I looked at my rather beefy selection of local maps and thought it might help some others figure out what they could use. For reference, here’s a link to the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center.
For anyone looking to explore the area a bit via their computer, check out CalTopo if you haven’t before. CalTopo also gives you some awesome route planning options and you can print out your maps from home (for free).
The entire social media presence of Mammoth Lakes is on the “buy sell trade“. Someone stole your fishing pole? Need a place to rent? Heard a weird noise? It all goes there.
So I’m sitting on the couch doing my EMT+W homework and Charlotte hands me her phone and says, “You see this?”
So some realities start to collide:
a) I’m on a search and rescue team, with the sole desire to help people who are in various shades of screwed.
b) I’m literally sitting there studying how to help people (medically, but the point stands).
c) I have a gassed up off road rig with a big winch on the front and a bunch of recovery gear sitting in the driveway, backed in.
So I call the dude up. We make plans to meet in 15 minutes and I text another buddy of mine from Mono SAR who’s got a likewise dope 4×4 set up.
Mind you, Friday morning there was another guy posting about he got stuck out at Lake Crowley which I handled myself before work with just a simple tow strap. But for this big ass Ford Expedition it required nearly 25,000 pounds of pull power.
Two winches, two snatch blocks, me revving my engine to keep the electricity going, and the stuck Ford with street tires in 4L. We popped the guy out, told him we hoped he had a better time in the Sierras, and to hit us up anytime he’s got problems.
Honestly it’s really nice to be a position to help people. I feel like not only do you get a chance to come to someone’s aid when they’re in a tough spot, but doing it for free with a cheerful attitude can really spread some positivity in this world.
It’s fairly well known that our country is quite polarized politically and ideologically these days. Half the people in that shot above probably voted for Trump, the other half hate his guts. There are ties that bind us only if we form and tighten those accords. Lincoln famously said, “We must not be enemies, but friends.” Not only do we need to keep from loathing one another, but we must also purposefully reach out and be kind.
So I’d ask of you the same thing I’d ask of myself: try to help folks out in whatever way you can. Not for money or notoriety but from the simple truth that living in a world where we are kind and helpful to each other is the only kind of world we want to live in.
In sailing, a joke exists that there are three types of sailors. Those who’ve grounded, those who are lying, and those who will soon. Much the same exists for driving offroad and getting stuck.
If you drive graded dirt all the time or limit yourself to mall crawling, “recovery” can seem like a worst case scenario. But at least for me in the 16/17 winter up here in the Sierras I’ve pulled three vehicles free, shoveled out half a dozen, and high centered myself thrice (counting today). I have a winch, strong attachment points, big ass shackles, a real no-shit shovel, two recovery straps, some chains, and traction pads. None of that keeps you from getting stuck but it will give you a fighting chance to get out of it.
Things get snow-stuck in all kinds of ways, but usually the most pain-in-the-ass is the high center. Simply put, you compact so much snow underneath the bottom of the vehicle that you create (via the pressure of your axles/difs/undercarriage/etc) a solid block of ice that is supporting all the vehicle’s weight.
This of course is a problem because if the cool new made-of-compacted-snow jack stands under your truck are holding you up guess what isn’t? That’s right, your tires. So your tires sit there spinning happily in the air, laughing at you and all your locking differential technology. In fact, the more the tires spin, the deeper they make their little holes, compressing the snow further and further under the vehicle. It sucks.
When high centered, your options are limited. You can attempt to shovel out the snow which is fully caked under your vehicle, but remember it is highly compressed to the point that you are nearly going at ice blocks. Plus, you’re coming at it from the sides and will have a hell of a time getting an angle. I’ve only seen this work when one axle is stuck. If both are, which means the entire undercarriage is, read on.
You can use a winch or a buddy’s truck with a strap, but basically you’ll need to drag the vehicle where it’s got to go. As a bonus you can toss some traction pads under the tires (the orange things strapped to my spare tire in the picture above). An upshot with snow is that for the most part it’s fairly slick so once you get out of the augered holes that your tires have made, you should be able to move.
The third mechanism falls into road-building albeit no dynamite required. If you have a hi-lift jack (and bumpers/sliders you can attach to) then you can lift the vehicle up and off it’s high centered mess, jamming rocks/dirt under the tires to make a solid track for the wheels to travel on. Likewise, you can shovel out the part in the middle (ahead of the vehicle) where you would get high centered again. This is grueling multi-hour work to even make it 100′, depending on the snow conditions.
If you’re dangerous, stupid, and lucky, you could always try using a blow torch to melt the snow. Make sure you film this so if you ignite the gas tank the video can go on youtube and make a lot of money for your family.
Obviously the easiest thing is simply to avoid the problem in the first place. If the snow is more than a foot thick (or taller than the bottom of your axles), don’t go into it. Remember that snow cats exist for a reason; wheeled vehicles can only do so much in snow.
