Nick Savatgy November 15, 2023 Events
fifty-eight people surround me as the cold wind exfoliates my face with grains of blowing sand. I have the Rogue Overland crew at my side: Red Leader, Green Leader, Blue Leader, Gold Leader, and Slave 1. Yes, we are Star Wars nerds. The driver’s meeting for the 7th annual Rogue Overland Expedition presented by Bubba Gear is in full swing. Topics include Tread Lightly! principles, trail etiquette, medical emergency protocol, and Race 2 Erase 22, a non-profit that works to shine a light on veteran suicide. We also discuss the sponsors involved with the event, companies such as Underland Offroad, Xgrid Campers, Nisstec Lifts, and Warn.
“We secretly wonder if the trailer in our group and the less experienced drivers will be able to complete Wipe Out Hill, a non-avoidable obstacle as intimidating as the first dinner with your significant other’s parents.”
Today our 39-vehicle convoy will tackle 49 miles around western Moab. Portions of trail miles include Seven Mile Rim and Hurrah Pass. We secretly wonder if the trailer in our group and the less experienced drivers will be able to complete Wipe Out Hill, a non-avoidable obstacle as intimidating as the first dinner with your significant other’s parents.
The ascent at the beginning of Seven Mile Rim is a shelf road that twists and climbs like a snake making its way through the dusty desert landscape. The surface of the road is scattered with rocks the size of watermelons and plenty of loose dirt to challenge traction. The group is progressing well. Vehicles include several full-size pickups, highly modified Nissan Xterras, various Toyotas, an Isuzu Vehicross, and some Jeeps.
Blue Leader has been keeping an eye on the weather report, which shows mostly cloudy with a 30% chance of scattered showers. The report will prove to be bad intelligence. As we crest the top of the massive red sandstone bluff, the clouds drop a light misty rain. This is the kind of rain that dampens the ground and makes the air taste clean. When we arrive at Uranium Arch, which has a massive 23-meter span, the rain turns to a light snow and visibility is reduced to 400 meters.
After taking in this amazing feature of natural construction, we push on. The trail begins to weave in and out of juniper trees, which are starting to accumulate snow. The snow begins to fall more rapidly and densely; the most beautiful white snowflakes are now the size of quarters. Snow is accumulating on the Cascadia Vehicle Tents (CVT) rooftop tents and Adventure Trailers Habitats, with which some of the vehicles are equipped. The terrain becomes slick as our tires transfer mud from the dirt sections of the trail onto the slick rock portions. This is concerning as there are still significant obstacles ahead, obstacles such as The Ledges and Silver Crack.
We press on. By now it has been snowing for well over 30 minutes. The clouds are so thick that visibility is down to 100 meters. Between the accumulating snow and foggy visibility, it’s hard to tell if we are still on the trail or pushing into battle as knights on a dreary medieval battlefield. Focused minds and top-notch spotting by the Rogue Overland squadron leaders keep the group moving forward.
Like the curtains being retracted at a Cirque Du Soleil show, the storm breaks, and the clouds part to reveal Merrimac and Monitor Butte. These awe-inspiring structures tower 194 meters above the trail and are named after two steamships from the American Civil War. After spending several hours in near white-out conditions, it was a welcome sight to see the horizon boasting these massive deep red sandstone cliffs with the bluest sky backdrop you have ever seen.
We press past the buttes towards Wipe Out Hill. The vehicles look like a line of ants marching along as we descend Wipe Out Hill, except one of the ants is a giant beetle pulling a stick. Xgrid Campers brought their Ram 2500 with a Xpedition Voyager trailer in tow. Now, Wipe Out Hill is an intimidating obstacle that puts your rig near vertical, twice, while requiring S-turn steering inputs. Without a bypass, we have to get this rig down the obstacle. By happenstance, we run into our friend (and experienced off-roading coach) Nena Barlow on the trail, who offers to help. We agree that I (Rogue One) will spot through the first vertical section and Nena will spot through the lower vertical section. The owner of Xgrid Campers keeps eyes locked on me as if we are in a staring contest. As I provide the signals needed and he applies the appropriate inputs into the rig, he is near vertical as the trailer is about to enter the obstacle. The Ram starts to level out as the trailer now approaches near vertical. The sound of metal on sandstone pierces through the air. Luckily, the sound was from the hitch. If you haven’t heard it before, it resembles the noise of nails on a chalkboard and is very common when wheeling in Moab. I direct the driver to start turning passenger as the trailer starts to level out. At this point I pass the spotting over to Nena, who repeats the process, getting him to the bottom of the obstacle safely. I have been off-roading since I was 3 years old, a part of the Nissan off-road community for over 25 years, and I have never seen anything like this. That was cool!
