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.
A large percentage of Frosty 4Wheeler calls come from 911 forwarding calls because people often get their vehicle stuck somewhere without cell service. Frosty 4Wheeler then gets a call from Sheriff or CHP dispatch with coordinates and other details needed like road closures and weather, then the Frosty 4Wheeler team weighs the options on how to succeed in completing the recovery without risking our own safety. Frosty 4Wheeler has to consider all the dangers and choose the safest routes to recover vehicles and their occupants, we like to call this our “stacking lemons” exercise and we do this before each dangerous recovery.
Minimize Risk with Lemons
Each lemon is a negative logistic or technicality that stacks onto other negatives. For example: Frosty 4Wheeler gets a call in the middle of winter from Mono County Sheriff, they provide coordinates and Frosty 4Wheeler has to decide how to get to the stranded vehicle without becoming stranded. In this example, bad weather is our first lemon, because it is snowing hard outside and with low visibility. CHP closed the highway, so now we have to go around the long way, which becomes our lemon number 2. If we stack more than 3 lemons, we can cancel or postpone the recovery until it is safe or possible to continue. Stacking lemons is just our way of drawing a line for our own safety when it comes to heading out for a recovery but it also translates well when you head out for a solo off-road trip.
Using our stacking lemons analogy, we check our equipment regularly so that we minimize the risk of equipment failure. We check the weather often to ensure we don’t get caught off-guard in the middle and add another lemon to our stack. Anything we can control, we want to control, which increases our probability to safely recover the stranded vehicle(s). If we are forced to stack lemons this should be due to circumstances beyond our control, like weather or road closures, certainly not a mechanical failure or a forgotten essential. The stacking lemons exercise helps us determine when a recovery is too risky. SAR (Search and Rescue) exists for a reason and no vehicle is worth risking a human life for. In the event we feel like we are risking too much to save someone’s vehicle, Mono County Sheriff and CHP will always rescue any stranded persons, while we make preparations to recover the vehicle at a later time that is deemed more safe.
What gear or spare equipment should you always have on hand?
Spare replacements of weak points (tie rod ends, U-joints, axles, bolts, CVs, fluids, etc.) these vary per vehicle and per setup. Get to know your weak points and carry spares but also understand how to repair or replace those parts.
Tools, special sockets
Functional Jack (at least one)
Water and Snacks
Tire patch kit and full sized spare tire
Satellite Communicator (Garmin InReach, Zoleo)
Air compressor and tire gauge
Camping provisions or at least blankets and a jacket
Winch with equipment
How should one decide who spearheads a recovery when multiple vehicles are involved?
Usually the first person stuck tries to self recover, after that each situation is really dynamic and the lead should be taken by the person with the most experience and equipment. There is no steadfast rule other than if you hire someone to help you and your group out, you should hire someone you trust taking the lead so you can step back. There should be only one spotter and only one person calling the shots. Vehicle recoveries with multiple vehicles can be dangerous, getting worse before they get better and following one plan at a time helps.
What are some of the most critical DO NOTs when engaging in any recovery?
Do not ever become complacent around the winchline. It can rip your legs out from under you in an instant.
Do not stand in the “bite” because if a line breaks, that is where it will go and it will take you down with it.
Do not drive over the winch line or kinetic rope line when being recovered, this damages the equipment.
Do not turn your wheel hard in any direction while being pulled or winched, this creates resistance.
Do not slam on the brakes or gas while being winched or pulled.
At what point should a recovery attempt be abandoned (generally speaking)?
If someone in the group is injured or ill, stop and call for help.
If the vehicle is getting more stuck with each attempt or going further down an embankment, stop and call for help.
If the vehicle feels or looks like it is about to roll, stop and secure the vehicle and ask for help.
If you feel like the recovery is above your skill set at all, avoid getting hurt or damaging your vehicle or surrounding areas by stopping and calling for help.
Remember, no vehicle is worth risking human life for and if at any point you feel like someone can get hurt or worse the recovery attempt should be abandoned and help should be requested.
At what point should emergency services/SAR become involved in a situation?
If there is any threat to human life the vehicle can wait and SAR should be contacted immediately. Your vehicle can always be recovered later, after you or your group member(s) has been treated or has rested. Threat to human life can start with anything like being dehydrated and without water, to freezing and without heat. Add either of those to being stuck without cell service and human life could be in danger and SAR might be your best option for survival. Every year people die recreating in the eastern Sierra, the mountains and weather are to be taken seriously and you should always be aware of how fragile human life can be.
Hope is never a good plan!