline and onto the first of the rocky switchbacks. There are scant inches — and no guardrail — between us and the thousand-foot drop. In 4-LO gears, the five-speed automatic hovers between first and second as we rarely go above 10 kilometres an hour, chugging inexorably upwards. The sparse shrubbery has given way to lichen and alpine wildflowers.

Occasionally, we pass the ghostly remains of mining towns: a poignant reminder of what must have been a gruelling existence.

It’s fascinating, watching the suspension on the Jeep in front of us, compressing and adapting as it climbs boulders and rock cuts, never upsetting its boxy little body.

Finally, we reach the summit of Red Mountain III. Standing on the cone of this ancient volcano nearly 13,000 feet up, there’s a sense of hushed awe. All around us are the towering cliffs, red with iron oxide, some capped with snow. The air is thin: the short climb from our Jeeps to this lonely outlook leaves us breathless. We shiver in the damp air, overwhelmed by its vastness in the bone-chilling mist.

A rainbow appears in the slight drizzle. We pass under its arc as we work our way down as clattering rubble bounces off the rocks below.

The road clings precariously to the side of the mountain. There’s no margin for error here. Pressing the “hill descent” button lets the Jeep adapt to our rate of travel, yet I still find it necessary to apply the brakes to avoid ramming into the vehicle in front of us.

We reach base camp eventually, a cluster of tents nestled in the woods. Several thousand feet above sea level, I’m out of breath by the time I reach my tent.

Lulled to sleep by the pattering of rain on the canvas, I’m snug in my sleeping bag despite the chill.

I awake at dawn to the sound of “Reveille.” Cursing the cold, I stiffly make my way to the mess tent. We’re served a hearty frontier breakfast by a mandolin-bearing cowboy who plays so sweetly, I can almost forgive him for the wake-up call.

Thinking our battered and sore bodies would appreciate some cushioning luxury, we decide to swap the Wrangler for a plush Grand Cherokee.

The joke was on us. Not only was our base model devoid of heated seats and steering wheel, it also lacked the air suspension to raise it above the more punishing rocks. Compared to the supple athleticism of the Wrangler, we notice far more lateral toss within the cabin of the Cherokee. Nevertheless, it valiantly climbs over the worst of the terrain, with its underbody skidplates pounding off the occasional boulder.

Our journey today takes us over U.S. Route 550, dubbed “The Million Dollar Highway.” Depending on who you ask, the road was so-called because it cost $1,000,000 per mile to build — or that the landfill contains over a million in gold ore. Our favourite reference was from the poor soul who remarked after reaching the end that she, “wouldn’t drive that road again for $1,000,000.” It’s no route for the faint of heart. Here and there, a faded roadside memorial pays sad testimony to its hazardous twists.

Scarcely daring to breathe, our mantra for the duration of this section became, “Don’t look down.”

Leaving the roadway, we follow the edge of the Uncompahgre Gorge, the town of Ouray far below us. The shrill whistle of marmots pierces the air and we laugh at the sight of their stout bodies scurrying for cover.

We were happy to see a vestige of civilization in the form of a roadside rest stop, however, here too our mantra was, “Don’t look down.”

Today’s destination is Imogene Pass. At 13,114 ft., it’s one of the highest sites in the continental U.S. reachable by vehicle. Part of the way up, the skies open up into a torrential downpour. Hail the size of golf balls bounces off our hood.

By the time we reach the summit, the rain has receded into a thin drizzle. Despite the cold, we leave the warm comfort of our Jeeps to look silently out into the vastness, dwarfed by the enormity of our surroundings.

It’s easy to see why this area has been dubbed, “The Switzerland of the Americas,” with its tiny villages nestled between towering peaks.

Although I’d done a little bit of off-roading before, wheeling Jeeps around gravel pits and up ski hills, I’d never before experienced the full potential of these legendary 4x4s.

After seeing them in their element, I get it.

It’s a Jeep thing.

  • Taking it to the top in a Jeep
  • Taking it to the top in a Jeep
  • Taking it to the top in a Jeep
  • Taking it to the top in a Jeep
  • Taking it to the top in a Jeep
  • Taking it to the top in a Jeep

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