Would you rather get stuck offroading as daylight fades—miles from any road—or attempt an impossible recovery in the middle of a snowstorm? if you chose “both” then oh boy do I have a story for you. Gather round, and in the spirit of dumb ideas far and wide, “hold my beer”. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
As always seems to be the case, this adventure was as impromptu as they come. 1:00pm I had called a friend to help me with some suspension work, change the oil—and if there was time—drive up to the Mountains to play around in the snow. He agreed, saying he’d be ready in half an hour.
Wasting no time, I took a knife to the right corner of my front lip spoiler, because the damn thing kept rubbing the tires with a godawful thwap-thwap-thwap every time I turned left. Cutting off the last inch of polyurethane wasn’t pretty, but today I was focusing less on the aesthetics, and more on the motion. It would do.
The next step was to address the rubbing on the other front wheel, where the tire was bouncing up into the fender. I might have been able to squeeze another half inch of lift out of the coilovers, but the clock was ticking. No time for that. Instead I did what may just be the most ghetto fender roll in the history of janky Miatas, using a tire iron lodged in the wheel gap. While pulling upwards with every bit of strength my 200 lb gorilla self could muster, I rotated the handle, spinning the iron from front to back inside the wheel gap. I lost some paint in the process, but gained precious wheel clearance that I knew I would need later on. Success.
My buddy showed up while I was waiting for the oil to drain behind a NAPA autoparts. We checked the weather at the mountain we were hoping to reach before dark and saw that it was currentlysnowing in the town at it’s base. Hell yeah. Oil drained, I closed the drain valve, spun on an already lubricated filter, and filled the engine with just shy of 5 quarts of 0w-40. Lifeblood restored, we spent a minute ogling at the gorgeous, orange 2-door parked nearby, then headed east, starting our 45 mile trek to Eagle Peak. Time? 2:50pm.
The drive was fairly uneventful, if a bit loud... I keep forgetting to put some insulation back in to give my hearing a fighting chance of lasting for a few more years. We took a ten-mile detour to skip traffic, ended up on a gorgeous twisty road through the woods with switchback after switchback. A few high-speed sweepers with high speed-limits broke up the tight turns occasionally. Wet roads, light rain. Sky still relatively bright through the trees. My Miata, clad in winter tiers and lifted to the max; my friend’s manual Protegé5, on high performance all-seasons. It was a pretty good match. He’s a skilled driver in a new-to-him car, and managed to not fall too far behind through the twisties. Looking at GPS data afterwards I realized we’d hit speeds much higher than I’d realized.... Speeds higher than my tire rating in fact. Yikes. That’s the one problem I have driving with this particular friend. Ever since we got our licenses, we’ve tried to improve our driving skills, and ended up pushing each other quite a bit. If I’m being completely honest, he’s probably the better driver between us, but also much more of a risk-taker. I’m pretty cautious on road, but with much practice I’ve grown to know my car’s limits and how it responds past those limits, which can make me look like a better driver than I really am. Practice vs. Inherent skill, I suppose...
Detour done, we got back on the main road and headed into Skykomish, the town just before the real adventure would begin. Time? 3:40pm. I waited for my friend to gas up, and a Civic coupe came blasting by, revving loudly enough to wake the dead. I think he was trying to get my attention, so I waved as he ripped the handbrake, sliding into the intersection and speeding off.
Back on the road. No snow yet, which just goes to show how strange this winter has been. Normally there would be two feet of snow lining the roads and temps in the 20's. Now? 37° with some light rain. All the snow had melted since I’d last been up around Christmas... Ah well.
Half a mile further we turned onto a side street, and then again onto a forest service road. We made it! No snow yet, but I was pretty sure we’d see some further up. Here’s the GPS data if you’d like a visual to help follow along:
The first mile or so was great. I let my buddy take the lead, and we climbed at a somewhat slow pace just in case there was anyone else there with us. Here’s a quick video to let you see it exactly how I saw it. See if you can spot where the snow starts, it’s surprisingly abrupt. (I filmed in landscape especially for you bums, so you better watch this. There will be a quiz at the end!)
I stopped recording when I saw the Protege5 hit the brakes while climbing a steep hill. There was a large dip in the road, followed by a little hill and then another dip. I backed up, letting my friend get enough spaces to climb and hopefully make it over via moment. Front tires spinning, he missed it the first attempt but managed it the second. Myself? Third try. Too slow the first, wrong approach angle the second. Flying over it the third attempt I thought to myself “this could be trouble coming down”. Those words would end up being more true than I would have believed...
Still climbing—now with a thin layer of hard-packed snow on the ground–what really stood out was how quickly the clouds were moving in. Visibility dropped quite a bit, and the light started to fade. I dropped my top to compensate, and we continued. Higher and higher. Check out these three pictures. All the same shot, taken within minutes of each other.
About halfway up the mountain things get a whole lot steeper and a whole lot narrower. Right before that tricky section, my buddy lost traction for the final time. We were high enough to be dealing with ice just about everywhere under the snow, and his tires just couldn’t handle it. Still, the wagon did pretty well considering it had the same ride height as the Miata, but with a longer wheel-base and inappropriate rubber. We backed his car down the hill and parked it on a flat section in the snow.
Time for the Offroadster to show off a little.
Consolidating our gear, we got the red Mazda boogying and easily made it through the trouble spot, with some tail-wagging thrown in for good measure. Because there’s nothing better for your heart than kicking the back end out on a snowy mountain side. Trust me. I went to nursing school. I’m koala-fied.
