Our trip to Ouray in 2019 had hit a major issue. The Mountain passes were overwhelmed with snow over the past winter. Even in July, we were looking at passes that traditionally had been open by now that we’re still under 20 feet of snow, trees and avalanche debris. Regardless of this news, we were still committed to camping and enjoying the area, even if it meant limited trail rides.
On our second day of the trip, we decided to take a run down to Silverton via the Alpine loop. The “loop” is a series of trails meshed together that run from Ouray to Silverton, over to Lake City and back. Silverton is probably the ultimate tourist trap in the rockies. Short of food and souvenirs, the once thriving mining town doesn’t have much to offer outside of the main street of town and a wonderful assortment of small shops
Our plans got a jolt when we got to the Loop trail head.
Close your eyes and picture the worst lightning storm you have ever witnessed… Then add some green and yellow to the clouds to make it look extra eerie…. Smash that vision between two mountains and visualize a rock strewn mountain pass going right up into the storm. That’s what we observed at the trailhead to Alpine Loop. It was nasty. Something out of Lord of the Rings. Like looking into Sauron’s all-seeing eyeball. Knowing that the freshly cleared trails were still avalanche strewn and now being washed down with rain and hail did not sound appealing to any of us. Especially since we were with our Daughters… This was not a time to be filled with male bravado and jump into a bad situation in the name of adventure.
Having been to Ouray a few times over the years, we have been on about every pass in that neck of the woods. Just a few miles south of this pass on highway 17 was another scenic pass that heads to Telluride. Ophir Pass. I am obviously jaded from years of travel in the San Juan’s… Because I was having a “I’m Bummed we have to take Ophir” moment with the other Dads. Why? Because I have this perception the Ophir is kinda lame. Sorry! I said it!
Ophir is a below average trail when it comes to technical concerns. It’s a loose gravel road with a steady consistency for the whole drive. At the top of the pass was a great little spot to take a break and let the girls throw snowballs… At their respective Dads! We grabbed some pictures with the sign and headed down the hill to Telluride. While I am jaded about this “easy” trail… My 17 year old daughter thinks it looks pretty scary. So I did the scariest thing I had done on the whole trip… I put her in the driver’s seat for the drive down to Telluride.
A few of the switchbacks going down require a multi-point turn on loose gravel… Looking over a thousand foot drop. My daughter was stressing and handling it like a champ. Add this experience to her quiver of life experiences that make her that more confident on the road. Me moving over to the passenger seat was the best thing that happened that day!
Ophir Pass may have been a tame ride from my veteran perspective, but to my daughter, it was an amazing drive! Sometimes you need to get out of the driver’s seat and share the adventure.
In 2018, when the Trail Team came out to Ouray… We had scouted out an area for camping on the south side of town, up about halfway on the route out of town. The spot had not been ideal for one camper in our group with an adventure trailer. (There’s a whole conversation we could have as a sidebar to this post) The trail to the campsite had a few rough patches of rocks and some sharp elevation changes. This year, with the three 4Runner sans the adventure trailer, we again scouted the area upon arriving to Ouray. The trail was actually kind of fun, and when we reached the camping area, we found 3 empty spots set beside each other, up against a creek in an empty mountainside valley.
This new-to-us camp spot was ideal, as we were close to Ouray and all of the local mountain passes. Ouray is called Little Switzerland for a reason, for a good chunk of the year, its surrounded by snow capped mountains. In a typical late-June trip, we were going to have our pick of a half dozen mountain trails to head over to the surrounding communities of Telluride, Silverton and Lake City.
As we setup, the three girls took a walk to large boulder that was about 150 yards away, sitting neatly in the grass near the edge of the woods. This single rock was as big as a Large Airstream Camper. The girls climbed it and watched us setup camp from their perch.
Two of us with tents setup on the ground while Don, found a level spot to park his truck to use his rooftop tent (RTT). Don and I were carrying food prep supplies as well… So we unloaded his custom made “chuck box” and my cooking gear to make the trucks easier to deal with on the trails. Lets be clear, the trucks could handle the weight of the cargo. What we could not handle being on the trail with all of our gear getting bouncing around and the endless rattles of pots, pans and cutlery!
At our base-camp for the next three days, we started off every morning with homemade breakfast. I don’t want to brag, but we made breakfasts that would rival anything we could cook at home. As we have done more and more of these trips, I would be lying if I didn’t say that we are getting more extravagant with our meal prep. That’s not to say we have elaborate meals, but we are not scared to use real ingredients to get the job done. On a recent trip, two days out in the field, done fixed homemade biscuits and gravy using a dutch oven to cook the biscuits… And his skottle to cook the sausage and gravy.
