4X4 Play     December 2002 - Hot Springs, AR

This excursion was as enjoyable as any I’ve been part of. Tim Woolford and his son, Sean are both skillful drivers with in-depth knowledge of the park trails. What the younger Woolford lacks in experience he makes up for with youthful enthusiasm, finding a large object to park his left front tire on at every stop.

Tim was in his nicely equipped ’88 Range Rover and his son drove his lifted ’97 TJ running about 33" tires. They were joined by a friend, Les Wilson and his family in a red TJ with a 6" lift, 35" tires, and 5.56 gears. Other club members that made the trip included Dana Giles and an Air Force friend of his from Enid, Andrew Macris from Memphis, and myself and my wife Janet from Tulsa.
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The three vehicles described above along with Dana’s stock ’98 white Disco, Andrew’s stock ’96 green Disco, and our white ’96 Disco with Old Man Emu ground clearance, no air dam, no rear anti-sway bar, and 32" Interco Trxus mud terrain radials gave us six vehicles on the trail.

The day was perfect for wheeling with a cool morning and weak sun warming things up to around 60 by late afternoon. Tim took the lead with me following and the red jeep at the rear of our little column. The trails varied from hardpack to loose gravel to leaf strewn rocks under the canopy of big hardwoods. The last type mentioned caused the first problem of the day. The hill climbs and side slopes had been "interesting" but not really severe and the steepness and lack of traction came as a bit of a surprise. I could see Tim accelerating ahead of me and followed his lead. Picking my way through rocks I didn’t want to hit at that speed became work but allowed me to pull up behind Tim at the top. We saw no one behind us but could hear the unmistakable sound of high revving and spinning tires.

Tim started walking down the hill toward the rest of the group to see if assistance was needed as his R.R. is winch equipped. I followed him down, feet flying out from under me twice, to find Dana making his second attempt and losing traction at the same spot as his first try. He was running stock street tires and was unable to move beyond the steep section of the hill without considerable momentum. The tires would continue to be a problem for him the rest of the day and earned him the nickname "Slick", bestowed upon him by the younger Woolford. Dana aired down a bit more and did an admirable job of accelerating hard up through the trees and rocks to the top. I had fallen so hard the second time that when I caught myself with my left hand (my posterior being bruised from the first fall) it cured my Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. As much as I enjoyed feeling the fingers in my left hand for the first time in years I wasn’t going to risk another fall and hitched a ride to the top with Andrew.

Andrew’s Disco was stock to the bone but his tires had an aggressive tread pattern and his truck had an aggressive driver. He was very good, had an excellent sense of timing, and felt that if it was there it should be driven up, over, or through. He pushed the accelerator to the floor and eased it back up when we slid in behind Dana at the top. Tim’s son made an equally aggressive run up, parked with his left front tire on a huge rock, and joined us watching the red Jeep with the low gears and 35" Swampers crawl easily up.

For the next couple of hours we wheeled through narrow, tree lined, off camber, ravines filled with moss and ferns. Their were great, long, hill climbs to the tops of hills that served up incredible views of the Ouachita’s. Our wandering had left me totally dis-oriented and I was mildly surprised when we approached the office from a different direction than that which we departed. My wife and I knocked back the hunger pangs with peanut butter crackers, mini Chips Ahoy, and water, vowing not to forget the cooler next time.

Tim came out of the office with permission to wheel in the newer section of the park where the trails hadn’t been packed down and the looser footing could mean more challenging climbs. I don’t know if we had run all the 1 and easy 2 rated trails in this part of the park or Tim just wanted to push himself and us a bit further. Whatever the reason the adrenalin factor increased dramatically for the afternoon session.

We headed out in the direction that brought us in to the park, me following Tim again, and turned right crossing a culverted and concreted bridge across one of the many picturesque little streams that meander through the park. I stayed on the bridge as Tim got out and pulled open the red pipe gate that allowed us in to this section of the park. I followed as he started up the road and almost immediately turned right over the 18" high gravel pile that was left by graders along the edge of the road. I eased the front tires up onto the gravel pile and watched incredulously as he eased down the embankment, crossed a small stream and headed up an incredibly steep gravel bank that required a 90 degree left turn almost before the rear tires cleared the water. Rooster tails of loose gravel that reminded me of the "Miss Budweiser" followed the R.R. as he accelerated hard up the even steeper slope that paralleled the stream he had just crossed. With a cliff rapidly developing on the left and mature trees, saplings, and stumps on the right he crashed through a series of deep root lined holes that threw the Rangy in several directions including up high enough that I saw daylight between all four tires and the slick, muddy, root lined trail. He never let up and the momentum threw him up the trail with a vengeance, quick hands throwing the truck left and right to avoid the stumps and cliff until he passed on out of sight.

