Day 8 would prove to be eventful and challenging as well. After breaking camp and heading over Cumberland Pass towards Pitkin, we continued our journey south. Our route took us through some ranchland by way of improved roads that allowed us to make good time to Cochetopa Pass.
We continued south and east towards Del Norte across the wide valley floor. The terrain became interesting enough to warrant more axle articulation from the Jeeps, so we disconnected our sway bars and aired down our tires before heading across the valley floor. There had been some heavy rains and flash flooding in the recent past, so some of the trail still held large water puddles and evidence of piled natural debris. The convoy spread out as we stopped at different points to take photographs, so we made a stop under East Butte overlooking the Rio Grande river valley. As Marcus pulled up, a mechanical rattling from his front axle was evident.
We knew something was not copasetic, and the axle U-joint was visibly loose, so we slowly made our way into Del Norte. Fortunately, there was a well-stocked NAPA in Del Norte that would have everything we needed to get Marcus’s ZJ repaired. After removing the front wheel, we discovered that one of the brake caliper bolts had broken free, and the other was loose. One of the threaded holes was damaged and required rethreading. Fortunately, the NAPA also had a correct CV front axle half-shaft to replace the current axle shafts that had been damaged to the point of not being able to replace the universal joint. The repairs were a two hour operation that went right up to NAPA’s closing time, but we fortunately carried sufficient tools to completely repair the damaged axle and brake. This was a good lesson for us all on the importance of maintenance inspections. No amount of capability in an overland vehicle will overshadow reliability.
After fueling all the vehicles, we were anxious to arrive at a spectacular campsite high in the mountains. We headed south out of Del Norte towards Indiana Pass and Summitville. Indiana Pass next to Greyback Mountain is an awesome view in every direction. The elevation here is roughly 11,500 feet. Weather had been moving in, and clouds were forming around us and we drove in mist. We continued on a few miles to Summitville, a mining ghost town and an EPA Superfund cleanup site.
We decided to go a little further over the mountains to a valley cradling De Nolda and Annella Lakes. The lakes were mirror smooth and basically required us to take some quality photographs. There were other campers in the area, but we found perhaps our favorite campsite of the trip in a valley meadow next to a creek and waterfall. Dry firewood was not in abundance, and required some hard work out of Alex. Especially since the old chainsaw was now struggling to operate. Matt, Marcus, and Rob had the “epic fire pit” construction down to an art. However, as soon as we arrived and began to unload the vehicles, Tom realized he had left his cell phone in Del Norte and had to drive back to town to retrieve it.
We told Tom to stay in contact on the radio as long as he could, because there was no cell service where we were camped. It took quite a while to get dinner made and the camp set up since we decided on stew once more, and we made it from scratch. We also reset the campsite configuration and set up tarps in case the rain began in earnest. With a water source close by, and several days on the trail, it was time for a shower. Everyone lined up for a chance with the onboard hot shower system. Between everyone jockeying for the next turn and portaging buckets of water to the YJ to run through the system, the whole process became quite comical. It had become downright chilly after the sun set and we huddled around the campfire. Matt broke out his laptop and we watched a movie, silently hoping Tom’s call sign would come loud and clear across the radio. The hour got late, and we still hadn’t heard from Tom. Matt and I became concerned and decided we had better go look for him.
Our HAM radios were double checked, the trailer was unhitched from the YJ and Matt and I set forth on a rescue mission. We continued to do regular radio checks with Marcus at camp and called out to Tom. We got out of range of camp being able to transmit to us, but only a couple minutes more and we heard Tom shout out his call sign! We breathed a sigh of relief and began coordinating to determine where Tom was and how to meet up with him. We finally met up at Summitville and headed back to camp. We learned some valuable lessons in this situation. First, we did not have comprehensive communication plan in place before Tom left. Second, we didn’t implement our APRS navigation radios properly to the situation. Both of these learning points were applied to the Flatwater Overland SOP for future journeys. This situation also showed us once again the power of HAM radio in overland travel. We also later determined that Tom was 30-40 miles away when we first contacted him, and Marcus was able to monitor every transmission between Tom and our mobile radio at base camp.