Our trip seemed to his a high note on day two when a visitor came close to camp after breakfast. While cleaning up our breakfast, Sophie yelled “Bear”… We all looked at her with question marks over our heads… “huh?” “Not possible” all of us Dad’s thought in unison. It wasn’t till she yelled it again that we took her word for it and started looking around.
Sure enough… Sophie had witnessed a decent sized brown bear crossing the pasture in front of our campsite. He was actually terrifyingly close to the boulder the girls had been playing on that first night of camp setup. The “what-ifs” start flashing through your head when you think about the vision of your kid being on that rock while a bear would have been way closer than us Dads! No worries… This guy took a look at us and kept up scooting into the woods towards town.
Dear readers… A bear passing by camp is a bucket-list event. We have been going out west for over 5 years now, and I have never seen a bear in the wild. We have camped and driven all over Colorado! So, seeing one in the wild, near our campsite… Well, this is one for the folks back home… We will be telling them all the tales of the bear that visited camp! (And we have!)
10 minutes later… Those stories got a whole lot bigger! Summer, was walking to the backside of the camp when she saw a big brown face looking at her from the blades of tall grass behind Jake’s tent. It was a bear! Probably that same bear that was passing by a few minutes ago. She yelled! Several, short, shocked yells! The bear backed off and started walking away. Summer’s yell was a whole different vibe than Sophie’s. Sophie’s had been a fun “hey looky” thing… Summer’s was more of a mortal fear blurt!
What happened next was pure Dad instinct or something… Don, our California guy proceeded to yell in the loudest and biggest fashion I had ever witnessed. He puffed up his chest and began a guttural yell that said I pretty sure was meant to freak the bear out. “Go Away Bear” was the words coming out of his mouth… But it sounded as primal as a dog bark! In the meantime… I grabbed some pans and followed Don with some banging. I know Jake was doing something as well… But I was transfixed on the location of the bear. (Sorry Jake!) The bear proceeded to wander down to the stream and disappeared into the woods.
When the excitement was over… One thing was clear… The RTT was the preferred location to be when a bear shows up. We had all three girls up in Don’s tent looking out the window at us. Nobody was taking sanctuary in a ground tent! NOBODY!
Was this guy hungry and ferocious… And possibly looking to recreate a scene from the Revenant? Not likely. If you had to guess, this bear is probably closer to Yogi and BooBoo in his habits. I am not denying the danger of a wild animal like a bear… But this guy was on a route. The valley where we were staying was a series of camping spots that are probably used quite a bit during the summer season. This bear, like a Midwestern raccoon, probably runs a route through the campsites looking for scraps that campers left in their fire rings or trash from careless campers. It was probably no accident that he walked right up to our site. (Another opportunity for a conversation about Leave No Trace could be inserted here!)
This was day two of the trip… We had to question whether leaving out all of cooking gear in the open was going to be a good idea today. Again, we don’t want to drive the mountain passes with our gear… But we also don’t want items with the smell of fresh cooked breakfast laying around for the sensitive nostrils of the local wildlife. What do you do? We cleaned up… Pulled all trash out and left our gear out in the open. If he was going to come back… He could really do whatever he wanted, regardless of how much of the campsite we pulled up. Who’s to say he wouldn’t sniff something on a tent from a camp out years ago? (Again, more conversations about the dangers of eating in your tent, or sleeping in clothing that you have cooked in could be added.)
When we came back that night from our short day on the trail to Telluride (Part 3, coming soon-ish) the campsite was pitch black. We turned into the campsite, looked the site over with our headlights, and found everything in order. It was doubtful that our new found friend had come back, or that any of his other friends had swung by. A quick inspection verified the lack of wild animals frolicking in our tents or cooking gear. That was a relief.
I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that sleeping that night in my Cabella’s ground tent was done with a slight tinge of trepidation, knowing that a giant man eating bear with razor sharp claws could be plotting to eat my daughter and I alive during the night! Exaggeration? Maybe. But when you hear creaks and snaps in the woods around your tent… You wonder what the intentions are of the beast that is making all that racket. Fortunately, we made it through the night with no incidents.
For the past few years we have made the trip to Ouray Colorado for FJ Summit or to be near the area to catch a bit of “Summit”. FJ Summit is an annual event that brings in 300+ Toyota trucks to a little town in the middle of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with some of the best mountain pass roads in the United States.
This year… Complete madness at work had left me in a position where I was not sure I could plan a trip to the grand scale of years past. Adding to the confusion… My kids were not cooperating either. One kid was graduating High School and the other had a social agenda that was hard pressed to spend time with “Dear ole Dad”.