I sat there wondering why I thought the extra ground clearance and better traction was an advantage earlier in the day. I think I "may" have been looking for reasons to put it in reverse rather than step on the accelerator. I knew as I negotiated the left hand turn in the loose soil that I didn’t have enough speed to get me through those holes and to compound the problem I wasn’t far enough right to avoid hitting them at the deepest point. The front end bounced through the first set of holes hard and I made the mistake of easing up on the gas. The angle of ascent came into play as it increased sharply, my hood blocking any view up the trail. I lost momentum just as the front wheels each dropped into their own hole, the right rear found one deep enough to cause a very uncomfortable lean to that side, and the left rear perched itself just on the top edge of the 15" deep hole it had just bounced out of. I was dead stopped with both feet on the brake pedal wondering why I wasn’t sliding backwards. The steepness was such that you found yourself leaned way forward in the seat, chest almost touching the steering wheel as though that would help. I eased my right foot off the brake and tried accelerating as I let my left foot ease up. The Disco eased up toward the top edge of the holes then began making them deeper, lost all traction and settled very disconcertingly back and down on the right side. Not a good feeling, this had "bad" written all over it. I leaned out the drivers window and looked down at the left rear wheel which was again perched on the uphill edge of the hole. Backing down the hill meant letting that wheel drop in to the hole at about the same time the front two would come out of theirs. Well almost! The left rear dropped down as I eased off the brake but the front two didn’t come up out of their holes, the right rear did. The truck now leaned worse to the left than it had to the right, at least the right lean was uphill, not cliffside. I shifted to reverse and eased off the brake (not an easy thing to do when you feel like you could fall backward at any second) and nothing happened. Is this possible? I’m trying to back down a 40 degree slope, the brake has no pressure on it, it’s in reverse, and I’m just sitting here. I could think of nothing I wanted to do less than accelerate, but it was the only way down. Soon it would be like second nature. I touched the pedal and it hopped out on to the loose soil and rocks. I was still looking down at the left rear and just kept it as close to the cliff as I dared and slid slowly with the brake applied or fell like a rock with it off around the corner and down in to the creek. All this became second nature as I said earlier, at least by the fourth or fifth try to get past those holes it had. After watching a couple of my attempts Dana decided that this hill was no place for his tires and used a drive around to hook up with those smug individuals comfortably parked at the top.

I kinda lost track of how many tries it actually was but they all ended in the slide / fall maneuver back to the creek bed. I surrendered the hill to the next contestant when Tim suggested I air down past the 20 lbs. I was at to below 15 lbs. As I worked at the valve stems I watched young Woolford crash his white Jeep up along the same line as his father, struggle a bit with the turns up beyond the holes then disappear. Tim’s younger son who had been riding with him had come back down the hill to perch on a huge stump next to the holes. His father and older brother joined him as Andrew eased down in to the creek for his attempt, his tires were so low I wondered how they stayed on the rims. We were both on stock alloys and I was sure that their was a warning about operating below 25 lbs somewhere. After my experience of the last 20 minutes or so I couldn’t care less about a "warning" and continued to let the air flow out. Andrew’s run up was an education in the use of momentum, going much faster when he reached the holes than I had been able to. His truck had 111,000 miles on it and the stock Land Rover shocks and coils handled it beautifully. The momentum he carried into the holes carried him forward as the suspension propelled him up. He had problems staying in his seat, belt and all, and fought the steering wheel for a bit trying to maintain control on the narrow trail but made it to the top with no broken vehicle or human parts. I had heard the Woolford’s advise him to stay way right, aim at the stump they were standing on and I decided to take the same line. I got behind the wheel and the "Red Jeep" motioned me to go ahead, wanting to keep a winch on both ends of the group. Disregarding the 137,000 miles it had on it, the fact that it was a badly needed daily driver and work truck, and physical safety I used the "Andrew" method of applied momentum and pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The airing down made an incredible difference in the speed I was able to develop, not to mention the feel when the front tires hit the back wall of the first holes. To say it was severe would be an understatement but a few seconds later I found the other trucks that had disappeared over the top and it wasn’t even close to being as tense as being stuck in those holes. Even the "Red Jeep" couldn’t crawl this one, there was no "elegant" way to do it and he got to experience backing / falling / sliding around the corner and down into the creek once before bouncing unceremoniously up like the rest of us.

