Damien O'Carroll goes bush-bashing in the mighty Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Riding roughshod over
Dogs, it seems, are fickle creatures when it comes to America's Rubicon trail. Apparently the legendary Grandaddy of all off-road trails is something that some dogs take great glee in trying out while being bounced around in the back of a 4WD. Others aren't so keen.
I learn this when a chocolate labrador pup bounces excitedly around my feet while I talk to his owner, an almost equally bouncy young woman who has just spent the weekend traversing the trail with a group of friends.
The pup is not one of those dogs that enjoys off-roading. The owner explained how the pup didn't really enjoy the Rubicon trail, although to be fair it was the 9-month-old's first off-road trip, "Oh, and by the way, one of our vehicles rolled over on the trail. We don't think we'll take this dog again though, as he really didn't enjoy it. Have a great time, you guys are gonna love it."
Not for the first time, I wonder what the hell I have got myself into.
This was always going to be an awesome trip. They have many legendary off-road trails in the United States but Rubicon is the most legendary of them all. And it quite possibly includes the most intimidating 19km in the world.
Even the name is an exercise in blatant intimidation; the trail is named after the Rubicon River in Italy that Julius Caesar crossed in 49BC triggering the great civil war. Since then "crossing the Rubicon" has basically meant passing the point of no return.
The trail itself is a paltry 35km long, located to the west of Lake Tahoe on the border between California and Nevada. To make it sound even less impressive, the unsealed part is only 19km - but it still takes you two days to cover those 19km, as it is done at an absolute crawl.
Our vehicles for this mighty undertaking will not be the unfeasibly enormous, massively customised bush-bashers we have encountered so far. Instead, Jeep created a Rubicon edition of the Wrangler and the reason we are doing this trail is to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
The Wrangler Rubicon was devised from the get-go to be able to travel the Rubicon straight from the showroom floor and, as such, is the single-most formidable 4WD on the market today. Its 3.6-litre Pentastar petrol V6 produces 209kW of power and 347Nm of torque and is hooked to either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. The Rubicon is beefed up with Jeep's Rock-Trac manual, shift-on-the-fly transfer case, five-link solid-axle suspension front and rear, locking diffs front and rear, and an electronically controlled front sway bar disconnect to allow truly epic front-wheel articulation.
The 10th Anniversary edition makes it even more formidable, adding a huge amount of visual attitude with its fantastic Grand Cherokee SRT8-inspired bonnet, some truly serious BFGoodrich tyres and some of the best (and completely solid steel) bumpers ever to grace a vehicle.
We won't be seeing those here though; apparently our Government has a problem with solid steel bumpers with massive red tow-hooks sticking out of them.
Anyway, our ride for the first day is a big, white four-door Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited 10th Anniversary. I am quietly thankful it is a five-speed auto, yet quietly apprehensive that it is the long-wheelbase four-door ... still, the Rubicon comes equipped with full underbody protection and rock-sliders - heavy-duty bars that replace the running boards of lesser vehicles - so the vital bits and pieces should be well protected.
I am a passenger as we head in and things don't seem so bad to start with. The scenery is stunning and the trail is all small to medium rocks, with the first few serious obstacles being easily dispatched by the Wrangler's prodigious off-road capabilities.
Rather surprisingly, the trail is more like a main highway on the Sunday afternoon that we head in, with a simply staggering amount of traffic in both directions.
These are without exception the highly modified beasts mentioned previously and they range from beaten, rusting hulks on massively hiked suspension to custom-built space-frame creations, to gleaming, fully-chromed, custom-paint job, show-ready beauties with every conceivable off-road accessory.
The trail itself gets progressively more intimidating and, yes, fun.
The rocks get constantly larger and progress noticeably slower as the morning turns to afternoon and the obstacles get consistently more challenging. Fortunately, we do have guides to show us the best way through the most difficult stuff, but there is a surprising amount of freedom - and a remarkable, but no doubt justified, amount of faith from Jeep people in their product's ability to do it - and it is really only the truly gnarly stuff, like Cadillac Hill, that the guides are there for.
Although the name sounds somewhat unassuming, Cadillac Hill haunts us all morning.
"Have you done Cadillac Hill before?", "You'll enjoy Cadillac Hill!", "Have fun going down Cadillac", all yelled with the kind of bellicose joy of people who have survived, begin to sound like "Cadillac will eat your soul, boy," or "I hope you hugged your children before you left," by lunchtime, which coincidentally is at the single most amazing place on the planet.
Called, rather unimaginatively, Observation Point, it is at the top of Cadillac Hill and offers stupendous views of the Sierra Nevada mountains. At roughly 1850m above sea level, it is about the same as being half way up Mt Cook.
Following lunch we finally get to tackle the descent of the infamous Cadillac Hill. Or, at least, I do. My passenger has decided to walk down to "take photographs".
It turns out Cadillac Hill is every bit as utterly terrifying as our imaginations had led us to believe. An impossibly steep descent barely centimetres wider than the Jeep, strewn with car-sized boulders and hairpin switchbacks.
But as terrifying as it is, it also proves to be possibly the most fun I have ever had in a motor vehicle.
The skill of the guides and the competence of the Wrangler make it a truly remarkable experience: gut-wrenchingly terrifying, utterly satisfying and huge fun, all at the same time.
Reaching the bottom is almost an anti-climax, except for the fact that the scenery becomes even more stunning as we approach Rubicon Springs, the site of our overnight stop, complete with a bar and, yes, even a piano. It is a night spent revelling in the awesomeness of the day, reliving once-in-a-lifetime experiences, knowing that we get to do it all over again the next day.
Rather than continuing through the rest of the trail, we are heading back the way we came the following day. The day-long drive back to where we were staying from the far end of the trail suggests that logistically this is sensible, but the confidence built up over the previous day begs to be tested further on unknown obstacles.
Still, heading out the same way we came in proves to be totally different to how it was coming in, and the lack of traffic on a Monday is a stark contrast.
Passing over obstacles we considered terrifying the day before, yet feel like child's play now, is illuminating.
The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is so utterly at home here it is simply stunning.
The auto just crawls relentlessly over pretty much anything, but it is the manual that is the true stunner.
Simply leaving it in first in low-range and not touching the throttle or clutch sees it even more relentless than the auto.
Rocks the size of small houses fail to stop its progress and stalling it is almost impossible.
Then there is the remarkable feeling of satisfaction from doing something that had moments before seemed impossible.