Never fear… Other Trail Team trip members were making sure that something was going to happen this summer. Three families were making plans with our without me being along for the ride. When the smoke cleared… Two Trail Team Dad’s, Don and Jake, had grabbed their daughters and started a trip to Ouray by way of the Rimrocker trail in Moab Utah. If I hustled… I could meet up with them in Ouray for a long weekend of camping pre-FJ Summit.
When the time came to take flight and catch up with the others out in Colorado… I was lucky enough to have my newly graduated Daughter along for the trip. We headed out early from Central Illinois to make the rendezvous for camping near Ouray. Pekin to Denver is a 14 hour trip. Ouray is another 4 hours past that. We stopped in Denver after the first day of driving.
There were a 100 different combinations of drivers, co-pilots and kids that could have shown up this year to Colorado. Ironically… The other trucks, like me, had all come in 4Runners with their daughters. The trip could have just as well been 4 dads, 4 kids and 4 4runners… On the 14 hour ride out to meet up with Jake and Don… It started to fall into place. Three Dads… Three Daughters…. And Three 4Runners. Serendipity? Kizmit? Who knows. But it was a great trip vibe starting and a great tag for Instagram.
Oh sure…. you are reading the headline, and are ready to call my bluff…. what can you get for 8 cents?
This past July while on our Colorado Expedition with the Trail Team, I developed a small problem. It all started while making the trek to the top of Mosquito Pass. My 2010 4Runner, which has performed flawlessly across any obstacle I ever asked of it for the past 4 years, decided to get a little hot.
Nearly ¾ of the way up the trail to the 13,185 foot pass…. I got a whiff of something hot. Thank God I smelled it, because when I looked down at my dash I could see that my engine temp was a good 80% towards the top reading. I quickly cranked up the heat on the truck and rolled down the windows. Within a minute, the temp started falling as I sat and idled.
This was a big shock to me…. The day before, I had been in gridlock traffic in Denver, and the temp was nearly 100 degrees. Even with the AC blasting… I don’t recall seeing or smelling anything unusual. Before that, I had driven over 500 miles from central Illinois.
With the heat on and the windows open, I was able to creep up to the top of the Pass. We took pictures of the trucks in the caravan and I popped the hood. I was dreading a low coolant level, as I was not sure if this probably had been going on without me noticing. The coolant was completely full in the overflow. That was a great sign. I kept the heat rolling for the trip back down…. by the time we hit the halfway down mark…. I was in the clear.
The mechanics and educated drivers out there probably know what happened. After some inspection later when the engine cooled off…. Our “Trail Tech”, Dustin, found that the cooling fan was spinning freely at the end of the crank. Unlike cars, thr 4Runner does not have electric fans at the radiator. The viscous fan clutch fully engages when the temperature in the engine increases. From what we could tell…. This fan was idling at a lower speed even when hot, thus. not removing heat from engine as quickly as designed. Low 4 climbing with its higher RPMs and the the higher altitude had created a bad mixture that led to my hot temps on the Pass.
Now…. what to do about it? The nearest Toyota dealer on our route was in Montrose. We gave them a call and found they did not have a part on hand. But, they were willing to expedite one that could be in sometime the next day. That sounded pretty good, but a call to Autozone gave us better news…. They could have it by noon, guaranteed. We ordered the autozone part and prepared for a repair the next day. We could get into why I didn’t get the manufacturer part… But as a dealer, I know that the possibility of not getting a part exists in this neck of the woods. We have the luxury of getting parts nearly within hours in Central Illinois… Whereas these dealers in the western states have to have parts dispatched out of Dallas Tx and rely on FedEx.
Ah-hah! We busted you Eric, this repair was more than 8 cents! Yes, but you have to read on… This is not the repair in question.
The part arrived on time to Montrose. We grabbed the box and headed to our campsite in Ouray looking over the town. For the next 90 minutes we proceeded to make repairs. In order to make this happen, we decided that pulling the shroud and taking off a radiator hose would make it easier. This called for some improvisation. Coolant is not something we take lightly to spilling, so we ended up making a funnel out of camp tin-foil in order to direct the flow into a catch bucket.
From past experience, I have been witness to aftermarket parts that do not look the same as their factory counterparts. This visual helps me understand why I am paying more for OEM. This fan clutch is no exception. The ribbed heat diffusers on the Autozone part are a much smaller surface area than the factory part. You have to wonder if it can do the same job. When we made a turn on the shaft by hand to feel the tension in this new part versus the factory part… It was obvious that this new part was working correctly. The old part was nearly “free-wheeling”. We were feeling much better about the diagnosis.
We had the new part secured and installed pretty quickly. After that, we reinstalled the shroud and topped off the coolant with the fluid we removed. It all looked great. It sounded great as well. If you have heard the difference in an engaged fan clutch versus one not working…It becomes audibly obvious. Unfortunately, its a sound you become tone deaf too as it slowly fails. After idling… We took another look. Hmmm… Something didn’t look right. The fan blades appeared to be a little closer to the engine than we remember. So much so that they were eerily close to the black rubber hoses coming off the front of the engine. Coolant hoses. We had spun the fan blade and inspected the clearance. It was not much. 1 to 2mm?
