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Peril & Redemption in the High Sierra w/ Frosty 4Wheeler

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

Frosty 4Wheeler is an off-road vehicle recovery business based out of the Town of Mammoth Lakes, California serving all of Mono County since 2019. Out of the hundreds of calls Frosty 4Wheeler received over the years, there is one recovery that stands out from the rest. If you have frequented the Eastern Sierra you may have heard about Laurel Lakes trail, it is visible from Highway 395 as you drive into the Town of Mammoth Lakes. This trail is infamous in the area because it is one of the few trails that has claimed lives of fellow off-roaders.

While not the most challenging recovery we have ever undertaken, it stands out as one of the most mentally challenging. On June 11, 2022, we received a call at sunset from an exhausted man named Ben, who described his Land Rover hanging precariously on the edge of a local off-road trail leading to Laurel Lakes. Ben and his girlfriend were visiting to celebrate their anniversary and had intended to explore the remote alpine lakes. Unfortunately, their day took a turn for the worse when the Land Rover slid off the edge during a switchback maneuver. The situation worsened when a passerby in a Jeep attempted to winch the vehicle back, but instead, it slid further down the embankment.

Two red flags arose during our conversation with Ben. Firstly, when we asked for coordinates, he simply said that the vehicle could be seen hanging off the side of the Laurel Lakes trail from about a mile away. Secondly, Ben mentioned that he had driven the Land Rover through a rotten snow drift with no tracks before sliding off the edge. We knew the location well– the vehicle was stuck in a treeless scree field, which raised concerns about safety and the absence of winch or anchor points. Initially, we were hesitant to accept the job due to these reasons. We aren’t magicians, and given that someone had recently rolled their vehicle on the same trail, it was astonishing that the Land Rover remained suspended in such a precarious position.

The next morning, after thorough planning, we hesitated a few more times before deciding to proceed. The situation seemed almost impossible, even as we spoke with the vehicle owner. However, with further persuasion and meticulous planning, we made up our minds to assist. We packed our Frosty 4Wheeler 1985 Toyota Pickup to its maximum capacity with every winch extension, land anchor, come-along, shackle, and shovel we had. Due to the trail's remote location and high risk of failure, there was no one else in the area capable of taking on the job. We felt a sense of obligation to help and were determined to proceed with caution. The trail to Laurel Lakes has a history of accidents and fatalities, which heightened our apprehension. Consequently, we enlisted the help of our friend Tim, who agreed to join us, providing an additional set of eyes to enhance safety and efficiency.

We arrived at the trailhead at 9:00 am the following morning to take advantage of the overnight snow firming up. Tim and the vehicle owner met us, and we quickly ascended the switchbacks, maneuvering the Frosty 4Wheeler Pickup and turning it around at one of the turnouts. Without delay, Alex (owner of Frosty 4wheeler) began executing his plan. He retrieved the extensions, pulleys, anchors, shovels, and shackles from the vehicle, meticulously preparing for the recovery process. Setting up tree anchors over 100 feet away, one team member hiked up and over a ridge, while another rigged up the Land Rover. Meanwhile, the third team member shoveled out the drift to create a large enough space for the Land Rover to level out. Even the vehicle owner lent a hand, passing tools and shoveling to the best of his ability.

During the first pull, the anchor moved as anticipated, prompting us to use an additional 150-foot anchor attached to the pull-pal winch anchor, which we deeply embedded into the snow bank. Concerned that the two winch points (front and back of the Land Rover) could cause the vehicle to tip over like a rotisserie, we employed a come-along to anchor the B-pillar. Every attempt we made was slow and methodical, as there was immense pressure to improve the situation without making it worse.

To ensure a mechanical advantage and distribute the load, we utilized Factor55 sheaves. Additionally, we employed a Factor55 hitch link on the Land Rover's hitch to establish a solid pulling point at the rear.

With the winches engaged and the anchors securely in place, we commenced the gradual process of pulling the vehicle sideways up the embankment. We decided it was safer for no one to be inside the Land Rover during this process, so we winched the front up first and then focused on winching the rear back onto the trail. Once all four tires of the Land Rover were back on the trail, the vehicle owner, Ben, got in and reversed to a turn-around point, where we guided him until he was facing the right direction. In total, the recovery took slightly over 6 hours from start to finish.

Difficult recoveries like this one require teamwork, relying on effective communication. Communication plays a crucial role, particularly because the driver is often anxious and prone to making mistakes, which can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Managing multiple winch lines, extensions, and points requires attentiveness. Alex is highly conscious of the working load limit (WLL) and the condition of our equipment. He stands alongside the driver, calmly providing directions while simultaneously operating the winch. To facilitate clear and direct communication, we provide drivers with radios, eliminating the need for yelling and promoting efficient coordination.

During this recovery, we gained valuable insights into mechanical advantages and anchors. Since there were no natural winch points, such as nearby trees, we had to employ creative solutions. When our initial plan failed, we swiftly transitioned to plan B, which has become our go-to plan for subsequent similar situations, saving everyone involved valuable time. The Laurel Lakes trail poses challenges with its narrow sections and sharp switchbacks. Consequently, we realized the need for a lower and lighter recovery vehicle. Soon after this recovery, we sold the 1985 Toyota Pickup and purchased a used rock crawler Buggy, which has proven advantageous on numerous occasions, enabling us to navigate tighter trails and handle recoveries like this one with greater ease.

In the twelve months following the Laurel Lakes recovery, we have encountered situations that made us apprehensive and curious. However, none have been as mentally challenging as this one. The knowledge that someone lost their life at the same spot where we performed the recovery intensified the gravity of our decision-making process. When our plan successfully unfolded, and we witnessed the Land Rover driving off the dirt and onto the highway, a sense of exhaustion and relief washed over us. We made it a point to caution everyone we knew against venturing up Laurel Lakes until all the snow had completely melted.

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