Additionally, be careful about driving around early morning. The snow is harder then so you’ll float a little better. The same route when tried a few hours later could prove impassible. In the first picture above, way in the background there’s a subaru; it’s not going anywhere for weeks. I’m assuming it got out there on a cold icy night, and is now surrounded by soft spring snow.
I’ve never really been a “car guy”. My step dad tried to teach me mechanical principles but in retrospect I realize he wasn’t really a “car guy” either. I learned to change my oil, swap air filters, and keep the tires full. These are important tasks, but it’s a far cry from having a well worn impact gun and wobble sockets.
I was going to buy a new Jeep Wrangler: I actually drive off road a lot and who doesn’t love a new car. Fortunately while on a backpacking trip my friend talked me out of it and dropped some science on me:
Look at Africa. Look at the Australian Outback. Shit man, look at ISIS. Know what they all drive? Toyotas, and the Land Cruiser in particular if they can get their hands on one. Go to Africa and see if you spot any Jeeps: you’ll be looking for a long time.
So instead of buying a ~$30,000 Jeep with the associated payments, taxes, and cranked insurance in 2015 I found myself a 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser down at the border.
It was listed for $3,900 but with a leaky valve gasket and bald tires I got him down to $3,000 cash. When I went to register it the dealer had put a sticker over the “EXPORT ONLY” stamp, meaning it wasn’t supposed to be sold in the United States. My would-be truck was caught up in some international crime syndicate. An honestly dumbfounded look on my face at the DMV convinced the agent I wasn’t a part of it, and the registration was done.
I had done a bit of homework and learned that the FZJ-80 was one of the preferred Land Cruisers. Early enough that it still had tank-like construction (solid axles, body-on-frame construction, etc) but new enough that you’re not futzing with a carburetor or pulling a choke knob. Don’t get me wrong: nearly all Land Cruisers pre-1997 are dope whips with their respective pluses and minuses: go figure I’m in love with mine.
And basically for $3,000 (base) + $1,000 (tires) + $1,000 in various mechanical fixes I had a truck that could keep up with the bulk of true offroad vehicles. And I was pretty happy with that: no need to do any fancy upgrades, no need to get bigger tires, no need for a bro-dozer off road “rig”.
But then we moved to Mammoth and winter happened.
This winter I saw:
People losing traction and going into snow banks.
Big powerful 4×4’s stuck in snow ditches.
Tires spinning around all over.
Folks putting chains on in horrible conditions.
And through it all, I drove around in comfort. To be sure, much of snow and ice driving is about your skills. I got high centered myself trying to drive (like an idiot) through thigh deep snow. There is a reason snow cats exist, and it’s similar to why you’d take a snowmobile out and not a motorcycle: once the snow gets deep enough it’s simply not passable by a wheeled vehicle.
But in general, minus a lifted version of my own truck with more ground clearance, my Land Cruiser was a top performer here in the Eastern Sierra.
In the late fall, terror left my heart stricken: there was a leak coming down the tire of my trusty vehicle. A little bit of research led me to the problem: a broken seal in the inner axle area and a tougher-than-most-humans-will-ever-do repair job. I considered taking it to a mechanic but hardcore Land Cruiser fanatics shouted their disapproval.
As I’ve come to understand it, barring full engine rebuilds nearly all other jobs can be handled in your driveway. Indeed, many can be handled out in the middle of nowhere provided you were wise enough to pack tools and spare parts (affectionately known as “trail parts”).
I knew I could hobble along through the winter, filling up fluids and grease all the while making a huge stink in my driveway from differential fluid constantly pouring out. I acquired the tools I would need. I acquired the rebuild kit. I watched the youtube videos. I found the factory service manual on Ebay. I waited, silently sending mental vibes to my truck, “You’re getting me through this winter so well. Come spring, I’m going to take care of you. I promise.”
And so I completed my first knuckle/inner-axle rebuild. A job so intense that full grown men walked by me and commented, “Jesus… I hope you know what you’re doing.” I learned the value of my impact gun. I learned about impact swivel sockets. Aerokroil. Brass drifts. I even pounded a race in upside down and couldn’t get it out. No problem, said the Internet: use your dremel to cut some notches into it for more purchase.
I don’t think it’s masochism to say that I enjoy a challenge. Living and sailing on our boat I really enjoyed having problems thrown at me that were above my paygrade. I screwed some of them up, many I didn’t, and where I made mistakes I’ve tried to learn so I don’t ass-it-up again. I think any tradesman who’s being honest can point to stupid things they did when the learning curve was steep: it’s no big thing to make mistakes predicated that they make you better in the long run.
And so, dear reader, this has been my little tale of a boy and his truck. It’s a tale that will be told for decades and possibly centuries to come and no doubt some guy was tricking out his horse and carriage two hundred years ago.
No matter how much money I pour into this Land Cruiser, I’ll still stay under the stock price of a baseline Wrangler and my mechanical skills are coming along for the ride.
And now I must go to pick up my kids from school. It’s snowing out with low visibility on my rural busted up road, but Land Cruiser don’t give a f.