1 to 2mm might be spec? Hard to say looking at it while making a repair at 9000 feet where we were camped. We fired up the truck… It looked fine. I drove around the campground and we made more inspections. All clear.
The next day, we headed up to another trailhead to make a new campsite. After we had that done, I took another quick look at the fan. Better safe than sorry right? My worst fear had started showing itself. The hoses had probably expanded a bit when we moved the new campsite that morning. In doing so, they had started making contact with the fan blade. You could see the smallest trace of black debri and dust on the fan.
This is where the OEM part would have been far superior. This Autozone part was probably made to Toyota SPEC… But it was shorter than the factory part.
Our options included:
Gambling and hoping that it will be ok? (Never the best option)
Cut off parts of the fan blades that are rubbing? (That plastic is hard!)
Remove the inner hose and chop it down about a quarter inch? (Would require a lot more coolant being handled)
Shim the part from autozone? (Might create a balance issue for the fan)
Our “Trail Tech”, Dustin, came up with a better idea. The fan can be removed from the new clutch… We could attempt to shim it at the front. While that sounded great… We were pretty far removed from town. We started looking for washers or some way to space out these bolts. It couldn’t be anything too big, as we had limited threads to work with. We were at the point of removing bolts from the expedition trailer when Dustin started asking for loose change. Coins? There was not a vending machine for miles, what was he up too?
He started with 4 pennies. 4 pennies stacked in a vice grip and drilled with a small bit turned into 4 perfectly matched washers. After taking a look at the end results.. We decided that another 4 cents would probably give us a bit of insurance. Everyone dug through their cupholders. (For folks worried about defamation of currency, see link at end of the article)
We figured out that draining the coolant was not completely necessary to make the repair a second time… We loosened up the fan shroud and installed 2 pennies on each bolt holding the fan to the clutch. The end result pulled the fan away from the hoses that were risking being ruptured.
Upon firing up the truck… We could see that we were free and clear. Disaster averted!
For just 8 cents we had improved the Autozone part, and it would handle the rest of our trip without incident.
This is the third time we have seen a fan clutch fail on the trail. One time we witnessed it on the trails at Southern Cruiser Crawl. Altitude was not an issue… But a mud soaked radiator and low speeds with a high idle are just as potent of a mix. A second time, while only 4 miles into the Mojave Road. Both of those previous times, we had to grab an aftermarket part.
I would like to tell you that there is an interval that you should start paying attention to the replacement on this item… But we have seen it on new and old trucks alike. I would recommend at 100,000 miles that you pay attention to the sound of the fan and keep an eye on the coolant temp whenever you are in a high engine temp situation. I would also recommend cleaning your radiator out vigorously after any wheeling trip… A dirty radiator can enhance this problem.
Unfortunately, since we don’t use L4 until we are at the trailhead, you may not know till you have a problem until that moment you are looking to have a little fun with your truck.
I had taken some pictures of the repair in action… And a few people quickly became concerned that posting the pictures may put us in a position of an illegal operation. Currency mutilation. It was a fair question as none of us are experts in currency laws!
I did some research and found various statutes and legal speak. The most common concern was regarding the machines at tourist attractions that smash a penny into a souvenir.
What we can take from the law is this. If you deface these coins and then attempt to parlay them into a transaction… You are breaking the law. You should not mutilate currency and then try to spend it. That would be illegal.
Last month the Fort’s Trail Team headed out west for a Colorado “Family” adventure. We say “family” because in the fleet of seven trucks on the trip we brought out a total of 6 kids and one drivers “Dad”. We started our trip in the northern part of the state… Making our way from Leadville to Aspen to our final destination in Ouray. Everyday was high elevation trails and scenic mountain towns… Evenings were filled with kids and adults laughing and telling stories about sites that had been seen over the day.
We did find ourselves doing more primitive camping on this trip. Matt Wagner located a great little campsite south Ouray that sat at a cool and comfortable 10,000 feet! With clear skies and unusually warm weather for our visit, this was some of the best camping we have ever experienced.
The kids really added to the adventure on this trip. We stopped and had ice cream in Ouray and Silverton… A Trail Team first. We can also tell you from newly acquired experience, that peanut butter sandwiches taste delicious at 14,000 feet!
If you are interested in taking your Toyota on an adventure… The Fort’s staff have compiled several years of exploring and can help you plan your trip. Also, everyone is welcome to join us as we plan for future events and outings. See Eric Stahl or Matt Wagner in service.