Listen: when you decide to outfit your car for adventure and hit the road, you have to expect some things to go wrong. I knew that, Adam knew that. But what we didn't expect (and maybe should have) was getting stuck in the mud at 16,200+ feet, in the snow. Overnight. What follows is an account of what happened.
What we'd both love to know is what we might have done better.
First mistake: Leaving the road.
Now, it's hard to know for sure that we wouldn't have gotten stuck if we'd just stayed on the road. We drove off the road to avoid the lake, pictured below, that blocked our way. We'd already been getting increasingly worried about the terrible road conditions as the day progressed and had, only a couple hundred feet earlier, nearly gotten stuck in the mud ON the road. Off to the left of the road, there were a lot of big, mossy patches and rocks, which offered more stable ground. Our hope was to use that terrain to get us to safety. So the decision was clearly--in retrospect-- a mistake, but at the time not an easy or a clear choice.
Second mistake: Getting cold.
So we scouted a seemingly safe route, drove off the road, and promptly got stuck in about 1.5/2 feet of mud around the front wheels. This was about 5pm, and so we knew we had about an hour of sunlight left. In order to make the most of our limited light, we got to work immediately, before checking to make sure we had enough clothes on. Which we didn't. And once you GET cold, it's very difficult to get warm, when there's no real warm place to go. We did our best to jack the back of the car up with our 4Runner's bottle jack (we are now looking into buying a Hi-Lift jack, a piece of equipment we decided to skip due to space and weight concerns), and to get large, flat rocks underneath the back wheels so that we could back out over them, with the tires aired down from 45 PSI to 30 PSI. When that failed, we stacked large, flat rocks beneath the bumper so the car would not sink MORE over night.
First good choice: Going to bed.
It became clear that we were not going to get the car out that night. So, we decided to call it a night around 7:30pm. This allowed us to get some sleep, get warm, and to collect our thoughts. This was the first, demonstrably and undeniably good choice we made.
Third Mistake? Taking off the back right wheel.
We still don't know if this was a good idea or not. But what became abundantly clear, and quickly, was that we could not move with the back right wheel lodged thoroughly in the mud as it was. The back left wheel was basically free, and both of the front wheels were almost entirely submerged. So our hope was pinned to the back right wheel. However, it was so caked with mud--which had frozen solid in the night-- that it could not move, it was about 20-30lbs heavier than usual, and nigh un-maneuverable. The car was very precarious jacked on muddy ground, on a large flat rock, and was by no means stable. If the jack had failed we would have been properly fucked. But this decision DID allow us to clear the mud that blocked the inside of the wheel, and get some flat rocks under it.
Fourth mistake: Ignoring self-care.
In our urgency to get to work, we did not eat, we did not put on sunscreen, we did not make coca tea or coffee (both of which would have helped with altitude sickness and decision making). We got sunburnt like mad. We were both woozy and cloudy-headed. Who knows what a little self-care could have done to keep us safer, happier, and would have put us more quickly back onto the road.
Fifth mistake? Excessive digging.
Water began to fill in under the back right wheel. The ice from the night before was melting and it was unclear if our digging was helping our hindering our efforts. Adam's feet got very wet in this process, putting his health at risk, and no matter how much he dug out, more water seemed to come in. It was like a well.
First stroke of luck: Menau and Lario.
This was an incredibly desolate road, with the nearest city more than 5 hours away. We had not seen anyone since the other stranded couple we'd come upon--who'd run out of gas, and who we provided with gas-- earlier that day. So when I saw a pickup truck winding its way toward us, I bolted for them. We were far enough off the road that they might not have seen us if I had not run at them, screaming and arms flapping. Without their help and generosity, who knows what it would have taken to get us out.
Second good choice: Placing flat rocks beneath the wheels.
Menau and Lario immediately set to work doing exactly what we had been doing before, which was jacking up the car so that flat rocks could be placed beneath the tires. Their focus helped us regain ours, and it was also heartening to have help, and to see that our method was not insane, but rather their chosen method as well. Menau used his larger jack to get the car higher which allowed us to get larger rocks in the right places. While this method did push the front wheels lower into the mud, it also helped us get better traction on that integral back right wheel.
Tough break: Towing didn't help. At all.
Once a lot of flat rocks had been placed beneath that back right wheel, we attached Shadow to Menau's big pick up truck (also a Toyota) by a recovery strap and D-rings. While prepping this, we revved our engine in neutral for about 10 seconds. He pulled just enough to get tension, and then (in 4WD low) we reversed as hard as we could as he pulled. This very nearly got his truck stuck in the mud, so we quickly stopped. Shadow hadn't budged an inch.
Third good choice? Side-jacking the front left wheel.
We've heard that this can grievously damage your wheel. BUT. Menau side jacked the front wheel using a large, flat rock, and managed to get us about 3 more inches of space. While Menau had to go, he promised he'd come back within two hours. In the meantime though, he bade us to keep working, and lent us his pickaxe so that we could more efficiently. We shoveled out beneath the wheel, and placed as many flat rocks as we could. This was what ultimately enabled us to pull Shadow free.
Fourth good choice: Rocking the car.
We revved the car in neutral, and readied it to reverse again. Immediately, it was clear that a tiny bit of traction had been found, and so Adam used a rock to stabilize himself, and pushed with his chest against the front bumper in pulses, creating a rocking-action with the truck's momentum. The result was that, like starting a swing, each time the car rocked a little bit more. And finally, blessedly, and to our great relief, the truck became free.
What we want to know is: what could we have done differently? What could we have done better? What do we do to make sure this doesn't happen again?
For the interested: we talk about this incident in greater detail on the latest episode of our podcast, 31: Stranded at 16,200 ft.