Post Script: A reader sent me this, and to correct the record you can find Jeeps in Africa:
I just wanted to point out the following blog, about a Wrangler currently making its way around Africa:
I wrote a previous article about getting to the slopes and I think it’s still pretty accurate early season. And really, most of the logistics is particular to where you’re at. If you’re in a ski-in/ski-out location right by Main Lodge, that’s obviously a lot different than being down in Bishop.
So the applicability of this will depend on where you’re coming from, but hopefully my own experiences can be useful. In short, I fell in love with Eagle.
For me, I avoid Canyon and Main in general for two reasons:
a) They tend to be mobbed. Canyon has 4 chairs (excluding roller coaster) and a massive lodge infrastructure. Main is where most of the team programs are and the parking is basically dog shit even if you get there on a good day. This can be mitigated by rolling into The Mill (chairs 2 and 10), but that’s not really Main.
b) The stuff to do at Eagle is just better, especially when it’s soft or recently-powdery.
On the last point, chair 25 (south side of Lincoln Mountain) has some of my favorite terrain on the mountain for powder days. Super steep so you keep moving. A near infinite amount of lines to choose from, and because the only real ways back down to 25 are single or double blacks it doesn’t tend to get too mobbed. Additionally, unless you’re a jacked up steroided thug you can only ride so many double blacks in deep powder before your legs are cooked so no one’s hanging there all day anyway. There are also gazillions of trees, chutes, and rocks so it doesn’t generally turn into a mogul field.
There’s also chair 9, which even when busy is still a 6-pack chair that covers a ton of ground. Bonus: it’s definitely the most wide open and random long run on the mountain. As it basically offers you access to a big valley that’s a quarter mile across and over a mile long.
Even more of a bonus, as long as you head left off the Eagle 15 chair (skier’s right), you can access chairs 9 and 25. From there no matter what you do and how much you screw up, you’ll end up back at Eagle.
To make all this happen, I try to park at Eagle by 7:45am if I’m going over there on a weekend or busy day. That gives me 35 minutes to hang out in Eagle lodge drinking a cup of coffee and reading the news, getting all my gear together. 10 minutes to get into the line and wait for the chairs to spin, and I’m golden.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog is because Mammoth Mountain, bless their souls, is terrible at explaining how some things work. Maybe they don’t want to highlight certain aspects of their operation and instead focus on SHREDDING POW BRAH. But other stuff matters, so let’s talk about dealing with your car.
There is also the Mammoth bus/trolley/shuttle system which I won’t cover much in here beyond the parking shuttles.
Unless you’re coming from outer space, you’ll take the 395 to the 203 to get to Mammoth.
The Village. Open year round, there is a gondola that will take you to Canyon Lodge. There’s also coffee, places to eat, places to lose lots of cash on clothes, and you can buy lift tickets here. But if Canyon isn’t open I’d skip it. There is a bus every ~30 minutes that makes laps between the Village (across the street, near the parking lot) and the Main Lodge.
The Mill. At the base of chairs 2 & 10, there’s a parking lot and a small restaurant. Early and late season chairs 2 & 10 aren’t running, so this might not be the smartest idea at those time. No ticket sales, so you’ll need to have your pass on you as you’re just walking up to chair lifts here. There’s a decent parking lot if you show up early.
When the mountain is “fully open”, that means that all the lodges and all the runs are online and you can pick whatever you like. But figure that out in advance and if you don’t know shoot for Main. Drive your car as far up 203 (Meridian / Main St) as you can and try to park near one of these signs:
A constant stream of free busses run between the Main Lodge and the parking signs doing laps. You probably will only wait 5 minutes, but sometimes in severe weather or really busy weekends I’ve seen it take 15.
If you’re at Parking A, walk unless you’re really beat up or in ski boots. If you’re at B and have the legs (and again, aren’t in ski boots), go for a stroll. C or further down you’re dumb as a post if you walk. Make sure you grab the bus on the going-to-the-mountain side of the street.
Also, even if you want to walk remember that it’s probably windy/snowy/icy and that busses are flying around. It’s not the safest place to be on foot.
Bring all your crap with from your car that you’ll need for the day. You can always grab the bus back to your car but that wastes time unless you’re done for the day.
Remember what parking zone you’re in, what side of the street, and whether you’re before or after the post. All SUV’s and Subarus look the same when covered in snow.
At the lodges you can also pay $25 to park right up close. Although this is rather dumb for most people, I would recommend it for first time visitors especially those with kids or that just has a big group. It’s hard to know everything you’re going to want and it’s easy to forget stuff when you’re worried about your kids. Also consider that locker rentals are $5 per use. So if you open a locker up and close it again you’re halfway to the cost of having your car right there in front of the lodge building.
Hopefully this can help some folks navigate the rather dizzying web of lodges, quasi-lodges, gondolas, roadways, parking zones, and shuttle busses that Mammoth has to offer.