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  • Writer's pictureKelsey

Training Special Ops over 660 miles and 7 days.

So, pretty simple. Fly to Las Vegas. Pick up my vehicle for the week. (1991 FJ80). Drive to Red Rocks state park. Spend the week zigging and zagging over dirt tracks to Phoenix, AZ while training some military folks.

This is more of a report than a story. I was going all out from the moment I stepped off the plane so there isn’t really any fluff or commentary besides the facts I could remember. After the trip the instructors grabbed some dinner and a beer. I remember thinking that this week wasn’t so much a collection of days as much as it was 1 moment. 1 big moment of time that mushed together.

It took a little while and 2 buses, but eventually I found my vehicle for the next week waiting for me in the airport parking lot. I got a nice tour of the Las Vegas airport while looking for it.

We provisioned for the trip. Breakfast and Lunch we’re on our own. For dinner we’d cook the students dinner with gear/food provided by the company. We headed to the nearest store to find our breakfast and lunch lickem/stickems (Simple foods that don’t require cooking).

I met up with Graham, he’s the director for training at Overland Expo, but you may have seen his articles in Overland Journal or elsewhere over the years. He was driving his new temporary truck, the LR3.

The training starts out with 2 days of classroom/static training before we hit the trail. My room looked like something out of a 1980's movie about the Southwest designed by someone from the East Coast. It was, majestic.

The views the next morning while I explored a bit before everyone woke up were fairly epic.

The company trucks were as follows.

A 2001 Tacoma that had been through a lot of these trips. Being the only Tacoma, the other one was rolled on a previous trip, it took some heavy duties in terms of carrying gear.

The aforementioned LR3 was the sharp looking one of the bunch and the newest vehicle in the fleet and newest to this abusive life.

Tall white as it was called had the most modifications. A Discovery 1 with custom suspension arms, it was clearly someones favorite.

The last vehicle in the lineup was another Discovery 1, but this one was fairly stock. It did have the added challenge and enjoyment that comes with a manual transmission. (Not a single student had experience driving a manual transmission offroad which made it interesting)

The trucks were each packed to the roof. These folks don’t travel light as they bounce from one training session to the next until their next deployment.

On day 2 we did some static hands on with the Winch, welder etc. Any breakdowns would be handled by the students. A shock bolt in the FJ80 decided to sheer off while replacing the shocks, likely fatiqued by some prior impact, so the students welded a new end piece in place.

We headed out fairly early on day 3. Making miles towards the desert through a bit of a tougher canyon. Might as well start the trip off right.

The LR3 decided to shed some weight right away and so we decided to carry that plastic part inside from now on.

Tall white made easy work of the bigger rocks. The tall truck didn’t need as careful of line choice as the others.

Marshalling/spotting isn’t a very natural skill so it took some practice to get the guys to get the hang of planning ahead several obstacles instead of just focusing on the very next rock. The 80 had no sway bars and it was the most heavily loaded and under-powered truck in the group. Still, it did pretty well with some tippy situations. It’s a workhorse.

Once out into the flats we made good time. The only stops each day were for repairs or a quick bathroom break.

At camp #1 with the sun low we setup a winching test. Get 3 vehicles up the hill that was too steep to drive under their own power alone. They were challenged to use a pullpal and to deal with too short of a winch line etc. Anything we could do to keep it interesting we’d remove gear from their recovery kit or change the scenario.

All went well and we were done just after dark.

Day 4 took us to some sand dunes. We wanted to practice airing down, sand hills, reading dunes, getting unstuck etc.

The FJ80 is a big pig so the old and under-powered 3FE had it’s neck wrung the entire day, but it did well and never got stuck until we needed it to be stuck for another training moment.

On one hill the Tacoma didn’t quite make the crest. They backed down and knew they needed to give it a little more throttle to make it this time. “Little” got lost in translation and the Tacoma hit the crest of the dune at a high rate of speed. I’ve never seen a stock Tacoma get such air time, but it made a graceful thud and kept on driving with no issues. Is the frame bent, maybe, but it made the rest of the trip without issue. It was cringe-worthy and somehow entertaining at the same time.

After the dunes we kept making miles until we got to the trail washout. We did some side hill and then trolley winching.

We kept driving well into the night. Some of the hill climbs and descents were quite sketchy. Not being the driver is always tough for me, but if anything will cure that it would be going full throttle at a hill climb, at night, in an unknown truck, with an unknown driver, in a sand storm, with 10 feet of visibility knowing only that there is a cliff at the top.

“Don’t go over the edge at the top, but don’t stop too soon or you’ll have to back down the whole hill like he just did.” After seeing the highly modified “tall white” not make it on the first couple tries we knew there must be something rough at the top. All we could see were the bouncing taillights trying again and again until he made it. Then over the radio we heard, there is some room for the next truck to my right, but don’t go too far to the right or there is nothing... great. We made it fine, but I really really wanted to take over driving duty for that moment.