With Wipe Out Hill in our rearview, the rest of the day is easy. The weather cooperates and we take the beautiful Hurrah Pass to an elevation of 1,461 meters above sea level. After cresting the pass, we are welcomed by a magnificently vast view of the afternoon sun and the Colorado River. Base Camp Adventure Lodge is our destination. Soon we arrive at a beautiful spot nestled along the Colorado River, which will serve as camp. Base Camp Adventure Lodge provides us a building to hold the Warn Industries welcome dinner and the much-anticipated sponsor raffle. The raffle has become a staple of the event and, thanks to our sponsors, gets great products in the hands of the participants. This year’s raffle was a raging success thanks to Bubba Gear, Underland Offroad, Nisstec Lifts, Xgrid Campers, Power Republic, Adventure Trailers, White Knuckle Off Road, Toytec Lifts, Cascadia Vehicle Tents, Fat Bobs Garage, Impulse Off Road, Fresh Coast Knife Company, Tembo Tusk, Maxgear Armor, 5.11 Tactical, MOORE Expo, Method Race Wheels, Geyser Systems, The Perfect Bungee, Hill People Gear, and Gunk.
The day starts with the amazing smell of freshly brewed coffee. Wildland Coffee Company is along on the trip and has provided a coffee bar for the group, bringing some of their staple blends and some “top secret” test blends. Some people like coffee and some people need coffee. I just love the smell of coffee. I’m already too wired when I’m not caffeinated, so I just enjoy the smell as the others sip their cup of Joe during the driver’s meeting.
“It’s such a rare treat to have the lush vegetation along the river off to the left of our vehicles and the barren desert landscape off to the right.”
This morning’s meeting has a backdrop of the Colorado River and an area scattered with items that tell the stories of the eclectic nature of the landowner. A trials bike without a motor, a 70’s era yellow Ford pickup with a tow strap still attached from when it was dropped in this spot, and a 15-meter diameter peace symbol outlined in the ground with wine bottles.
Today the plan is to tackle La Sal Mountain Loop and Onion Creek trail. We backtrack over Hurrah Pass and as we reach Moab, we get our first glimpse of the snow-covered La Sal Mountains. The fresh snow from the day before has us wondering how wet the road conditions will be and if our band of brothers (and sisters) will make it through. As we gain elevation, the scenery changes from sandstone to the greens of juniper trees. A few miles up the road, the brilliant white of fresh snow is present; there is an amazing contrast of red in the ever more distant valley floor and white on both sides of the road. As our convoy zigs and zags up the mountain road, the snow gets thicker and thicker until finally, snow drifts cover sections of the road. The small intermittent snow drifts are no match for our overland vehicles, as our engines turn four wheels to cut through the snow like a hot knife through butter.
I hear a call over the radio. It’s Green Leader. “Hold the group,” he says, “I’m going to scout the next section.” A few moments pass and I hear another transmission. “I’m stuck.” Green Leader, in an AEV Jeep Rubicon, is buried to the frame 30 meters into a 100-meter-long snow drift. We shovel the fluffy snow away from his rig and put some neon green Maxtrax behind his tires. We hook him to a Ram 2500 with some Bubba Gear Gator Jaw shackles and tow strap and are able to pull him out with ease.
We gather the Rogue Overland crew to weigh the pros and cons of pushing forward, but ultimately the unknown quantity of snow drifts ahead and the limited daylight left leads us to the decision to double back. We backtrack through Castle Valley and hit the other side of Onion Creek. We still want to see Onion Creek, so we run it out and back. More than a dozen water crossings and navigating a deep sandstone ravine is what gives this trail its luster. No matter what direction you look, the views are breathtaking.
We arrive at camp; the excitement is thick like molasses on a cold morning as tonight is the potluck dinner. A tradition on the Rogue Overland Expedition, the potluck offers the opportunity to show off overland cooking skills. This year’s dishes include elk chili, chicken quesadillas, a veggie platter, Guinness stew, and bratwurst. Homemade carrot cake and Crumbl cookies round out the desserts. After dinner, we enjoy conversations as the glowing reds and oranges of the campfire reflect off the 200-meter-high sandstone face we are camped next to.
At this point, we are hitting our stride as a group. Everyone arrives at the driver’s meeting promptly at 8:30 a.m. Today is Star Wars t-shirt day. Images of Grogu, X-Wing fighters, light sabers, Darth Vader, and stormtroopers are everywhere. I can tell with this group that today there will be no shortage of radio chatter sprinkled with phrases such as ‘May the force be with you,” “This is the way,” and “Rebel scum”—I love it!