The light snow started to pick up, and soon enough I had to put the top back up to keep us from getting soaked. Fresh snow from above, weeks old crunchy snow below, and a hard ice layer below it all. It only took about half a mile before the Miata started losing grip on the uphill sections. Slight at first, but as the snow got deeper and the temps dropped with the elevation gain, it became more and more difficult to continue. I after three attempts to make it up one particularly nasty section, we realized it was futile with our current equipment. Lift kit and some tire studs? Sure thing. But not today. It was time to turn back...
We made it back down to the White Mazda easily enough, and as payback for some shenanigans on a previous adventure I parked as clooooose to my friend’s wagon as possible. Then I pulled forward even more and smacked bumpers. Good luck getting out, bro! Watch out for the drop off a few feet behind your car!
On our way down, he gunned it over the section we’d struggled to cross coming up, and after a terrible grinding noise... He made it.
I wasn’t so lucky...
My angle of attack was good, but I underestimated the hardness of the ground, thinking I could go over the valleys in a slow and controlled manor and let gravity help me out in case I clipped my frame rails.
I beached myself, one rear wheel off the ground the other placed in such a way as to get almost zero traction. We were on a steep down hill section, and with my bad parking brake I was worried about getting out to push. If we got the car free, the brake would not hold.
I needn’t have worried about it though. The car wasn’t going anywhere. It had finally happened. I’d gotten the Miata stuck, and we had less than half an hour before the sun would set.
Leaving his car a few dozen feet below, this is what my friend and I tried to get the Miata moving again.
1.) pushing and pulling—together—from every direction that would have even the slightest chance of success. No luck.
2.) one guy pushing while the other engaged the clutch and feathered the throttle. Nope. All the weight was in the front, and the rear wheels just spun in place.
3.) on guy sitting on the back of the car to get weight over the drive wheels. But alas, the wheels still spun.
4.) we tried sticking rocks under the rear wheels, we tried using towels, sticks. Nothing. We tried rocking the car back and forth. Nope. Lifting the front end didn’t do us any good.
5.) remembering my luggage tie downs in the back, we attempted to craft a tow rope and use the wagon to pull my Miata downhill. Unfortunately... The harbor freight spec tie down rope tore in half both times we attempted this. No go.
This was not looking good. It was now pitch black, and snowing hard. We’d tried everything and made zero progress getting the car unstuck. If anything we’d made it worse. But I had already left my baby unsupervised in a downtown Seattle parking garage earlier that week, and there was no way in hell I would leave her alone on a mountain, stuck in the middle of a snow storm 50 miles from home. I had an expedition bag and tarp in the trunk, and was fully prepared to sleep in the snow and hike down the mountain in the morning to ask a friendly man in a lifted jeep for help. They love helping get people unstuck, right?
We looked around one last time for any gear that could help us get out. Spare pair of gloves... Headphones... Towel... Oil... Nothing. The one time a shovel would have been handy, and of course I’d taken it out of my car two days prior. At that moment I had an idea, that blossomed into full-blown hope. Opening my friends hatch, I searched for removable panels and “what do we have here? AH-HAH!”
A bottle jack. Tiny, janky little pos, but it just might do the job. Sticking the jack under the frame, right behind the front wheel, we managed to raise the car, which allowed me to get in and literally drive off the bottle jack gaining me about an inch of forward momentum. I was still stuck hard, frame rails dug in to icy ground, but we had made progress. Again, bottle jack to raise the front end, and with the extra weight on the rear drive forward an inch or so until the front end fell off the jack. After six more of these “jack and gas” maneuvers I got the rear tires up on top of the mound that our frame rails had caught on! We did it! Crisis averted! It took almost two hours, but we recovered the yata and flew down the rest of the pitch-black mountain, trying to force feeling back into our numb extremeties.
I realized that at no point did I ever feel fear for myself in all of this. Actually, after all the crazy shit I’ve done over the last few years... Both in car and not, I think I’ve completely cut off personal fear. What used to be terrifying is now mildy exciting, and nothing more. Stay calm and you’ll make it through fine. Or maybe you won’t and you’ll die. Who knows. Don’t sweat it. That’s my mindset in dangerous situations and for better or worse, it’s served me well.
I felt a great deal of anxiety at the thought of something happening to my car, though. Mostly that split second where I realized that there was a chance I’d make it down the mountain, but my car wouldn’t... Slowly being encased in a fresh blanket of powder. While I’m miles away powerless to help, not aware of what could be happening to it. That thought put a dull ache in the pit of my stomach one-million times more uncomfortable than any fearful emotions brought about through dangerous driving, stormy weather, or personal safety. I just want my car to be safe and sound, parked in from of my condo every night. That’s all I really need for peace of mind.
Writing this from my dining room table, I realized there were a few other things I could have tried to get unstuck. First, I could have maxed out the rebound and compression on my coilovers to push the wheels down with more force, possibly enough to lift the car slightly, and drive over the bump. Second, I had a portable compressor, and could have tried overinflating my tires to gain a bit of ride height. Everything worked out in the end, but it would have been a lot more difficult if I hadn’t brought someone along this time.
Next step! Improve my recovery gear! If the rope hadn’t snapped I’m positive my friend could have pulled me over the bump. With that in mind, I’ll be looking for a small chain hoist, that I can attatch to front and rear tow hooks or rollbar. I’ll go back to carrying a shovel (eventually I’ll weld a shovel mount onto my luggage rack) and bags of cat litter for weight/traction. Low-profile cable chains is a possibility, as well as some sort of folding traction boards. And last but not least, I’ll be putting my scissor jack back in the car, and from this day forward I will never say another bad word about the little things.
As always, had a blast and it will only get better as the memories have time to distance themselves from the actual event.