Though my first car was a ’42 Ford military Jeep, I didn’t ever get it up in the Colorado mountains for some real four wheeling.
My parents would take our ’57 Bell Air wagon places that people said were impossible, and Mom was always curious what was down some new road, so the spirit of adventure was born in me at a young age.
My childhood friend Bruce had a Jeep with a Chrysler hemi in it that would scoot us down the road far faster than was safe, or legal, but Bruce’s Dad had taught him how to properly drive on back-country mountain roads. Bruce shared his lessons with me, even teaching me to double-clutch.
Fast forward twenty-five years to 1995; I had my first Cherokee, and was anxious to take my wife and boys four wheeling. I had driven the stretch from Glenwood Springs through Carbondale, and up McClure Pass, to Paonia for years to visit family, and we would occasionally take an excursion to Marble. One summer we took a Jeep tour from Marble to the north and east going up towards the south side of Snowmass Mountain and then on till we could see the back of Maroon Peak. I decided I had to had to return to the area and started studying Topo maps of the area. I found Schofield Pass that ran on from Crystal City above Marble to Crested Butte.
After prepping the ’93 Cherokee for the trip, and making reservations in both Redstone and Crested Butte we headed out to hopefully conquer Schofield Pass. Rated at 5-6, but with occasional closures, even in the summer, we were excited and concerned about possible conditions on the trail.
Above Marble and near Crystal City you can see the burned out hulk of a vehicle that rolled down the mountain. Not far along the initially easy trail your will pass the famous Crystal Mill on the south side of the river. Just as everyone else has, we stopped and took numerous pictures. Not far from the mill, we ran into a sign saying “Attention Drivers – Extremely rough road ahead. Vehicle traffic discouraged. 4X4 with experienced drivers and narrow wheel base only.”
The scenery of along the Crystal River is beautiful with rivulets running towards the river and tiny waterfalls cascading into space before finding a place to light on their way to the river. Emerald Lake was beautiful, and the ambience of the whole area is serene.
At one point we came to a rock ledge with little clearance on either side and an appreciable drop off on the driver’s side. My wife order the boys out and the three of them walked to the end after I successfully navigated the ledge.
Well over an hour into our crawl along Schofield, we came to an open spot with nearly a dozen vehicles stopped. A CJ had slid down the mountain side and Bronco was pulling him out with a long tow strap. The strap was too long and the CJ was being pulled backwards at too high a rate of speed. I was certain he was going to roll as the Bronco whipped him around.
That bit of excitement over we saw why everyone was stopped. Though mid-August, an avalanche of snow had come down completely covering the road for a hundred yards and no one was attempting it after apparently watching the CJ slide off of it. The slide had sideways slope of probably ten degrees and there was a real risk of sliding off too.
I pulled up to the snow slide and my wife asked “what are you doing”? I told her that I was going to check it out, and if I felt I could do it safely, would take the Cherokee across. Once again she and the boys bailed out.
I walked the length of the slide, stomping on the crusty snow occasionally to determine how I might get stuck in it, and picking up handfuls seeing how well it packed and how much ice was in it. It was corn snow, was just at the temperature were it was melting, and had a surface crust. After walking back to the Jeep, I had made me determination and decided that trying to power over it would put me at risk, but if I could carry enough speed to just get across while maintaining control, I could do it.
Backing up maybe a hundred yards, I smoothly built up to the speed I thought would take me across. With the gas pedal at that magical spot where you’re neither accelerating or decelerating, just keeping up my momentum, I easily traversed the slide then stopped while my family ran up to jump back in. We took off for Crested Butte and were there in no time with the rest of the trail being quite tame.
Looking back in my rear view mirror, the jeeps and trucks were all lining up for their shot at the slide.
I had conquered Schofield Pass, and it remains one of my favorite four-wheeling memories.
In 2005, we went back with a friend in his 2000 Cherokee. After the Crystal Mill we ran into and much larger avalanche with an approach too high to climb. We had to turn around and take the long way to Crested Butte, but witnessed a gathering of small planes who annually fly into and out of remote areas. It was really cool to see them up in the mountains with us.