We make our way to Green River, Utah, to explore the abandoned Green River Launch Complex. Operational from 1964 to 1979, this once bustling Air Force and Army missile program test site is a mere ghost town. It’s an eerie feeling to stand in this facility and only hear the sound of the desert breeze blowing by. From the concrete bunker control center to the steel structures in which the Athena missiles were assembled, it makes me wonder what stories these walls would tell if they could talk.
With that piece of history behind us, we make our way to the Green River Ledges trail. As we start the trail, I’m fascinated at how quickly the terrain has changed. We are now traveling on dirt that has the consistency of what I imagine moon dust to be. The trail starts out easy but slowly increases in difficulty by throwing some off-camber and some ledge climbs at us. The drivers and their vehicles take the early obstacles in stride as the trail parallels the Green River. It’s such a rare treat to have the lush vegetation along the river off to the left of our vehicles and the barren desert landscape off to the right. It’s like the line of Spartan soldiers in the movie 300 are holding the line against the Persians right on this very trail, producing a drastic contrast between either side of the trail.
Blue Leader comes over the radio, “There is a pretty bad washout up here, and I’m not sure how we will get the longer vehicles through.” I walk up to the wash out and we assess the situation. Option one is a deep rut that will require great approach/departure angles. Option two is a very off-camber line which still requires a decent approach angle. We decide to build a Maxtrax bridge to even out the off-camber line and then let each driver make their choice. Blue Leader spots every rig through the obstacle with military attention to detail; all while sporting his uniform for the day, a Boba Fett onesie.
From there the trail turns west away from the river and continues to climb up, over, and around various hills and rocky ledges. Some obstacles challenge the full-size vehicles in our group and some challenge the short-wheelbase rigs. The continued positive attitude of the group is inspiring and though the day plays long like the credits of a Marvel movie. And we make it to camp several hours before sunset.
Tonight, we make camp on a bluff overlooking the Green River. There is no potluck or raffle, but now the group is more meshed together after several days of adventure. Food, beverages, a campfire, and many entertaining stories are shared under a blanket of desert stars.
The last day of the 7th annual Rogue Overland Expedition is upon us. After a quick driver’s meeting, we knock down about 90 minutes of necessary highway that brings us to the Bentonite Hills. If you have been in this area, then you know the landscape in this entire region is fairly barren. However, once we turned onto Factory Butte Road, it was as if we were transported to another planet. Given the sandy lifeless terrain, I’m unsure if our overland rigs or some type of NASA Lunar Terrain Vehicle would be more suited to traverse the area. We make our way around Factory Butte, an impressive 1,920-meter-tall summit named by early settlers who thought the outline resembled a factory building.
Past the butte we turn off Factory Butte Road for a small offshoot and again the terrain changes. We are weaving in, out, and sometimes driving down bone dry washes that have been hammered by the relentless desert sun. The sun is now high in the sky as if to signal the designated meeting time of two western gunslingers for their high noon duel. The ground has a crusty white consistency like that of a salty dry lakebed.
Another 20 minutes go by, and the trail now becomes what we refer to as a 100-mile-per-hour road. It’s flat and fast! Several in our group are running Total Chaos long travel suspension and many more are running King Shocks from Underland Offroad. The group spreads out significantly as people with the appropriate suspension take advantage of the opportunity to use it. The color of the ground is now varying shades of deep red, much like any representation of the Mars landscape I have ever seen. The vibrant colors of the rigs against the dark red dirt make a display of colors much like that found in a spring bouquet. After what seems like an hour of a bunch of overlanders pretending to be rally drivers, the squadrons regrouped at our final obstacle and the conclusion point of this year’s event: the Fremont River.
The snowfall this winter has been record-breaking and although typically hub deep, we were uncertain how deep the river crossing would be. I take my boots off and throw on my Crocs, with the heel strap flipped back to “off-road” status, of course. Then I walk across to test the depth. Water depth is as tall as a 35-inch tire in a few places, so it shouldn’t be a problem. One by one, the vehicles complete the 100-meter-long crossing. Some vehicles attack it, going after splash-style points, while others do their best not to get their rigs wet.
“The small intermittent snow drifts are no match for our overland vehicles, as our engines turn four wheels to cut through the snow like a hot knife through butter.”
The great thing about adventure travel is that each person is unique, and they build their rig to fulfill their vision of what an adventure vehicle should be. Then these people come together for an event like ours to share an amazing experience while tackling the journey in their own way. The people on these expeditions are what make the trips valuable, and going forward, they are forever part of the Rogue Overland family.
If you want to learn more about adventures like this one, check out the Adventures Playlist on the @RogueOverland YouTube channel. If you want to participate in a future expedition, then check out rogueoverland.com to sign up. The sign-up for each year’s event goes live on the website in January. Be sure to be quick, as the event typically fills up within 24 hours.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared in TREAD Nov/Dec 2023.
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