The rest of the afternoon was a total pleasure consisting of adrenalin rushes, bright warm sunshine, and pleasant company. We spent most of the time on a power line right of way making climbs I wouldn’t have thought possible five hours ago including one where you had ten feet to make a 90 degree right at the top or plunge down a steep incline and over a cliff none of us had any desire to go see the height of. I stopped so suddenly at the sight of this cliff that my back wheels were still on the steepest part of the hill. It took two harrowing tries backing sidehill, actually sliding down sideways a little to get the angle I needed to get up on to the trail. We descended hills I never would never have attempted prior to what I had learned this day. Feathering the brake pedal in combination with the center differential locked in low and the shifter pulled back to 1 will literally handle any slope I can imagine. Twice the plastic laundry bag from the hotel with yesterday’s clothes in it came from behind the back seat to join us up front.

A man made pond in the far upper end of a ravine provided drama late in the day. The climb up the ravine had been fairly easy and I was now following Andrew who was behind Tim. Andrew stopped around a bend in the trail ahead of me and got out. I joined him to find Tim standing on the far side of a tiny pond, his truck further up the ravine. My first thought was "how in the hell did he get over there", the pond was obviously deep being in the "V" of this narrow gorge and reached to wall on the right. On the left was about three feet of barely driveable area and it had some tough looking brush on it. You had to decide how much steep side slope and how deep you wanted to go in the water and accelerate moderately through to the other side on that line. Too slow and you would lose traction, take water into your air intake, and or roll onto your right side in the pond. Too fast and you would stall out and or lose the back end downslope to the right into four feet of water facing the steepest part of the embankment on the other side with most of your truck all four wheels under water on the slick bottom.

We had not seen Tim’s line so I watched Andrew’s line closely in case he got it right, which he did I guess as he ended up parked behind Tim. My wife and I had watched as his right tail light dipped below the surface of the tiny pond and his left front wheel spun wildly two feet above the ground. The water approached the passenger window as the Disco clawed it’s way up on to the bank leaning very close to the 42 degree tip point. It righted itself, water pouring out and off of every surface and opening. I half expected it to shake itself dry like a golden retriever, soaking down everyone close. My wife looked at me and said "I don’t think so" as I picked a line and started leaning right and pushing water. Suddenly she was on the console, I mean totally on the little flip back lid, arms around the back of my seat, I wasn’t using it so you know...I think the water approaching the bottom of her window convinced her to vacate. All made it across with nothing worse than the Jeeps being awash in ankle deep water for a few seconds.

Around 4:30 we eased down an easy slope to what appeared to be a gravel pit of sorts. When I reached the flat open area at the bottom I recognized the spot where we had turned off the road for that nasty climb with the holes. The hill we had just come down was the drive around Dana had used. We were standing around, checking for damage, swapping lies, and stretching. Seven and a half hours locked in low brings on a certain pleasant fatigue. Dana told us that when he used this drive around he had gone the "wrong way", pointing up the right side of the area where gravel had been scooped out by a large front loader. He said after he got up on the little shelf at the back of the pit and drove around the right side the trail suddenly went straight up, there was no way a truck could get up that.

That made Tim’s ears perk up and he headed for his Range Rover. We couldn’t see the climb from where we were but could hear it. The sound of a roaring V8, tires alternately spinning and grabbing slick rock and hard pan went on for what seemed like way too long before he and the truck appeared at the top of hill and he started down toward us again. Andrew looked at me and I said "I’ll be right behind you" as we headed for our trucks. I had learned enough about Tim to read volumes into the fact that he had come down the same way we originally entered the pit, not down the slope he had gone up. I took a different path up the little shelf and after a tense moment where I really needed to turn left before front tires made contact with the ground I found myself at the base of the climb. There was no room to get up any speed and I had arrived just in time to see Andrew’s smoking rear tires go out of sight at the top. It was a classic three stage, only steeper, longer, and narrower than any I had seen before. There was eighty or so feet of "really steep" followed by about the same distance of "too steep" and finished with what appeared from the bottom to be twenty five or thirty feet of vertical. Their was enough burned black rubber toward the end of the second stage and covering all of the third stage to build a set of 44" Super Swampers. It was a great climb, one that none of us attempted a second time, a heart pounder from the beginning with several points where you thought you weren’t going to have enough traction, or power, or both.

By the time we engine braked back down to the bottom of the pit it was time to call it a day. The Mini Chips Ahoy’s had long since ceased to provide any energy and we were anxious to head back to Hot Springs for dinner and the long drive back to Tulsa. As I aired back up beside the office I had a chance to think about what a truly outstanding day it had been. A lot learned. The recovery straps had remained rolled up in their compartments, winch fair leads undisturbed. The only damage I was aware of was a small wheel well problem I had and Andrew lost a rear mud flap. They were an outstanding group to wheel with and I would love to do it again, after all I bought a year's pass.

Trail Report - Jim Royall, Tulsa, OK
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