All was well and we woke up to some great views and I did a little hike to explore some nearby mining ruins.

Day 5 we did some water crossings first thing. We “bagged” the front of the lower trucks to help create an air pocket for the engine while moving. The LR3 did not appreciate the water and started going into limp mode, turning the stereo on and off to whatever channel it wanted and randomly actuating the blinkers. It continued to do this and other fun games throughout the trip. (Full gas gauge when it was empty, not allowing traction control to work when the tires were spinning etc)

Next up we blasted across a dry lake bed. It’s hard to fight the instinct to follow the truck in front of you when you’re newer to offroading. We ate a lot of dust.

Not long after the photo below Tall White lost the main nut on the steering arm. That’s a scary one to have rattle loose and lose steering. We were just glad it didn’t happen at high speed. A quick backtrack and all was well. A little while later the other Discovery 1 needing a wheel bearing replaced as the tire was wiggling around and groaning. During replacement we noticed that all of the hub bolts had also sheered off. After drilling them out we found 1 replacement and robbed 2 more from the other side of the truck.

We transitioned to driving in a wash and within a few minutes the LR3 was overheating. We added over a gallon of coolant wondering what the issue could have been. Most likely a student left the cap loose and the system was sucking in air and blowing out coolant as we drove all day. It could also be a head gasket, but we had to keep moving. (Each morning they do a series of vehicle checks so we suspected the loose cap was the culprit) Great view to overheat with, though.

A couple hours later the sun was set and a moonless night was upon us. We strapped Infrared lights, invisible to the naked eye, to our front bumpers and proceeded to drive for a few hours with only night vision. “If you have the means to buy PVS-31's, I highly recommend it.” That being said, I don’t have plans to spend more on a set of night vision goggles than a nice used Toyota Tacoma costs. I had to wonder what any campers thought about a group of trucks driving past in the pitch black night were doing.

By early morning we’d made camp and had some late dinner/breakfast. We were all wiped.

Day 6. We woke up and had a fairly easy morning practicing welding. Besides an initial broken bolt before leaving there hadn’t been any reason to weld in the field so we pulled 3 trucks batteries and had everyone practice on some scrap metal.

We got going and spent the day making progress to higher ground. On one section of trail we had them take the vehicles up an optional tougher bypass. I tried not to interfere too much, but eventually the 80 was standing on 3 tires and making a move like it wanted to lay on it’s side for a nap. Although not safe, the weight of another instructor kept the truck from rolling until we got it hooked up for an easy winch out of the bad spot.

On day 6 we made it to camp relatively early at just an hour or so of dark wheeling. The LR3 snapped it’s sway bar clean in half during the last section of trail. It actually broke at the thickest point. It also had a passenger side rock slider mount rip through the unibody and drag on the ground. We attached it to the door handle via a strap to hold it up until the door handle started to break. Then we ratchet strapped it to the interior handle which lasted the rest of the trip.

Day 7. Had us running back down to lower elevations and the more serious water crossings of the trip. The LR3 was still having electrical gremlins and so far the best method to fix it was shutting down and restarting which seemed to work most of the time.

The first water crossing was lower than expected and all went well. The second one was deeper than expected due to a damn release. Even the taller trucks were bagged as a precaution.

It started out low enough, but at the mid point the current was strong enough to move the trucks a bit down stream so we had each one hook up to the first truck to make the crossing (Tall White) and kept tension on the tow strap as they crossed.

As a precaution on the LR3 we installed a “redneck” tupperware snorkel to protect the open air intake that happened to be on the up stream side.

No major issues. We got the truck up to pavement and pulled over to air up and give them a look over for road worthiness. All in all the trucks seemed pretty roadworthy. The LR3 had lost another body panel, but the worrying part was it’s tendency to wander. A quick look revealed a severely bent tie-rod. We rotated the tie-rod and used a bottle jack to straighten it. A quick tape measure alignment and we were on our way into Phoenix.

With that, the run was complete. The guys said it was their best training adventure so far and I hope they picked up the skills needed to help keep them safe the next time they’re driving “in country.” These guys were some of the smartest and most motivated individuals I’ve ever encountered. One week they are jumping from 40,000 feet with oxygen masks and trying to cover 30+ miles with chutes open using night vision and the next, they’re out offroading. It’s truly amazing the depth of knowledge they take on and retain.

After a short pavement drive we dropped the guys off at their hotel and took the trucks to the company shop. All of them needed a full maintenance check and several fixes done before the next back to back brutal run and I needed some sleep.


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