Aspiring to the climb on the Jeep Jamboree
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The trick is to not look where you’re going. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: you need not be concerned with what you’re about to drive over, rather with what hand signals the instructor visible over the bonnet line is giving you.
Extreme rock-hopping looks like a daunting task. It’s certainly one that will make you wince if your 4x4 of choice has lovely alloy wheels that may be scuffed, or lots of low-hanging plastic.
In something as fit-for-purpose as Jeep’s perennial Wrangler, however, it’s a lot simpler.
That’s not to say it isn’t challenging; the “boulder field” that a small group of media was allowed to attempt to traverse, within sight of the Rob Roy Glacier in Mt Aspiring National Park last week, took a lot of patience, a lot of torque and the faintest of brow sweats to climb.
And it goes without saying, the assembled wouldn’t have made it beyond the first 50m without the shouted encouragement and steady hand-signals of Shawn Gulling and his team from the official Jeep Jamboree USA extreme off-roading crew.
Have you ever wondered why Jeep’s hardiest Wranglers (the ones with the disconnecting sway bars and other no-guts-no-glory 4WD trickery in their arsenal) have the word “Rubicon” stencilled along their brilliantly old-school bonnets?
The name comes from the Rubicon Trail; a stretch of arduous boulders and gravel that twists and turns through the Northern Californian wilderness in the Sierra Nevada mountains, near Lake Tahoe, for anywhere between 29km and 38km, depending on which specific route you take through the rock.
It’s here that Jeep tests all its hardware to ensure it’s up to the task off-road. The first 11km are the most arduous; super tough and slow-going, too. Even the best four-wheel drivers will average about 1600m an hour.
Amazingly, the road started life as an actual county road (there was even once a hotel at the trail’s midway point, Rubicon Springs, where now there is just a simple encampment). But once highways were built, the road fell into neglect and Mother Nature took over.
The Jeep Jamboree team (more on them later) uses the Rubicon as a difficulty rating for other trails it traverses around the world. With the Rubicon the benchmark at 10, Shawn reckons the incline we’re tip-toeing Wranglers up today would rate a seven or eight.
“It’d be 10 if it were longer and there wasn’t a quick and easy exit at the top,” he says.
Still, everyone present feels suitably chuffed at having successfully crept up it.
Mind you, the Wranglers are doing the real work. We have four at our disposal for the tough stuff; two with suspension lift-kits and slightly deflated mud tyres, and two essentially straight off the showroom floor, without any off-road-ready mods and wearing the BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A tyres with which every Wrangler leaves the factory.
The difference between the two set-ups is immediately obvious. The big boys with the mud tyres make easier work of the climb than the stock Jeeps. All are impressive, however, in their mountain goat sure-footedness.
While anyone who drives a Wrangler on-road will be familiar with the slightly wallowy ride (by modern SUV standards), the compromise becomes utterly worth it within seconds of hitting a gravel road, let alone scaling granite of the sort we are today.
The Rubicon Trail has been sprinkled with off-roaders since the 1950s, when it was enthusiasts in ex-military Willys Jeeps (think M*A*S*H) that would turn up every weekend.
The Jeep Jamboree became an event after Mark Smith, from nearby Georgetown, started getting townspeople involved in guiding drivers.
Then, with an ever-greater following in the 1980s, Smith approached the manufacturer about expanding the off-roading culture away from just the Rubicon Trail itself, taking his style of expert mud-pluggery out into other scenic areas of the US.
Jeep Jamboree, as an affiliated organisation, was born.
Next year Shawn and his team (all guys from Georgetown or nearby) will run approximately 35 events around the US. Trips vary in size and difficulty; some involve rustic lodges, in some the drivers camp out and each year there are many repeat visitors.
The jamboree expanded globally in 2014, with guided trips undertaken in Australia.
Naturally the crossover between enthusiast and Jeep test driver has blurred, with the marque’s owner, Fiat Chrysler, utilising the skills of the Jamboree guys to help put new models, such as the forthcoming Wrangler JL, through their paces prior to full production.
Jeep Jamboree USA has helped build Jeep test tracks in Brazil and India (where the next-gen Compass will be built) and are looking to consult on an off-road testing project in China next year.
The shape of the Jeep Jamboree is ever-changing, which is appropriate, as the place where it all started – the Rubicon Trail — can still surprise even the experts. “Because of the seasonal snow and run-off, the trail is constantly changing shape and nature,” says Shawn.
“You can do it many times but you can never take it for granted. A route through the rocks that worked a month back might be impassable now.”
In some places, he says, the gap to shepherd vehicles between opposing granite walls can be counted in millimetres; the Jeep Jamboree guides will gently rock vehicles just to inch them through certain obstacles in spots where total vehicle destruction would almost be guaranteed without spotters.
Shawn says he and his team are suitably impressed with what they’ve discovered in Central Otago.
“With the lakes, mountains and pine forests, it’s actually very similar to the Tahoe region. But this place is incredible and to find boulder fields and trails like we’ve been running on today, that’s really special, too.”
So yes; don’t look where you’re going. If you’re fortunate enough to have someone from
Jeep Jamboree USA in front of you as you scale a rock-filled Channel of Hell, place total faith in the hand signals.
These guys know what they’re doing.